The sun-tanned lady, selling kanthas at a fair in Kolkata, ancient wrinkles adorning her freckled face, proudly flaunts her handiwork, a mute black tussar embroidered with gorgeous roses and vine. How is it ? She asks with a toothless grin. I look up, she is studying me intently. To gauge my reaction I suppose. B-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l – a dazed me responds. A twinkle immediately lights up her eyes, for a fleeting moment, I see a child displaying her latest crayon sketch. The sublime pride of creation.
As I get talking to her, someone who has been stitching kanthas for as long as her memories take her, much before the time when the humble stitch started to embellish sarees, I do catch that hint of remorse. Her eyesight is fading. Her gnarled hands are not as nimble as they used to be. Her daughters and daughters-in-law have never been keen on her craft. Why would they ? She did try to plant that seed of passion in her granddaughter. But the lure of a BPO job in the city that paid far more generously was enough to wear the rosy charm off. The price of silks is also forever going north. And the traders want to pay even lower. After all city ladies nowadays don’t like sarees I hear, she says. A faint whiff of complaint ? I want to protest. But my voice stuns me to silence.
Does she like wearing her own kanthas ? I ask when I find my voice back. I cannot afford them didi, she replies. Silence again. Poignant. Guilt riddled for having asked.
I shall stitch one though for my granddaughter when she gets married, she says, deep in thought, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
I tell her of saree pact. A revolution. Thousands of ladies across the globe pledged to wear the saree ever more often. That should drive demands up ? She returns a smile. One that’s trying desperately to balance optimism with cynicism.
And on the day when we are celebrating the six yards of magic, as the spotlights scorch, the shutterbugs click, heads turn, pleasantries get exchanged and praise (“your saree is such a stunner”, “that’s a masterpiece, where did you get it ?” ) flow in abundance, I see the ancient lady on the porch of her mud-baked hut staring at the canopy of stars above and heaving a deep sigh.
Ally and Anju I can’t thank you folks enough for inspiring so many of us ladies to get out those sarees hidden in our closets for long and drape them with pride and without even that wee bit of hesitation.
The green Kanjeevaram I wear with its dazzling gold pallu and intricate white thread work was sitting pretty in my cupboard for four years since my sister-in-law bought this for me. I was waiting for the right occasion to wear it. Today was the day.
But our journey does not and should not end here. We have committed to donning the saree so more often. We now do need to create an ecosystem that allows artisans and weavers to be in direct connect with customers without the men in the middle. One that encourages fair trade. That puts an end to centuries of exploitation and misery.
I am sure we can do it. So that granddaughters of the toothless lady can voluntarily pursue their craft as a profession if they choose to.