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14.03.2019

Those who can’t grow an Abhinandan moustache needn’t be sari. Let us acquaint you with the drape of the lock (-and-load), the surgical strike sari. We first read about it in Amar Ujala, where it was reported as a design made in “four hours” of news of the attack going public. It’s like, queue-at-the-ATM-after-demonetisation, but make it fashion.

The surgical strike sari emerges from Surat, whence saris printed with the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have emerged at intervals over the last five years. This year, Congress leaders Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi are said to have been bestowed with the honour, as has Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. But do not expect to see them at Paaneri, the thirty-year-old sari shop in Dadar West where this Gujarati candy finds shelf space.

“Election saris…?” we ask a little hesitantly at the silk counter, where the peacock blue paithanis are flying off the shelves. “Of course,” says Mr Dnyaneshwar, who like all sari salesmen in Mumbai is the most polite, considerate and fashion-conscious gentleman a woman is likely to meet all day. After offering excellent advice on a drapeable but “trendy” present for a cousin, he gestures to a junior -- dressed, like himself, in impeccable white shirt and trousers -- to bring us a small stack of the goods.

Unfolded, the saris are a riot of colour. (The pun was not intended when we wrote that.) “Each piece is unique,” we are told, as our eyes adjust to mushroom-cloud browns, RDX-explosion oranges and acid-rain greens. If it took longer than the promised four hours to design them, it certainly doesn’t show. But there’s a lot going on. “These are georgette-chiffon mixes with digital print,” our guide explains. “Please see this.” It’s a black-and-saffron offering printed with the face of Modiji, some kind of battle scene, a photo of the Gyarah Murti statue in Delhi, another portait of Modiji, and some flowers, not unlike those you find on a plastic table cover in homes that were last redecorated in the 1980s.

The Banality of Weave-il

Other variants of these emerge. We drape a yellow-orange concoction with its finger right on the pulse, and get a combination of flowers, Modiji in greyscale on the achal, or body of the sari, and pleats that cunningly conceal a photo of the Statue of Unity. All the saris come with bright floral “running” blouse-pieces. “And here’s a shaheed jawan,” we are gently nudged. Fortunately no saris depict any actual dead soldiers, which would constitute an absolute violation of their rights in death, right?

Instead, the “surgical strike” sari features scenes indistinguishable from a blurry print of Apocalypse Now, with violent streaks of mud and light surrounding planes that could, we suppose, be MiG-21s, thrown over the shoulder. Paratroopers descend from a fiery sky on the skirt. Machine guns scatter little bursts of fire over the pleats. From hip to ankle, a saffron close-up of Modiji falls, resplendent and serene. “Would you like to see more? Balasaheb…?” we are gently nudged. Thank you sir. We have seen it all.

All dress is political, as the man depicted on the Statue of Unity, who only wore khadi every day for the last thirty years of his life, would tell you. Last fortnight, your correspondent heard textile expert and historian Mayank Mansingh Kaul explaining how, during the Second World War, weavers in Benaras produced beautiful saris with little fighter jets worked into the zari borders. It makes perfect sense that those who wish to commemorate history will energetically throw themselves into literally fabricating it.

But are all clothes also propagana? Some say we are approaching an event horizon where it’s possible to turn “any statement of fact into a question of motive,” as Hannah Arendt once remarked of a certain period of the twentieth century. It might be worth asking if the surgical strike sari is quite the same thing as khadi or bomber-plane Banarasi silk. Unfortunately for the year 2019 in fashion, there’s one significant point of difference. This isn’t, and it ain’t gonna be, pretty.

Getting there: Paaneri, NC Kelkar Road, Dadar West, political saris for Rs 1,750.

Accessibility: Sidewalk access, helpful staff.

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