Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sari magic

Friday night in Delhi we went to the Indian Habitat Center for an art exhibition opening. But not just any art exhibition—it was the first solo event done by our colleague and friend, Joe Demetro. Joe is the wacky High School art teacher that everyone loves. He works primarily in abstract painting as well as sculpture and I often don’t “get” his work, so I was a little nervous about the show but definitely wanted to be there to show my support.

My fellow Delhi-goers and I decided if we were going to an art gallery we were doing it right—suits for the men-folk and saris or dresses for the ladies. So we swanked out and spent about 5 hours at the gallery, listening to Joe give lectures, nibbling on elegant snacks, and gaining an increasing appreciation for the art. At the start of the evening, it was all pretty bewildering to me and while visually interesting, I couldn’t really say that I “liked” any of it particularly. But after hearing Joe explain some of the pieces, and after gazing at them for numerous hours, they grew on me until, by the end of the night, I was exclaiming over how much I loved “The Army” and how I wanted it for my house. Go figure.

As fun as the show was, the most memorable part of the evening was the responses Anne and I got from Indian men to our saris. Good heavens. Around Mussoorie, most everyone is used to Westerners in Indian clothing and so we don’t really get much attention at all when we wear salwar kameez or even saris. Apparently in Delhi, this is not the case. I was wearing a bright orange sari and Anne (blond and blue-eyed) was dressed in green and we attracted a truly astounding amount of attention. Some of it was very positive and affirming—as when one very proper and polite waiter at the restaurant we went to for dinner stepped forward as we were leaving to quietly announce “I just had to tell you how great you two look in your saris,” accompanied by enthusiastic head-nodding from the other waiters.

Some of it was weird, though. We got stared at a lot at the Habitat Center and seemed to be having a particularly strong effect on a certain Indian math professor who was wandering around the exhibit. We met him early into the evening, he complimented our outfits, and I thought that was that. Little did I know that he was keeping tabs on Anne and me all night and repeatedly approached another friend of ours to rave about our outfits as well as our decorum. “Oh, don’t they look lovely in their saris.” “And such demure ladies! See how they haven’t touched a drop of alcohol all night!” etc. etc. ad nauseum.

And then, toward the end of the night (after consuming a fair quantity of alcohol, we suspect) he once again cornered Anne and me to continue his review. We were informed that we were “ideal Indian ladies” and that we fully and brilliantly fulfilled his mental image of what an Indian woman should be. Okay, fine. A little strange and socially inept, but fine.

But then it became clear that he seemed to think that this miraculous state of Indian femininity had been achieved through our living in India. He commented on what a positive influence Indian culture must have had on us to cause us to be so refined and lovely! By this point I was tired of him and somewhat pissed off by the implied criticism of my own culture and we bid him a somewhat curt adieu.

I love my saris and I shall not be deterred from wearing them by the fact that some men are overly fond of the look. However, I think I would be uncomfortable in one if I was ever out and about alone and will stick to group events.

PS – As a fun postscript, as I was writing this blog, I got a call from the guard at the school gate to inform me that my tailor had arrived with, you guessed it, more saris for me. BRIGHT pink chiffon with matching pink blouse and a gorgeous red cotton sari that was purchased by my great-grandmother over fifty years ago. I’m so excited! My friends and I have declared Fridays “sari” days and dress accordingly. Fun!


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