Next Puja, deck up in a British sari

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 23.09.07
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London, Sept. 23: The birth is due this Thursday of the “British sari”, the traditional but now redesigned Indian garment that may soon be exported from the UK to women in India and across the desi diaspora in a cultural equivalent of “coals to Newcastle”.

Of the 80 entries sent in from all over the UK for the sari which best reflects the reality of life in Britain, 10 have been shortlisted and one will be judged the winner.

According to images of the shortlisted designs released exclusively to The Telegraph, one by an Englishwoman, Miranda Hicks, is inspired by the seaside in Britain’s idyllic west country.

Hicks, who is studying textile design at University College, Falmouth, explained her motif: “I have created a sari design to reflect Cornwall. I took photos of Cornish life, mainly beaches, and used imagery that is typical of the area. Inspiration included Cornish ice-cream, and buckets and spades used on the beach.”

She said: “Many Indian motifs use birds, so I adapted that idea to fit Cornwall, using seagulls in one of mine. I also had photos of embroidery that I had seen on a visit to India, so I drew a pattern from them as well as henna designs.”

The winner of the “British Sari Story” competition, who will receive a cheque for £250, will be announced at the Brent Museum in north London.

The 10 designs have all been turned into silk saris, at a cost of £200 each, by the textile printing department at the University of East London.

The expectation is that some of the designs and others yet to be conceived will prove so popular that they will enter commercial production immediately, either in the UK or outsourced to India, and hit the market in time for Puja next year.

The shortlisted designs are certainly imaginative, the judging panel said. The “Harrow sari” from north London, a suburb with a big Gujarati population, has incorporated a woman in a burqa and another in a sari.

One design uses Indian and British buildings around the border, and CCTV cameras and red and blue, orange and green spots to denote the colours of the flags of India and the UK.

Shilpa Rajan, born in Canada to parents from India and now living and working as a freelance designer in Britain, chose the mango emblem for a summer sari after a walk along Ealing Road in Wembley.

“We know that summer has arrived once we see the mango-sellers’ pitches on the pavement with their big, brightly coloured umbrellas and stacks of mango boxes.”

Yet another takes its cue from the London Underground map.

The entire project began when an artist, Helen Scalway, spent three months sketching items that caught her fancy in a sari shop in Tooting, an Asian area in south London. Her work was seen at a lecture by Susan Roberts, who runs Bridging Arts, an organisation which uses arts to bring different cultures closer.

Roberts contacted Sital Punja, a businesswoman who owns Sari UK, a fashion label that collects old saris and turns them into western couture garments.

“The three of us had the idea of taking the whole project a step further by staging a competition to generate new sari designs,” Roberts told The Telegraph.

“We are delighted that Baroness Flather will announce the national winner,” Roberts also announced today. “She is famous for always wearing saris in the House of Lords. Her portrait wearing a Union flag sari hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.”

Flather, who revealed she had whittled down her personal collection of saris to 150, will pick a very special and rare “temple sari” to wear on Thursday.

She hailed the arrival of the British sari as “very exciting” and said women could never go wrong with a sari: “On the very few occasions I wear a trouser suit in the House of Lords, people say, ‘you are not going to change, are you?’ ”

The co-author of The Sari, the standard book on the garment, Mukulika Banerjee, who lectures on anthropology at University College, London, said the fabric is usually five metres by one, but what distinguishes one sari from another are the material, design, method and place of manufacture.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of saris,” emphasised Banerjee, who estimates that a middle class woman probably has between 300 and 400 saris.

“New designs are being created and the British-designed sari is part of this process.”