Contact Theatre at Alankar House of Saris, Manchester.
14 March 2018.
Rani Moorthy’s new play about a mother and son at odds over the future direction of their family’s struggling sari business, is given an added layer of authenticity by being performed within a real life Rusholme sari shop.
Rajesh (Ashraf Ejjbair) feels a strong attachment to the traditional manufacturing methods that helped his father build the business from scratch. His widowed mother Neeta (Moorthy) believes the shop must move with the times and appeal to a younger generation who are impervious to the beauty of handcrafted garments and seek “bling on a budget”. Meanwhile, Rajesh’s close friend Asha (Riana Duce), is a perfect example of why their business is in trouble – she sees herself as “more of a DM girl”, and associates the sari with outdated and restrictive images of womanhood.
Under the shop’s bright lights, shelves stacked high with saris dazzle the eyes. Characters move through the space or busy themselves on the traditional raised platforms from where fabrics are unfurled for our delectation and proffered for our touch. The conversations and sounds of the shop are conveyed via headphones, providing the opportunity to weave in other stories – characters heard, but not seen, behind a fluttering cubicle curtain or hard at work in a back room. The sealed sound scape serves also to heighten our senses – immersing us in layered voices, music and noise.
Much is made of the transformative power of the sari – how the look and feel of this mere strip of fabric can turn a shy bride-to-be into a goddess or allow an elderly ‘aunty’ to magically shed not just years but also her accumulated inches. Yet, like any garment, its existence can be precarious. Trends come and go, the play is keen to stress, and tastes change.
Within the constant back and forth between mother and son, there is a passionate debate about the value of traditional handcrafting and its place within a modern world. Are they running a “business or a museum“? Moorthy’s script also picks apart issues such as the hijacking of “ethnic” styles by the fashion world and how the traditional sari can be used to exoticise and stereotype south Asian women.
Not just a play about fashion, it tugs at loose threads and heads off in interesting directions.
There is a fascination with an environment where the men selling garments are free to sensuously flatter their female customers in a way that would be frowned upon in any other social situation. “Now ladies, I know you better than your husbands, at least when it comes to dressing you” says Rajesh.
Yet this freedom seems to also offer Rajesh an outlet for who he is. His passion for the sari is rooted in his love for his father, his respect for the women who make them but also something more complex and not yet fully formed. The sensation of the hand-made material against his skin gives him moments of pleasure, it allows him to feel fluid and connect with a part of his identity that he can not yet articulate. It’s all in the drape, he says, there’s no need to analyse.
The play also explores the role of women in creating the garments, highlighting how the pride they feel in their skilled craft can be empowering – Neeta observes a woman living in fear grow stronger in the moments she spends creating something exquisite with her needle and thread.
The production’s story-telling feels informal and unfussy – as if the actors, like the sari salesmen, are encouraging us to relax and feel at home. Sarah Yaseen’s beautiful music bathes Moorthy’s concise yet lyrical script in warmth.
With its sari shop setting Handlooms offers a glimpse of a disappearing world, though it is not simply a story about piles of cloth. The fabrics’ shimmering surfaces provide a luminous backdrop for Moorthy to deftly explore the shifting and multiple nature of identity and consider how people, like the garment she celebrates, adapt to changing times.
Image by Anthony Robling