Blog: Rani Moorthy

Rasa Theatre’s artistic director on a site-specific play, which will unfold inside the longest-running traditional sari shop on the Curry Mile

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The sari is iconic in the best sense of the word. In its simplest incarnation it is a strip of cloth, but no other garment is imbued with so much religious significance, sensual mystery, patriarchal values, caste and class divides and political consciousness. Saris were and still are an expression of South Asian identity essential to ritual, communal life and festivities. I see it as the ideal metaphor to examine the South Asian migrant journey and the common thread that connects those of us in the South Asian diaspora to the homeland.

Handlooms is the second in my sari trilogy of plays, and it explores the centrality of the man within the sari business. It makes for a unique, largely unexplored part of South Asian life: that men dictated demand and supply by designing saris, commissioning the weavers and going to the auctions in India.

At the age of 10, my mother and several very formidable aunts took me to a sari shop in Kuala Lumpur. I noticed the man at the till and how he looked like all the South Asian men I knew at the time. He controlled the establishment and completely embodied the male domain, working the tills and deciding price. But as soon as he became the sari salesman he transformed into something quite unexpected. His whole demeanour and way of addressing the women became flamboyant and intimate. The language, from what little Tamil I understood, was sensuous and very informal, even seductive. Even at that age I was struck by the fact that the usual social mores that dictated behaviour between men and women who were not closely related seemed to break down. And the women in my family were transfixed by the man who draped the sari on himself to demonstrate the flow and beauty of the fabric, or invited her to notice how the colour enhanced her beauty.

Co-produced by my theatre company Rasa and Contact, this site-specific show takes place in a real sari shop. For many who don’t know the world of the sari shop, the space is charged with excitement, vibrancy and the whole exquisite assault on all your senses. Much of this unique atmosphere cannot be recreated in a conventional theatre.

 These are the last of the traditional sari shops, still headed by men passionate about saris

In Handlooms the audience are the clients and will experience the very theatrical transaction between sari seller and buyer. Setting the play in sari shops on very emblematic roads in Manchester and Leicester makes Handlooms a migrant story. The Curry Mile and Golden Mile host and serve the South Asian community, rooting people to cultural activities that give both roads particular significance. These are the last of the traditional sari shops, still headed by men passionate about saris. They have not tried to make the shops look and feel like westernised boutique style establishments. Saris are arranged by design or regions rather than by any kind of mundane, uniform colour co-ordination that reflects a more western aesthetic.

Set in a fictional sari shop owned by a mother and son, Handlooms examines the garment through the eyes of both the older and younger generations. There is an intergenerational conflict in this show, which is both unexpected and upends stereotypes.

Collaborating with director Alan Lane, who uses the Slung Low industry standard of specific sound technology, it invites audiences to become fully immersed in this performance. The combination of the space with the actors practically whispering into your ear through headphones will make for a unique theatre experience.

Handlooms is at Alankar House of Sarees, 46-48 Wilmslow Road, Manchester, on 12-24 March

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