Saree Shopping Extravaganza

If I may be so presumptuous to try and sum up my first trip to India last year, I would have to say “touristy” comes to mind. Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing “intro-to-India” trip, where my friends tried their best to show Meike and I as much as we could fit into 2 weeks across four cities. My mind spun, as the rich history and beauty of each place seemed to blend into the next. Chaos and pandemonium reigned supreme as we were carted and shuffled from one tourist spot to the next trying to click as many pictures as we could before being whisked away to the next place. It was a beginners-guide to India tour, and it was fantastic — enough to ignite the fire inside me to come back, and to see more! India, a country of paradoxical extremes, a place of mystery and beauty where the past scars of history live side-by-side with the cultural triumphs of today, had managed to peek my curiosity and leave me longing to see more.  Little did I know at the time, but this was just the start of many more adventures to come. You can read more about my first trip to India here, and no, I don’t work for India board of tourism… yet 😉

This trip to India was a bit more relaxed in one sense, and more stressful in another. Although the touristy-spots were kept at a minimum, C and I saw the inside of more clothing, jewelry, shoe and art stores than I’d care to admit. Because you see, this trip to India served a dual-purpose. Yes I was there to see my fiancé and his family and friends, but we also had to cram wedding shopping into 2 weeks — something most people spread across the span of several months. No problem right? Challenge accepted!

In Mumbai our friends Annie and Gopal (who recently just got married — congrats guys) selflessly gave up several afternoons from their own busy wedding shopping and work schedules to help C and I… well mostly me, get what I needed. I had no idea what to expect as we entered our first saree store. Scores of brightly-colored, beautifully-ornate silk sarees lined shelf after shelf, it was a dizzying array of colors leaving me totally confused on what I needed to do. With Annie’s help, she explained the different types of sarees – a traditional 6-yard saree, a lehenga – which is like a long skirt with a matching blouse, and then a lehenga-style saree, which is a hybrid combination of the two.

In Mumbai, our task seemed simple enough — pick out a saree of my choice for the reception — oh, and matching accessories as well. Seems easy enough, right? Well, saree shopping in India is unlike any experience I have had before! And, what’s crazy, is the saree shopping varies drastically from one city to the next! In Mumbai, you sit down at a desk, and dozens of shop attendants are there to wait to your every need. Coffee, tea, snacks or water are brought immediately while other shop-workers are busy bringing down dozens and dozens of sarees they think you might be interested in. They unwrap and unfold each saree, and with a nod of your head, they flick the rejected saree into a pile of beautiful silk, and put the “maybe” saree on the table for you to “try-on” later.

After narrowing down what seemed like hundreds of sarees to about 10 to try on, I was whisked away and quite literally put on a pedestal while the employees worked feverishly to measure, tie, drape and wrap the sarees around me, while the other shop patrons were delightfully treated to a show while they shopped — watching the “white girl” pick out a saree. There was one guy holding the saree, another guy wrapping it around me, another guy adjusting the second guy’s work, and then a fourth guy — the ring leader  — acting like the Indian, fashionista version of Simon Cowell critiquing the color, style and fit of each saree I had on. Privacy is not something people are concerned with while shopping, as they are just trying to help you get what you need as quickly as possible — all modestly is best left checked at the door. Well, after consulting with ‘Simon,’ and C, Annie and Gopal of course, we finally picked out my reception saree!! It is beautiful — you’ll have to wait for the wedding for pics, of course. But, we were not done yet, as we had to again get measured for the petticoat, and the blouse. Finally, hours later, we left that store, only to head to several other stores to pick out the matching jewelry, shoes and accessories. Needless to say, exhausting.

So, that was Mumbai, Chennai was an entirely different experience all together. Thankfully, C’s mom, aunt and cousin were there to help facilitate the process and were so gracious in explaining the different types and colors and styles of the sarees I had to choose from. In Chennai, you see, I had to pick out two 9-yard sarees for the actual wedding ceremony, as I will enter the wedding hall in one saree, and then be presented with another saree from C’s family to which I will change into during the actual ceremony. In between the shopping in Chennai, we tried to see a few sights and sounds around town, where C’s mom dazzled us with her extensive historical and cultural knowledge of the city. I will, however, devote an entire blog entry to my experience in Chennai, as this one is solely devoted to saree shopping, and I have a lot more to write about all that I learned! So, back to shopping…

Saree shopping in Chennai was like Mumbai on crack. The stores were larger with multiple levels, the crowds bigger – shoulder-to-shoulder with hundred of shoppers, and an even more extensive selection – with higher and wider shelves housing thousands and thousands of gorgeous sarees. I almost felt bad asking the employees to unfold each meticulously wrapped saree, but as soon as you point to a color and saree, they quickly unfold it and quite literally throw it from across the counter onto your shoulder so you can assess the color match to your complexion. Schooling us in the intricacies of saree shopping, C’s mom patiently explained the designs, the borders and colors to us. A couple hours, two stores, and two sarees later, we had picked out the two sarees that I would wear for our wedding ceremony. I am so excited to put them on — the colors are simply fabulous! And then, with the sarees in hand, now came the fun part: the blouse fitting…

Unbeknownst to me when I walked through the doors of the tailor shop, I had inadvertently slipped into the seventh circle of hell. Well, not really – and now it’s funny to look back upon the experience, but at the time, I was definitely not a happy camper. The judgmental ladies behind the counter immediately threw two different sizes of  “trial-blouses” at me to put on so they could adjust the measurements of that blouse for the actual tailoring that needed to be done on the blouses that came with each saree.  Not knowing what or how the blouses were supposed to be worn, I entered the tiny dressing room and had NO idea what I was supposed to do with these two pieces of cloth I had in my hand. So, of course, being the typical clueless American, I put the blouses on backwards so they didn’t fit at all! Defeated, I walked out of the dressing room trying to explain to them that neither of the blouses fit. Thankfully, C’s mom and aunt quickly realized my mistake and told me the “correct” way to put on the blouse and thankfully it fit! Well, I wasn’t done there … what seemed like the entire store’s occupants came into the dressing room with me, while they adjusted, measured, poked and prodded me and the trial-blouse to get the most accurate measurements for my actual blouse. Again, modesty is best left at the door in such experiences, and for once, I was glad I didn’t understand a word that was coming out of the shop-owners’ mouths. I am pretty sure poor C was just as horrified as I was having had to see me go through this with the panic-stricken look on my face the entire time.

In the end though, both shopping trips were good learning experiences for me, as I get accustomed to the intricacies of the shopping culture in India. Don’t take anything personally, and just go with the flow. Seems like a good life-lesson mixed in there somewhere. With that shopping behind me, I am so excited to wear these sarees soon! The saree is such a spectacular dress for women — I honestly think it’s the most beautiful, the most sexy dress a women can wear, highlighting and accentuating the curves of your body, while you are adorned with the most brilliantly designed silk colors and patterns.

Anyway, needless to say, I think it was a humbling experience for everyone involved as well. Thank god for C’s family being so patient and nice about the whole experience. His family was so wonderful to me, and tried so hard to welcome me and teach me about their city, and help me get everything I needed for the wedding.

When I go back to India in February for the wedding, I will once again have to brave that tailor shop in Chennai, but at least this time, I will know exactly what to expect, and will definitely check my modesty at the door!

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One thought on “Saree Shopping Extravaganza

  1. Sounds like quite the experience! The saree you are wearing in the picture here is just gorgeous! I’ve always admired them when I’ve seen them on the streets of New York (not many granted, but some). Can’t wait to see the wedding pics!!

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