Actress and writer Rani Moorthy has been investigating that history in her show Whose Sari Now? which is in Doncaster this weekend.
The Citizen Khan actor portrays the sari’s role in the lives of five characters – an old Asian woman whose saris are like her second skin, a poor cloth weaver, a mother giving birth to twins in a war zone, a transgender man and a Malaysian historian.
She said: “I like to do one-women shows where I present a slice of a character’s life. I’m giving you a jigsaw puzzle and coming up with more questions for the audience, rather than presenting one person’s point of view.”
Rani, who was born in Malaysia but whose family had to move to Singapore amid racial violence, said: “I grew up in a culture where the sari is iconic and important for all sorts of reasons.
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“The sari is an instant way of saying, ‘I’m other’. For a lot of women it’s complicated, they do feel a bit weird wearing it, especially among the British Asian community.
“I rarely meet someone who doesn’t have a complicated relationship to it.”
Rani said that for many women it’s a practical, everyday garment and for others it’s only something formal, to be brought out and worn only on special occasions.
It covers the wearer with six yards of carefully-folded fabric but also feels very revealing as the midriff is bare.
Rani joked that it’s also great for bigger women, as it’s one size fits all!
She said: “There’s a mystery and beauty with it. Bollywood has created an iconic image of the sari as a complicated, sexualised garment.”
Compare that to a mum who has fled a civil war zone and is giving birth to twins in her sari, desperately trying to remember the homeland she has fled, or a cloth weaver who is being made ill by the work and chemicals involved in the process.
Rani thinks the show is very relevant in Britain after the Brexit referendum and all the racism that was unleashed.
“The whole reason why I grew up speaking English, rather than speaking my mother tongue, goes back to the English colonial adventure.
“That’s why our history is shared. A lot of people don’t appreciate that. It’s not our fault that your ancestors chose to do this and became our rulers in spite of us being in the majority.
“If you don’t know that history, you might say, ‘let’s keep the borders closed’, not recognising that the borders weren’t closed to you in the colonial times.”
Whose Sari Now? is at Cast in Doncaster this Saturday.
Box office: 01302 303959 or go online at Cast in Doncaster