Handlooms: the story behind the show that challenges every expectation

I would often gaze through the sari shop windows that line Wilmslow Road on my way to 10am lectures. On a grey Manchester morning, the sparkling saris would be a welcome distraction from the Monday to Friday bus journey full of glum commuters anticipating yet another working day. Whilst everyone else on the bus would be staring aimlessly into their phone screen, I would dream of attending an Indian wedding just so I could wear a sari and each day I would get off the bus with a new favourite colour. My Thursday evening walk down the Curry Mile to view Handlooms in rehearsal felt a little different to my morning commute on the 142 Magic Bus, as I was about to enter a world that to a Western girl, was bursting with culture and mystery but behind the silk, beads and crystals was a whole host of unexpectedness.

I stepped into Alankar, the set of Handlooms, to be greeted by a sea of rich silks with colours so vibrant it was like nothing I had seen before and I felt as though I had been let into an exclusive world of Bollywood glamour. The saris were so beautiful I didn’t feel like I could touch them, but it didn’t take long for my hands to explore the rail where they hung so elegantly – one blue, one red, one pink – it was not the regimented order I had expected. Not wanting to cause too much of a stir, I lifted one of the saris up to feel the weight of it and this particular cobalt blue number was one of the heaviest pieces of clothing I have ever held – mind you, with the adornment that comes with such an ornate item and the hefty price tag that goes with it, I wouldn’t expect anything less.

As someone who comes from a world of short dresses and mini skirts, sari culture has been a fascination of mine since I first watched Bend It Like Beckham in my sister’s room as a young girl. I had been longing for access into sari culture, but I thought my only opportunity would be to attend an Indian wedding in my later life. As I stepped through the doors of Alankar and took my seat, I finally felt like I had been let into an exclusive world. Rani Moorthy, the writer of Handlooms, told me how she wants all audience members, from all cultures, to feel the same way I did. She said: “I’m not interested in writing for a particular audience, because who is my audience? I’m Sri Lankan Tamil, grew up in Malaysia, educated in Singapore and came to live in Manchester.

She added: “Culturally there’s a big difference between Sri Lanka and Islington, but I want people from all walks of life and all nationalities and traditions to come and see the show.”

Rani’s fascination and interest in saris went a little deeper than my film nights with my sister. It all started when she was taken to a sari shop at 10-years-old and she tells of how this vivid memory inspired her to initially write the show. Rani said: “I was with a gaggle of very strong aunties and my mother. I think it was a family wedding we were going to and we were going to buy a whole range of outfits and potentially spend a lot of money.

She added: “It was a very very interesting shop to me because I’ve never seen anything like it, which was why I wanted to set Handlooms in a sari shop. The assault on all your senses is quite extraordinary.”

Handlooms follows another one of Rani’s shows ‘Whose Sari Now?’, a play that focused very much on a woman’s point of view, but from an experience she had as a young girl. Rani wanted to shed light on the unexpected male element of sari culture, which is why Handlooms strongly focuses on the sari from a male’s perspective.

From her earliest memory as a 10-year-old taking her first trip to the sari shop, Rani recalls feeling surprised by the behaviour of the male owner, she said: “This man behind the till, I could tell he was the owner of the shop because he had that kind of power structure, he walked a few feet to the platform with some bedding on it where he then stood. I remember thinking, this man is suddenly transforming into something else, his arm movements were different and his hands were flowing like a dancer as he was showing the saris.

She added: “He was almost touching my aunties who were quite formidable women – even my uncle’s were quite afraid of touching their own wives. I thought, this is really very different because this is not allowed in everyday life, he was being very intimate, almost flirty with them and I just thought, oh my goodness.”

It was this feeling that Rani latched onto before deciding to write Handlooms as she took inspiration to explore the sari in its masculine context, she said: “Handlooms is about a very young man who owns a sari shop that he inherited from his family and he is running it with his widowed mother.

She added: “They have this conflict because the mother wants to take the sari business online and get a PR company to get it on the red carpet, whereas the son is the one who wants to stick to artisan, bespoke saris.”

As reflected in Handlooms, it’s usually a male figure that runs the sari shops, attends the auctions in India and designs these silk-based works of art. If you walked into a sari shop in Southeast Asia, a man would usually be at the helm draping the fabrics over female customers.

As I sat down through the Handlooms rehearsals and after speaking to Rani, the expectations I had of sari culture as a young girl watching Bend It Like Beckham were somewhat challenged. Handlooms goes beyond the bling and delves deeper to uncover layers of culture that you wouldn’t expect.

From the outside, the sari exudes glamour, wealth and exclusivity, but behind the drapes of vibrant colour, intricate embroidery and eye catching crystals there’s a story with many chapters. Wearing the sari comes with all sorts of feminine ideals and reflects a history of oppression and cultural status too. Rani said: “I’ve had a very complicated relationship with saris as a lot of South Asian women who grew up outside of the homeland did. It’s a mysterious, ethereal, iconographic garment so you don’t just put on a sari like you would do a t-shirt.

She added: “It has a lot of ritual attached to it and for young women, especially second, third generation migrants, it really is a difficult relationship – you put it on and think you are immediately a Bollywood superstar and often we don’t feel that way. It’s itchy, scratchy and uncomfortable.”

For the weavers who create these beautiful works of art, it’s certainly not an easy ride. Many of them suffer with lung disease from the wood fires and big urns that house the hot liquid that the silk dye goes into.

Rani said: “They’re making these works of art, beautiful silks that are used all around the world and on the red carpet by Indian designers. The elite, who have boutiques rather than sari shops are using these saris and buying them very cheaply off the people that make them.”

On the face of it and from the name of the show, you may assume Handlooms is just simply a show about a sari, but it’s so much more.

It encapsulates everything, good and bad, about the unknown world that is hidden behind this piece of art in the most authentic way – and that has been Rani’s desire all along. She said: “One of the challenges about being a writer of colour and a woman is that people only think you write about women and that ‘oh of course she’s going to talk about the sari and of course she’s going to talk about Bollywood’, people come with a bag of assumptions and I’m all about debunking that.”

With Bend It Like Beckham and Magic Bus journeys down the Curry Mile being my only initial sneak peek into Indian culture, the story behind Handlooms and the situations that had inspired Rani to write it, challenged all my previous assumptions and have given me the opportunity to explore a culture that I had longed to be part of.