When Rani Moorthy was 11 she had to undergo the traditional Hindu ritual that marks a girl’s perceived entry into womanhood.
“When you start to menstruate there is a very public ceremony,” said the actor and playwright who was raised in Malaysia.
“You are given a milk bath, usually by your older male relatives, and that was my introduction to the sari.”
Putting on the carefully pleated and draped garment in the correct way was seen as a mark of adulthood. But one Rani did not enjoy.
“I remember that sense of being watched and at that age I didn’t really understand it. This thing they put on you is so tight and stiff on your body. One moment you are a carefree child, the next this person on the cusp of womanhood.
“I rejected it and went back to jeans and t-shirts for years.”
It was only when she was at university in Singapore that she found herself willing to give the sari a second chance.
“I was heavier then and one of the tallest around and realised it could be a kind of power dressing for me. I embraced it from a position of strength.”
She now owns around 150 saris collected from all over the world and looks forward to one day inheriting her mother’s collection which reaches into the hundreds.
“Now when I wear it I feel powerful. I still only wear it for special occasions though. It doesn’t really go with public transport if you have spent £150 on one and it costs £25 to get it dry-cleaned.”
She will be unravelling her own and other women’s complicated relationships with the garment at Gerry’s at Theatre Royal Stratford East from Friday, November 25, with her one-woman show Whose Sari Now?.
The 55-year-old will give voice to five characters from an old Asian woman whose saris are like her second skin, a young mother giving birth in a war zone, a Malaysian historian, a transgender with sari-obsessed girlfriend and a low caste weaver in her final hours.
“The journey for me was to embrace it on my own terms. Other characters express some experiences I have had.
“There is sometimes this feeling that we have to be Indian enough. If it is Diwali you are expected to show up in a sari or if you have guests around your house you can’t serve them pasta.”
The artistic director of Manchester-based theatre company Rasa has written for the BBC. Her play Curry Tales was nominated for a Manchester Evening News Best Fringe Production, while Too Close to Home was nominated for the MEN Best New Play Award. This play is the first in a trio looking at the sari.
“The next play will look at the male point of view. They are one designing and selling the saris and dictating what women wear, which is interesting.”
Nov 24-Dec 17, £13/£9, Gerry’s at Theatre Royal Stratford East
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