Growing up in a bicultural environment in the US, Nasscom Foundation ex-CEO Rita Soni looked forward to the few chances she got to sport desi clothes. For years, she wistfully rifled through her mum’s closet, wondering if, like her, she would have to keep waiting for a chance to wear the beautiful sarees hanging there. Once Soni took over as Yes Bank’s country head for responsible banking practices, however, she realised that the financial services industry in India boasted of many senior professionals who had resurrected the saree as a corporate uniform.
“They were confidently carrying off these sarees, oozing elegance, sophistication and professionalism. I then started wearing sarees to my speaking engagements and realised that not only did I carry myself differently, but people saw me differently as well; it sent out a positive message. It became a habit and continues to be a source of strength,” says Soni.
Thanks to her spirited defence of the saree as everyday office wear, Soni was recently part of a discussion at an initiative aimed at celebrating the saree and its makers — The Saree Festival. “Though it was a daunting task to share the dais with Padma Shri awardees and celebrated designers, I loved the opportunity to learn more about the subject. One of our main concerns was that sarees are becoming ‘special occasion’ wear — reduced to being aired out only for a wedding or some other traditional social function,” says Soni. “However, we were all happy that on an average, we have moved past the era when traditional clothes were rejected as part of an empowerment ideal. Now, many women see them as a natural professional choice for work — a sign that they are empowered enough to choose what they want to wear. Personally, I love that I can choose what to wear — a power suit one day, a power saree the next.”
As the seasons change, Soni alternates between weaves: from breezy cottons in summer to raw silk and Benarasis or even woollen yarns in the biting cold. “I have been on several saree walks curated by the organiser of the saree festival, Himanshu Verma. The one I enjoyed most featured the making of a bandhani saree, which, being a Gujarati, I guess I share a genetic predisposition towards,” she laughs.
Starting from those she selected from her mother’s closet, Soni built her 50-strong saree collection by picking one up from each place she travelled to. “In Bangladesh for work a few years ago, I remember buying a beautiful handwoven white and gold saree. I’ve picked up pieces from places such as Bhubhaneswar, Kolkata and Mumbai, though I am still to buy silks from south India. When I left Yes Bank, my colleagues gifted me a traditional Maharashtrian saree, which I cherish and wear often. I think it is better to receive something like that instead of a memento that will sit in your showcase and be of no use,” she says.
Soni does not limit her penchant for ethnic wear to events in India — she makes it a point to sport her collection during work commitments and black tie events abroad, having done so on recent trips to Colombia, the US, the UK and France. “Reactions abroad may range from ‘that looks so complicated, how do you wear it’ to ‘that looks elegant’ but the reception is always positive. Back in India, my sarees may send out a traditional vibe but the moment people hear my pronounced accent, they realise that I am committed to my work here and that I mean business,” smiles Soni. Here’s to the power saree, then.