How to get the traditional Indian look in a saree

Madhu Natraj
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Madhu with stylist Romi Thokchom
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"I think it’s in my genes to love saris. My mother comes from the nationalist era that India went through and has worn only organic saris all through her adult life. She taught me to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness in Indian fabric from a very young age and I just added my learnt preferences to that solid education,” says Madhu Natraj about her love for handloom organic saris in cotton and silk, that makes up most of her wardrobe.

This beautiful, multi-faceted, talented and extremely warm danseuse was recently selected for the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the joy, quite literally, shines on her glowing face. “I didn’t expect it at all, but it’s nice and makes me really happy. Being appreciated is always a good thing,” she says showing us the beautiful original Kanjeevaram three-tiered original-weave silk sari that her mother presented to her for the award ceremony.

After a mind-blowing visual treat through her sari collection, we settled on a single cotton sari that spoke volumes of Madhu’s individual tastes and colour preferences. We then decided to let Madhu and stylist Romi Thokchom go crazy with the look they would like to show. Madhu represents the traditional Indian woman in touch with her roots, yet proud of her modern streak and we hoped the look represented those wonderfully contradicting yet complementing identities.

We choose to shoot in Madhu’s wonderful home, a beautifully redesigned flat that spoke of Madhu’s individual style on every inch of wall and floor. “I took a long time to achieve a living space that I could be proud off and I think this comes quite close to the dream I had when I began,” Madhu enthuses.

Make-up, styling and dressing ensued as lensman Rakesh Ravindran scouted the house for a perfect location. We settled on the interesting balcony, complete with a traditional oonjal (swing), a rattan low-seater and a kitsch antique chest that we decided to use.

What came out from this exciting and laughter-filled celebration of the South Indian woman in all her finesse is here for you to see…

About the model
How much ever you speak about Madhu as a person, you will fall short of what the danseuse has achieved. She, quite interestingly, is a graduate in commerce, who pursued a degree in media, before settling down as a dancer. “My mom says it was always written in my vidhi (fate) for me to be dancer, but I internalised that reality much later in life. Being brought up in Delhi, I had a lot of distractions and dreams that begged to be fulfilled — when I finally centred on dancing, my mom’s deep rooted philosophies had finally become my own,” Madhu explains.

Romi Thokchom and Madhu Natraj after much discussion and deliberation, decided to go with a classic look. A gentle back-combing to add texture and increase volume, was complemented by a simple pleated bun that was created to bring the strands of jasmine buds into focus. The styling was simple, but recreated a timeless, much appreciated feminine look that spoke of subtlety, fiery power and planned restraint with panache.

Colour me pretty
Madhu decided to wear her own make-up. She wore it exactly as she would on a normal working day, focussing on her eyes with a bit of kohl, eyeliner and eye-shadow and preferred to go nude on her lips. “Indian women are not known for loud make-up, except when it comes to their eyes and I chose to do just that,” Madhu shares.

L’il add ons
The ensemble would be incomplete without accessories and Madhu, much to our surprise, decided to incorporate pieces that spoke of heart-warming tales. For her neck, she chose a string of turquoise beads sourced from Turkey and Iraq, with metallic pieces from Pashtu tribal jewellery, put together by herself at a store in Istanbul, Turkey. For her ears, she picked a pair of exquisite earrings from a Seed to Silver jewellery festival in Delhi. The brass discs were rounded off with tiny pearls and were the craftsmanship of a sculptor from Bengal, who designs jewellery as a side-business. Her wrists, she decided, would be adorned with Gold bangles, designed by herself, complemented perfectly with alternating red and green glass bangles. To complete her desi look, she also chose to wear a large bindi that set off everything else, just right.

Dress me up
As earlier mentioned, the sari, which was the central piece of the ensemble, took the longest time to zero in on. We finally convinced Madhu to choose a Hubli cotton sari that screamed the word ‘summer’. “To me summer is all about thin breezy fabrics, mangoes, nimbu pani and red-red earth and so this sari represents all my summery dreams. Funny though, that a week or so before my mother gave me this sari, I spotted it at the same store and secretly wanted it — a week later, my mother bought it for me — I guess we have a telepathic connection,” says Madhu, describing her love for the bright and colourful drape.

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