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‘Handlooms’ – Immersive theatre in a sari shop? Witness it for yourself with show in real time in real sari shops…

‘Handlooms’ – Immersive theatre in a sari shop? Witness it for yourself with show in real time in real sari shops…

In the second part of her sari trilogy, Rani Moorthy explores the significance of high street sari stores

By Momtaz Begum-Hossain

IT’S BEEN over two years since we were treated to actor, playwright and theatre director Rani Moorthy’s ‘Who’s Sari Now?’ monologue in which she took on the guise of five women talking about their relationship with the humble sari. Rani who spoke to us in 2015 about the show, explained then that she was working on a trilogy and in the run up to the second part that has just started (March 12), a live immersive experience that takes place inside a sari shop, Rani chatted to us again, about her plans for this new production. (ACV): ‘Handlooms’ is set in and takes place inside a sari shop, it sounds a bit gimmicky…

Rani Moorthy (RM): A lot of immersive theatre experiences take place in non-public places like large empty warehouses but Handlooms is a live performance inside two of the UK’s oldest sari stores – Alankar House of Sarees on Manchester’s curry mile in March and then it goes to Anokhi House of Sarees in Leicester in April. It may sound gimmicky but it’s not; the set is central to the story and will add to its authenticity. We aren’t changing the store set up or bringing in props, we want it to be reflective of walking into a sari shop on an ordinary day where there’s an assault on your senses because of the colour and smells.

ACV: Please tell us about the play and what we can expect from the ‘immersive’ side…

RM: ‘Handlooms’ is a one-hour show that takes place inside the shop in the evening when it’s closed to public. The audience are issued with head sets so they can hear all the words, though they may not see all the action, one of the characters is someone whose voice you hear in the backroom sewing sari blouses but you never see her face, so it has an almost radio play quality about it. The is a central character who is a young man who has inherited his father’s business. He is keen to keep it going and is interested in working with artisan designers to create quality woven saris while his mother played by me wants to take the shop online and sell cheap, mass-produced stock.
It’s interesting because I had this concept some time ago and when I first walked into Anokhi House of Sarees in Leicester I was so surprised to find a story similar to my plot as it’s also run by a young man who is fascinated with traditional heritage saris and he runs it with his mum.

ACV: Much of the play focuses on the ‘male voice’ in the sari world, how did you become aware of it?

RM: When I was a child I used to go to sari shops with my mum and aunty and they’d always be men selling the saris and women buying them. At that age I didn’t think anything of it like that, but as I got older I realised how unique this was. Ordinarily, there is a distance between men and women but in a sari shop there are men talking intimately to women about how fabric will drape on their body and colours that match their skin tone, it’s as if the men are also getting in touch with their feminine side. It’s men that own the shops, choose the saris they will stock, they decide if they will stock party saris or everyday ones and so he ultimately decides what a woman will end up wearing.

ACV: The sari shop experience is one many Asian women of first and second generation in the UK are familiar with but is it still the same for the younger and future generations?

RM: There are very few traditional sari shops left. They used to offer a shopping and social experience, in India and in the UK, you could sit down, have a chai and talk to the shopkeeper about your needs. Now they’ve become modern boutique shops, more minimalist with bright lights and less colour.
Also, if you’re a young person being dragged into a sari shop these days you’ll probably sit on your phone and wait for your relatives to shop and not notice the details and that’s what I hope the audience will appreciate when they come and see the play. After spending an hour in a sari shop they will get a better understanding of saris. Many younger people view the sari with a western gaze – they think they know it but they don’t.

ACV: What are you most excited about with this show?

RM: That first show. You won’t know how well a play goes until you see how the audience respond. Also a play has never taken place inside a sari shop before so it will be a new experience for all of us. Audiences have expectations from a play just like when you go for a meal at a restaurant you expect that a waiter will come and take your order. At the theatre you expect to sit down and watch a performance but Handlooms is different. You have the earpiece, you don’t see everything, you have the smells of the incense, all the colours in front of you and it’s going to change how you view saris and hopefully inspire you to come back to the shop and buy one.

Pictures: Courtesy of Rasa Theatre by Anthony Robling

Handlooms’ – A Rasa Theatre and Contact Co-Production. Supported by Curve and Slung Low. Written by Rani Moorthy, Directed by Alan Lane.

Until March 24: Alankar House of Sarees, Manchester
46-48 Wilmslow Road, M14 5TQ.
Performance dates (Mon-Fri): March 13-16 and 18-23 – 7.30pm and 9.15pm
Saturday, March 17 (BSL and post show discussion), and Saturday March 24: 8.30pm.
Tickets: £15/£11 concs


April 10-22: Anokhi House of Sarees, Leicester
99-101 Belgrave Road, LE4 6AS. Tuesday to Sunday: 7.30pm and 9.15pm.
£15, £10 concs.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture