It’s December in Chennai, and that means one thing for all music and dance lovers – it’s time for Margazhi!

For those who might not know, Margazhi is a month-long music and classical dance festival, featuring artists from across India (and this year, around the world!). It is that time of year when every music sabha and dance venue in Chennai echoes with the haunting melodies of Carnatic ragas and artists hold their audiences spellbound.

This year, Margazhi has gone virtual, but the fun hasn’t stopped. One of the highlights of this time for me is the chance to wear my best sarees and attend dance programmes featuring brilliant performers, both revered and upcoming. An initiative on social media by Aalaap Concepts, a classical dance group, is giving me my Margazhi fix right now through their Wear a Ragam on Your Sleeve challenge. Each day, a new ragam is selected. Participants in the challenge must find a sari in their collection that meets the mood and nature of the ragam (this can be very subjective) and justify why their weave of choice fits the ragam of the day. The winners receive tickets to this year’s virtual Margazhi programme.

Obviously, I could not resist the challenge!

Here are my entries – and interpretations of each ragam – for this week-long challenge:

Day 1: Raga Desh

To me, Raag Desh is a soft, poignant ode to the strength and humanity of our India. It draws its haunting notes from our soil, our forests, and our people. This sari, woven and sold by a women-run local business, Suta, is truly the spirit of Desh. Its soft cotton is plucked by our farmers, its natural dyes are drawn from plants from our soil, and it is handmade by our women. I paired my Suta Dove on Cherries sari with simple yet traditional jewellery – a choker and jhumkas – to salute our temples and ancient culture of dance.

Day 2: Raga Kalyani

Queen of the ragas, with a softness and warmth that draws you in, Ragam Kalyani is best represented by this simple yellow and maroon cotton sari. The simplicity of Kalyani echoes the steadyfastness of love – shringara – and compassion, much like this sari, belonging to my mother, simple and elegant. It reminds me of a warm hug, a shining light guiding me through the darkness.

Day 3: Raga Neelambari

Known as the raga of melancholy, separation, and pining, Neelambari is all heart. The notes are softer and engage the emotions of the audience. This sari, comprised of dull shades of black, grey, and white, is sober yet emotional. It is an ikat from Odisha, rooted in culture and tradition. It has immense significance as a going-away gift from a dear friend, and as something I wear when I am lost in thought.

Day 4: Raga Attana

Attana – the embodiment of veer rasa, or courage. It’s sonorous aaroha fills the heart with resilience and joy. This ragam reminds me of standing up for my values and passions despite opposition and comments. As a woman in conservation, I often hear things like “ecologists wear field pants, not sarees” or “you’ll never be able to handle the rough lifestyle of fieldwork.” But I thrive in my chosen field and I have never shied from wearing my beloved sarees to the workplace, despite the loaded looks that come my way. This blue silk saree, which fits me perfectly like a second skin, is like an armour of softness and strength that I wear when I feel powerful and brave!

Day 5: Raga Kamas – Shringara

Love is an emotion that we all feel as a part of the human experience. Raga Kamas, with its lilting melody, calls upon that emotion of shringara – love and beauty – and invites us to bask in its grace. To me, Raga Kamas is a reminder to live my life with grace and pay attention to the small happinesses that life places in our path. It reminds me of an early morning in the jungles of India, sipping a cup of hot chai while listening to the calls of different animals and birds – the hoot of the langur, the trumpet of the elephant, the sawing roar of a leopard, and the sweet song of the Malabar laughing thrush. It paints itself on the purple and beige pelt of the Malabar giant squirrel, sparkles in the laughter of my little cousins, and shines in the eyes of my best friend.

So there’s my interpretation of these Carnatic ragams and the sarees that best identify with each one. I invite all of you to also try out this fun challenge. Choose a ragam and find the saree (or outfit) that best compliments the mood of it. I’ve never had a more enjoyable time learning about ragams and their rasas than in this past week, thanks to this creative challenge!

Happy Margazhi!

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