“Have you seen handloom being spun? Each thread is spun with hand… and represents the effort that artisans put into making these beautiful clothes. Sadly, it doesn't get as much appreciation as it deserves,” says Jayanthi Sampathkumar, a Hyderabad-based IT manager at Microsoft.
The 44-year-old recently hogged the limelight for showcasing her love for handloom in an unconventional way. At the Airtel Hyderabad marathon held in the city on Sunday, Jayanthi ran a 42-kilometre stretch clad in a saree, and reached the finish line in less than five hours.
While India is home to the most number of handloom weavers in the world, the exquisiteness of their work stands in stark contrast to the impoverished lives many of them lead. Jayanthi notes that the handloom industry is not only India’s pride, but also remains a source of employment for hundreds in the country.
“I have been interested in handloom for over a decade. So it wasn’t long before I began shopping almost exclusively from handloom exhibitions. I hardly shop from retail shops anymore!” she says.
A vegan for six years, Jayanthi has also been working to reduce plastic waste for eight years now. She tries to ensure that each scrap of plastic which comes into her home is recycled. “At first, I would give it to the raddi wala but now I use an online plastic pick up and recycle service toter.in. So wearing pure cotton just fit into my desire to consciously use biodegradable products," Jayanthi says.
She chose the saree not just to show her support for handloom, but to make another point as well. “Everyone should be able to wear what they feel comfortable in, and that can be a saree too! I wanted to show that a saree isn’t a restrictive garment in leading an active and fit lifestyle,” she says.
But running marathons in a saree wasn’t merely a matter of determination, but also required intense training. In January last year, Jayanthi and her family decided to have a fitter lifestyle which included running and cycling. Soon, Jayanthi began training more intensively to run marathons, and ran a half marathon in August 2016. Then, she ran a full marathon in Chennai in January and covered 42.2 kilometres in 5 hours and 28 minutes.
It was after that the idea to run in a saree struck. “I have always seen my mother and grandmother wear sarees every day, and even they felt it was restrictive sometimes. I wanted to challenge myself too,” Jayanthi says. It began with wearing a saree to work every day instead of weekly and thereafter progressed to training to run in the garment in April.
The latter involved plenty of experimentation to figure out which saree and style suited her best while running.
“I saw YouTube videos and tried the Maharashtrian drape, Andhra styles, Tamil styles… There were considerations of the length (6-yard or 9-yard), how many pins and pleats to put to make it stay in place,” she recounts.
Finally, it was the Tamil Madisaar style which worked best for her.
Jayanthi also chose to run in minimalistic sandals instead of sports shoes. “I realised that I was most comfortable running bare feet. But over a long distance, the stones and pebbles were hurting my feet. So I went and found these minimalistic sandals through some running communities. It’s the closest I can get to running bare feet while protecting my feet,” she says.
The D-day arrived finally, and armed with her training and unwavering support from her family and coach, Jayanthi ran the 42.2 kilometre marathon. She covered the distance in 4 hours 57 minutes and 44 seconds.
Jayanthi also told Pranita Jonnalagedda for Deccan Chronicle that she wants to attempt to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for the title of running the fastest marathon in a saree. She said that she had informed Guinness authorities about her attempt and was in the process of submitting the evidence.
But at the core of Jayanthi’s efforts lies a very simple idea. “I wanted to promote the idea that you can do anything you want, no matter what you wear,” she smiles.
(All photos by Dharma Teja K)