Before Bollywood stars Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh tied the knot in Lake Como in 2018, Kolkata-based drape artist Dolly Jain secretly set off for the dreamy Italian city for work. But just three days before leaving, she’d revealed details of her latest assignment to her family and her two daughters were excited. “I told my kids that they can’t tell anyone. You know how kids are. They’ll say, ‘I only told my best friend, Mama’ and then the whole world will come to know the next day,” she laughs. Media coverage of the very private wedding had reached a fever pitch by then and a few details were already revealed but Dolly remained tight-lipped. “Only once we reached Lake Como did I even tell my team that we were there for Deepika Padukone’s wedding,” she says.
Dolly has draped saris on several A-list celebrities across industries — from Gigi Hadid, Alia Bhatt and Katrina Kaif, to the Ambanis. She has helped Indian celebrities slip into a sari at prestigious international events like the Met Gala and Cannes Film Festival, and worked on stars at their weddings, films and promotions — the most recent being the promotion for Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani.
From Bengaluru to Bollywood
Dolly’s own love story with saris, however, didn’t have the perfect beginning. Years before this steady stream of high-profile clients, she started out by draping a sari around her doll. “When I was 10 or 12 years old, my mother had once come back from a party, and she kept her sari on the bed. I had to drape my doll in a piece of fabric and as I didn’t have one, I immediately took the scissors and cut a small piece of fabric from her sari. The next time she wore it, she realised that the palla was short and asked, ‘You cut my sari for a doll!’” she laughs.
Dolly herself, though, never wore saris. Born and raised in Bengaluru, she rarely got out of her comfortable jeans and T-shirts. Due to certain circumstances — which she declines to discuss — Dolly had to cut short her education after Grade 7. “That time, I felt very unhappy because I felt like I would not be able to do anything else in my life.”
The first time she wore a sari was at 21, when her husband met her as a prospective groom. They got married soon after. “I got married into an orthodox family and I thought, ‘Okay, I just have to be a good daughter-in-law and wife, raise my children, get them married and then raise their children’. That was it.” She could predict the next 50 years of her life which, at 21, is never a comforting thought. “But in my heart, I knew that I was blessed with a talent — although I didn’t even know what that talent was yet.”
Her mother-in-law insisted that she wear a sari every day. “So, I used to wake up at 4:30am to drape a sari as it used to take me 45 minutes to an hour to do so. And I hated wasting one hour of my time draping my saris.”
But residents of her housing complex soon noticed the young woman who effortlessly carried herself in elegant saris. One day, the mother of a soon-to-be bride called her up, asking whether she could teach her girls how to wear a sari. “I agreed because I wasn’t doing much. But it wasn’t until I taught them that I realised that I know so many different styles of tying a sari. It all just came out and soon, I fell in love with the sari.” Later, one of the girls she taught asked her to conduct a workshop at a finishing school. “A lady, whose son was getting married at Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad, was also there and she later asked me whether I could drape saris for the girls in their family. It was a big-scale, high profile wedding. From there, I got another wedding and it just started.” Besides the sari, Dolly is also particular about fixing the bride’s jewellery herself, sometimes using glue and thread. “I like the jewellery sitting on the body rather than on the fabric. If you are wearing many chains, I sometimes stitch the whole chain to your sari so that it doesn’t move around and you get that picture-perfect look,” explains Dolly, who charges Rs200,000 per event.
One day, fashion designer Sandeep Khosla noticed her work at a wedding where she helped the bride carry a forbiddingly long and heavy dupatta by pinning it on her head. “I just divided the weight of the dupatta,” explains Dolly. “Sandeep Khosla saw me doing it and we exchanged numbers.” And that encounter paved the way to Bollywood.
The first celebrity she draped a sari on was the late actress Sridevi. “My uncle was a film producer and Sridevi was at his place for a party. Something spilled on her sari and she went inside to fix it. Being an ardent fan, I followed her and offered to help her with her sari. Initially she said she can do it herself but I insisted. After I helped her, she told me that she has been draping saris for years but that she’s never seen anyone drape it like me. She asked, ‘Why don’t you take it up as a profession’ and that one line changed everything because until then, I was not so serious about it.”
Her first celebrity wedding was actress Sonam Kapoor’s. Last year, when Bollywood stars Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor got married, the groom’s mother and yesteryear actress Neetu Kapoor uploaded a video online, decked up in wedding finery, thanking Dolly for making her feel like a “princess”. Dolly herself is, however, cautious about sharing too many anecdotes, but says that celebrity brides are just like any other bride. “The only difference is that in a celebrity wedding, the whole world wants to know what she is wearing. But for me, it doesn’t make any difference as I do the same work.”
Cannes and the Met Gala
Earlier this year, Dolly helped actress Sara Ali Khan get ready for the Cannes film festival red carpet. And last year, she draped a sari on Indian businesswoman Natasha Poonawalla for the Met Gala. “People didn’t even know it was a sari,” says Dolly, explaining that she wants to show how saris can be a modern garment at such international platforms. “Why are we all just wearing gowns? We should be showing the world how versatile the sari is. I’m not telling you to just drape it in one way — I’m telling you, I have 325 different styles to wear it and can show you how magical this fabric is,” says Dolly, who holds a world record for being the fastest sari draper.
To the layperson though, she is probably better known for her online tutorials, where thousands of followers on YouTube and Instagram keep up with her as she teaches the many ways of draping a sari. Wearing a blouse and a petticoat, Dolly deftly pleats and folds the sari in seconds, like a puppet master, before enveloping herself in the gorgeous fabric. Most of the comments are overwhelmingly positive, although the videos have attracted trolls too. “I get comments like ‘Aunty aapka face mota hai’ (Aunty, your face is fat), or ‘We can see your stretch marks’. The best part is, I don’t have to fight with anybody as my followers give them the perfect reply. But it’s all a part and parcel of it. You can’t have 1,000 comments where everyone appreciates you,” she smiles.