A thousand women made history on Thursday, by attending Ladies’ Day at the Royal Ascot in Berkshire, not far from London, draped in traditional sarees, brightening up the horse racing event on a very hot summer day. It was part of an initiative to encourage women from South Asian backgrounds to support artisan weavers who lost their incomes during the pandemic as well as raise funds to empower rural women to set up small local businesses.
Royal Ascot is Britain's most valuable race meeting, attracting many of the world's finest racehorses to compete for millions of pounds in prize money (just over £7.3million in 2019).
Approximately 500 horses raced across the five days. Hundreds of race goers put on their finest clothes to attend, which attracted some 270,000 people overall.
A brainchild of Dr Dipti Jain and her team, women showcased beautiful Kantha stitch, Benarasi, Baluchari, Madhubani sarees, among other handlooms, dazzling the crowd. Dipti, who has connections with Kolkata, wore a gorgeous bluish-purple sari with Union Jack became a huge attraction with people. The sari was hand-embroidered with London and Kolkata skylines, the Queen’s face, Big Ben, a red phone box and the Tower of London by an artisan named Rupa Khatun back in India at Nanoor, West Bengal. Authorities at Ascot whole-heartedly welcomed the initiative.
Mamta Parekh who has been practicing law as a Solicitor and Tribunal Judge for over twenty years, also helped organise the event. She told Asian Voice, “Women turned up in numbers and even performed dances in between races. The sarees on display caught the eye while also providing a strong Asian representation at what is typically an English event and helped draw attention to the plight of people who helped make such vibrant sarees. While most of the Asians in attendance were England residents who came in coaches from London, Leicester, Birmingham - there were several women who flew in from India, especially for the day.”
Non-Asian women attending the event were also hugely impressed by the saree effort and stopped by to chit chat.
Mohua Banerjee Ganguly from Birmingham travelled in a coach along with other ladies to the Royal Ascot. Speaking to Asian Voice, Mohua, whose family lives in Barrackpore, West Bengal explained how the preparation went. She said, “I was so excited to do this, and it was my first time at the Royal Ascot. We ladies travelled from various parts of the UK, some even rented coaches. From Birmingham 20-25 women travelled to Berkshire, starting as early as 8am. From Leicester there were 50 women. Many people travelled from North of England too, though most women came from London. We sat at the picnic area with drinks and Indian food such as samosa, vegetable chop, egg chop, fish fry and Moglai paratha prepared by City of Joy – a Bengali caterer in Birmingham, run by Abhijit and Mandi Mandal. Women also packed picnic baskets from home containing other home-made food.
“The theme colour of Royal Ascot was blue and yellow this year. We had divided the saree groups into shades of those colours, and I was coordinating the group wearing sarees from shade of light blue and prop of sunglasses. Most of us wore fascinators to go with the Royal Ascot tradition, but some had put flowers in their hair too, showcasing diversity of the Indian culture.
“I wore a georgette Benarasi saree in light blue, with Swarovski crystal and a fascinator on my head. I personally designed my blouse with crystals. We also had chosen theme songs for respective groups, mostly from Bollywood popular numbers. It was a very well organised event, and from security to food stalls- everything was perfect. It was a massive gathering but such a beautiful experience.”
Meena Jasani told the newsweekly, “I chose a unique Tussar silk hand painted saree with kalamkari design, on the ‘pallu’ had Lord Rama and Sita with a matching fascinator. The coach ride was full of laughter and the upbeat mood with music chatter and laughter. Thanks to Dr Dipti Jain for putting the chain together. It was challenging task for her and the team. They had put in lot of time and effort to organise. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
“The vibrant colours and the twist of east meets west with the varying headgear made us the center of attraction at the Windsor enclosure and all Royal Ascot. It was an interesting day with so many designs to look at and an exceptional moment for all us ladies who attended. I sincerely hope and pray that the platform we were on will inspire the next generation to be proud and integrated Indians who take the baton of our heritage to the next plain.”