There is much to be said in favour of ladies bringing back the lugra, the traditional 10-yard East Indian saree. A lady dressed in a lugra, although rare, is a lovely sight indeed.
However, the ones who know how to drape the lugra the right way are an even rarer occurance, which makes people like Mrs Cecilia Coutinho a living treasure.
Cecilia is well-known as an expert lugra draper among the East Indians of Amboli, a little hamlet in Andheri that’s home to St Blaise Church.
When she told me that she had once draped more than a thousand women in lugras for an event in a single afternoon, I couldn’t help but think to myself that I was in the presence of a true lugra legend.
Orphaned at a very young age, Cecilia owes her upbringing to her eldest sisters who cared for her and the younger children in the family and saw them through many mean and lean years. Originally a Quinny and from a large family that used to own property in Kalina, Cecilia is the last of fourteen children and moved to Amboli after her marriage.
She doesn’t remember the exact day she was born, and gets sad when she recalls the time she and her sisters lost their family lands to encroaching slums and had to make do with a pittance of Rs 7000 as compensation. Life saw her through days when she had to live in a zhopdi (shanty) to a chawl in Amboli with her mentally and physically disabled daughter Gertie and her son Blaise.
Life is hard for Cecilia – as we speak, she has an eye out for the Shri Satya Sai Mobile Medicare Project‘s van (which is a blessing for many low income Christian families like Cecilia’s that cannot afford healthcare) to arrive so she can fetch free medicines for Gertie. Way past her teenage years, Gertie requires constant care and the medicines can amount to Rs 500 a bottle. Cecilia herself has diabetes, cholesterol and hypertension and needs to ensure that she take medicines on a regular basis.
Cecilia also lost her husband to a heart attack in 2000 and her daughter Linda to breast cancer in 2008, but she runs her home with remarkable grit and resilience. She tells me, “That’s life. I have worked a lot, but I also danced a lot!” and flashes me a wide smile before heading into the kitchen to brew me and my sister in law a cup of tea.
Cecilia wore a lugra for her wedding in 1963, but she also wore the white bridal gown. Amazingly, the lugra was costlier than the gown – Rs 400 and Rs 70, respectively – unheard of in 2018. She wore a lugra for her first banns too – without the padar though – as per the custom followed by unmarried East Indian girls. When I asked her what she wore for the paan – the shawl that is used instead of the padar, and she told me she didn’t wear one as wearing a paan wasn’t the practice among East Indian women back then.
When she shifted to Amboli, her daughter Linda who was then alive and a very accomplished fashion designer, persuaded her to give up wearing it as she thought it stood out too much for a largely Hindu populated neighbourhood.
The lugra still has a long way to go before it becomes the new normal, and Cecilia is aware that not everyone is appreciative of it. An East Indian gentleman once rudely remarked, “These junglee people are going” when she passed by him, and she recalls the incident with much outrage.
Dismissing those who have no value for the cultural significance of the lugra as inconsequential, Cecilia wears the garment every chance she gets and is one of the very few women in Amboli to wear it without needing a special occasion. A break from outdated East Indian societal norms means widows like Cecilia can choose to not wear lugras in sombre colours like purple, blue and grey anymore. She happily wears her ‘widow’s colours’ along with more favoured shades like pink and red. She confesses that she enjoys the looks she receives when she wears the lugra, “People think we are someone official when they see us (East Indian ladies) in our lugras, like we are landed gentry. I feel it’s a great record of our East Indian people.”
Her love for the garment and the pleasure she takes in helping people drape the lugra has taken her to homes as far as Poisur, Borivali. Cecilia doesn’t charge anyone to drape a lugra. If she’s offered money for her services, she accepts it. “Yo dhandha nai maazha, aishis neshitay tyaana” / “It’s not a business for me, I do it for the sake of it”, she says.
I do hope this changes though and the people who request her to drape their lugras realise that what Cecilia is doing is not only a labour of love but that she is also contributing to keep a dying community art form alive. Perhaps for the next cultural celebration that requires someone to drape lugras or give a demonstration of the same, you can invite Cecilia Aunty to lend a helping hand?
Many thanks to Cecilia Countiho for sharing her story and her family photos with me and also to Cassia Pereira for telling me about this remarkable lady.
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