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The World of the East End Saree Shops

December 24, 2012
by the gentle author

In these recent days, when it has barely got lighter than dusk and I have been walking around bent double into the driving rain, I found myself lifting my gaze occasionally in admiration at the illuminated windows of saree shops that cluster in Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. So, when Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie brought me these poignant images of saree shops glimmering with colour and light despite the pervasive gloom, I suggested we pay a few of these establishments a call and discover more of the world of the East End saree shops.

In Bethnal Green, at Zhara Fashion House we were greeted by three women, Majida, Shuheli and Afsana, who have just started in business one month ago, specialising in selling fabric lengths which permit their young customers to make sarees to their own patterns and thus avoid the ready made styles that fill the other shops. Their youthful optimism was in harsh contrast to Abdul Latif at Modhubon Ltd who had been trading for twenty-one years across the road in a shop stacked to the ceiling with sarees folded neatly on shelves. “I used to go to India once a year to buy stock, but not for the last three years,” he confessed with a frown, “I’ve had a very bad run.” Mr Latif’s customers are senior women who have been economising with their purchases, he revealed, and this week, far outside the summer wedding season, he was alone in his magnificently decorated shop like the host of a party to which nobody came.

Yet just a couple of doors down, we discovered a brisk trade at Mahir where lots of saree bargains were to be had in the sale and the entire range of stock was accessible to the eager women browsing on rails. Sumsun Nahar Shirne, the briskly efficient under-manager, explained that this was one of seven branches scattered as far apart as Leeds and Luton, owned by her cousin Shurajul Islam Akbas. “Customers come from as far away as Germany, Italy, France, even America,” she bragged.

Similarly at Zari, next door, where Shofig Islam brought ten years of retail experience at Superdrug to the family business, there was no shortage of customers. Shofig had an impressive array of vibrantly coloured glittering sarees, yet he was eager to stress that he stocked a wide range of different garments to suit the tastes of younger women who like to mix western and eastern clothes in their every day wardrobes and only wear full sarees for special occasions. Alert to social trends, working closely with manufacturers in India to deliver the designs that women want and with his richly-coloured stock creating a dazzling display, Shofig admitted to me that he had even been able to expand the business recently.

Taking the stroll down Vallance Rd, we set out to explore the saree shops shining in the shadows of the alleys leading off Whitechapel Rd and – among other delights – discovered the wonders of Zai, a compact traditional establishment where proprietor Helal Khan, who has been in business for ten years, welcomed us kindly. Mr Khan has a loyal trade of local women who frequent his discreet premises with its immaculately organised stock.

The dusk that had prevailed all day turned to darkness as the rain set in again and we just had time left to step into Cuckoo Fashions in Whitechapel Market, which we found remarkable for the selection of panels of richly patterned printed silks at just fifteen pounds each. It was tempting to carry some away but we were spoiled for choice, as we had been all day by the sensuous hues and tinsel on display at every shop we visited. In spite of social changes, we were reassured that the saree shops will be with us for the foreseeable future to bring glitz to our dowdy East End streets. So we set off into the murk with our spirits lifted by the exposure to so much glowing colour and vowed to come back another day.

Abdul Latif, Modhubon Ltd.

Shofig Islam at Zari.

Helal Khan at Zai in Whitechapel.

Fatima Chowdury, Jumara Noor Eli and Sumsun Nahar Shirna at Mahir in Bethnal Green.

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. December 24, 2012

    Merry Christmas, Gentle Author. Thank you for all your stories, reports and photos during the year.

    From Rhonda in Australia xx

  2. Hazel Parker permalink
    December 24, 2012

    Reading this on Christmas Eve morning when it is grey and wet outside has brought shimmering,sparkling ,magical colour into my kitchen. What beautiful work! I’m going to forward it now to a dear friend who has recently lost her father, this I know will be well-received.thank you and a HappyChristmas toThe Gentle Author.

  3. Cherub permalink
    December 24, 2012

    Truly exquisite fabrics, the jewelled colours are gorgeous and brighten a very drab day here in Scotland. I hope the 3 girls are successful in their new venture, business is hard for us self employed folks at the moment, especially retailers.

  4. Vicky permalink
    December 24, 2012

    These sari shops and stalls are glorious, as are the African wax shops in Wentworth St. I pass both daily and would love to shop in them, dress up in their silks and cottons, feel exotic. But my Anglo Saxon colour and shape can’t take them so I will just have to admire from afar. But at least they are here, in all their glory, for us to admire and enjoy. Long may they survive. Long live multi-cultural Britain.

  5. martina permalink
    December 24, 2012

    Such beautiful colors! Merry Christmas to Gentle Author and everyone.

  6. Ian permalink
    December 24, 2012

    Years ago I used to accompany art student friends when they visited a long-since vanished fabric shop here in Ipswich, where the piles of rolls of fabric and the displayed expanses of material provided a display more beautiful than the clothes they would end up becoming could ever hope to be (well, it WAS the eighties.) These photos put me in mind of that establishment, but with the colour resolution turned up to full. And here the sumptuous material DOES go on to becoming something equally, if not more beautiful. Sarees are the most beautiful form of dress in my humble opinion.

    Happy Christmas to you and thanks for many hours of pleasure your blog brings me!

  7. December 24, 2012

    I remember when Maaya on the corner of Vallance Road and Bethnal Green Road was a ladies clothes shop called Leslies. My grandmother worked in there for years. They had a glass cabinet/counter which contained a rail of chiffon blouses in all the colours of the rainbow and I was small enough to get into the cabinet and hide amongst the frills and flounces. I can still remember that.
    It’s nice to see that the shop is still a ladies clothes shop. I think my grandmother would be also be pleased.

  8. Long term reader permalink
    December 24, 2012

    Merry Christmas and greetings, while on vacation, from Madrid.

    It is wonderful seeing small business and family run stores regain footing.

    Traveling here in Spain, I am so happy to see family run restaurants and stores – I hope they can persist on to the next generation. It reminded me so much of a time in the UK where family owned stores were more of the norm – it is heartening to read your articles and to hear of the come back of small enterprise and the pride of work that goes into it.

  9. miracle christian permalink
    May 14, 2013

    i have some products for sell, like sarees, dresses, lehngas, Bollywood collocation and many more. so how may i contact you? can you provide me any phone number and email id?

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