The Sari was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver.
He dreamt of Woman – the shimmer of her tears, the drape of her tumbling hair, the colours of her many moods, the softness of her touch – all these were woven together.
He couldn’t stop. He wove many yards. And when it was done, he sat back and smiled and smiled and smiled.
That is a popular folklore tale that depicts the evolution of the sari.
Indian myths often use weaving as a metaphor for the creation of the universe. The sutra or spun thread was the foundation, while the sutradhara (weaver) or holder of the thread was viewed as the architect or creator of the universe.
The word sari was derived ‘sati,’ in Sanskrit, meaning ‘a strip of cloth.
This evolved into the Prakrit ‘sadi’ and was later anglicised to sari.
There is ample evidence of the sari in the earliest examples of Indian art. Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st- 6th century AD), suggest the sari in its earlier form, was a briefer garment, with a veil, with (usually) no discernable bodice.
There are also several references to the fact that for a long time in South India the sari was one piece of material that served as both skirt and veil, leaving the bosom bare.
Even today in some rural areas it is quite common for a woman not to wear a choli.
In North Indian miniature paintings, (particularly Jain, Rajasthani and Pahari schools from the 13th to the 19th centuries), it seemed to consist of the diaphanous skirt and an equally diaphanous veil draped over a tiny bodice. This style still survives as the more voluminous lehanga of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Gradually, this skirt and veil were amalgamated into one garment, but when and how this happened is not clear.
Some costume historians believe that the men’s dhoti, which is the oldest Indian draped garment, is the forerunner of the sari. Till the 14th century, the dhoti was worn by both men and women. Thereafter, it is believed that the women’s dhoti started to become longer, and the accessory cloth worn over the shoulders was woven together with the dhoti into a single cloth to make the sari.
Indian civilisation has always placed importance on unstitched fabrics like the sari and dhoti, which are given sacred overtones. The belief was that such a fabric was pure; perhaps because in the distant past needles of bone were used for stitching.
Even today, when the Islam influenced Salwar-kameez (loose trousers with a tunic) is an increasingly popular garment, the Sari continues to hold its sway. The flow it confers to the natural contours of the female form enhances the gracefulness of the fairer sex, as no other apparel can.
The Sari, like so many other textiles, gives the lie to the hierarchical distinction made between fine arts and crafts. The approximate size of a sari is 47” by 216”.
Although it is an untailored length of cloth, the fabric is highly structured and its design vocabulary sophisticated. The main field of the sari is framed on three sides by decorative frieze of flowering plants, figurative images or abstract symbols.
An Intricate drape
Two of the borders define the edges of the length of the sari and the third comprises the end piece, which is a visible, broader, more complex version of the other two borders. This end piece is the part of the sari that is draped over the shoulder and left to hang over the back or front, known popularly as the Pallav.
The pallav usually elaborates the theme found in the two borders and the actual field of the sari, a sort of repetition and amplification in the manner of the Indian musical mode, the raga. The raga has a set number of notes and these are intoned in a form of verbal mnemonics, before the song is actually sung.
The design, whether woven, embroidered, painted or block-printed, needs to maintain the proportion and balance between the actual field of the sari, the borders and the pallav. The pattern creates its own rhythm.
For instance, the scattering of spot weft gold dots increase in the pallav for a denser, richer pattern and gradually and softly decrease on the actual ground of the sari.
Pattern and content are often dictated by the traditions of the region where the sari is produced. The great sari capitals are Varanasi (Banaras), by the sacred river Ganga, Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh and Kanjivaram in South India.
Banaras is renowned for its silk and gold brocades. The weavers who are usually Muslims, are famed for producing brocades so stiff with gold that they cannot be used as garments and are reserved wholly for ritual use. The Banaras sari itself is ubiquitous in India.
No bridal trousseau would be complete without‘Banarasi’ brocade which is available within a broad price range. Along with their very intricate patterns, the most interesting aspect of Banaras brocades is the tremendous variety of silk yarns with which they are woven. Ranging from heavy silks such as ‘Jamawars’ and ‘Tanchois’ to gossamer fine organzas and tissues, the choice is mind-boggling.
A Weaver’s Expertise
Chanderi is primarily a weaver’s town. It produces fine shimmering cottons with pale delicate zari borders and motifs of the utmost delicacy. The characteristic feature of the Chanderi sari is the quality of the gold thread that is used. Early craftsmen have even gone to the extent of describing it as the gold thread that shone like a mirror.
Kanjivaram is synonymous with hand woven silk saris and known for its dark, heavy silks, usually with flat stripes of gold decorating the borders. These conservative designs are considered to be more restrained and dignified than the occasionally flamboyant Banarasi sari. Kanjivaram silk also has a reputation for durability.
A distinctive feature of these saris, as opposed to those from other parts of India, is the contrasting color of the border and the pallav, as compared to the body of the sari.
Such a restricted mention of sari capitals is invidious for it overshadows other regions with equally sophisticated textile traditions. Almost every district and sometimes even different villages have their own sari tradition which employs a complex language of symbols.
The sari takes final shape in visual terms only when it is draped on a person. The slightly off-center fan of pleats in the front, the floating pallav with the intricate border thrown over the shoulder and the relatively smooth drape of the material at the back; the wound, pleated, tucked and coiled material give the proportions an aesthetic and intelligent rationality. To an unaccustomed onlooker, a draped sari seems an insecure affair, in danger of coming undone at the slightest movement.
This apparently flimsy concoction is buttressed by a stout, distinctly unromantic, cotton petticoat. The top edges of the pleats are tucked into the waistband of this nether garment, thereby almost eliminating the risk of the sari coming adrift.
The art of draping the sari is in itself an expression of a woman’s creativity. In urban
India, saris tend to be draped in four or five styles requiring approximately six yards of material. It is, however, immensely versatile, and there are a surprising number of regional variations of draping.
Women working in the fields of Maharashtra, drape the sari in the kasota fashion, not unlike a pair of trousers, enabling complete freedom for the limbs.
For an unstitched length of material, the wearing of a sari entails a lot of preparation.
Most saris have a fall made of cotton attached to the inside lower border, and the choli or bodice that teams up with the sari should match the ground color of the sari, or at least echo one of the tints in the borders or motifs.
The sari follows the shape of the body, yet conceals, it is often said, a hundred imperfections. It is true that not only is it one of the most graceful of garments, but also one of the kindest.
This perhaps explains its perennial charm. Not only beautiful, it is compassionate.
The success of the sari through the ages is attributable to its total simplicity and practical comfort, combined with the sense of luxury a woman experiences. Though men are intrigued by the demure, floor-length attire and tantalizing display of a bare midriff at the back, it is said that sari rarely fails to flatter a woman, making her feel fragile and feminine. It is an instant fashion, created by the hands of the wearer and subject to none of the vagaries and changes which plague the modern fashion scene.
The above article has been reproduced here with the permission of Exotic India.