Sari, an artistically crafted unstitched length of textile, the single substitute for both, the upper and lower components of female attire, is the globally venerated distinction of Indian woman.
Being the significant segment of costumes of women – Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, besides India, sari defines the cultural unity of the subcontinent. In India, sari is the foremost wear of almost every woman – elite or tribe, urban or rural, rich or poor, young or old, professional or housewife, literate or illiterate, whatever her caste or religion, even her hierarchical status, a Buddhist monk, Jain sadhwi – female ascetic, or a Christian nun.
Till recent days and even now, most women of well-bred Muslim families in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, at least after they were married, preferred wearing saris, whether at home or outside. Thus, while some costume-forms, for example, the styles of caps, reveal the wearer’s religion, sari reveals her cultural identity. In India, a sari – expensive or economical, printed or plain, fine or coarse, hand-woven or machine-made, cotton, silk, or synthetic, is a woman’s first preference and quite often her weakness. As gift, no other item evokes such diverse feelings as does a sari. Gifted to the deity as part of ritual offerings it expresses devotion, to an old mother, reverence and gratitude, to a wife or friend, intimacy and love, to a daughter, affection and concern, to a house maid or domestic servant, generosity and satisfaction … Whatever a son or daughter first earns – a salary, or profit in a business, it often converts into a sari for his or her mother, and the mother’s pride and delight as often melts into tears, her wrinkled face glowing with the lustre of a thousand roses.
Not a mere component of attire, Sari is an integral part of India’s tradition and entire life. A ritual in temple or at home, celebrating a birth or marriage or mourning a death, sari has its own sanctity on all occasions. A hostess on an Indian aircraft or one hosting a dinner or lunch in a family dining hall, or a woman – politician, official, artist or whoever, representing India on any world forum, a sari is her essential wear, not as something prescribed by a code or convention but by her own choice for in it she believes reflects the essential India – her culture and ethos, besides the essence of her very being.
Among those thronging the venue of an Indian festival, in India or abroad, not merely resident or non-resident Indian women but also some of the foreign guests and participants are seen wearing saris. Non-resident Indian women, who till a few decades ago inclined to exclusively use the fashions of the land they lived in, are now looking back to their Indian identity and in sari they find its best source. Climatic constraints and working conditions apart, sari is fast emerging as one of the leading fashion-costumes on ramps across the world. Regional varieties apart, a designer sari – each with a design-distinction of its own, is now a new class of feminine wear.
Ordinarily an untailored length, sari is a textile structured with highly sophisticated and diversely conceived design vocabulary. It is truly a large canvas which is seen portraying narratives, myths, customs or whatever, or the themes and motifs in which reflect tastes of a people, peculiarities of a region or land, and indeed, the designer’s ingenuity. As enormous are the styles of wearing saris, something which is not the scope of a sewn costume. While good fitting is the merit of tailored clothes, which reveal a figure – frail or fat, in its exactness, sari is an imaginative wear which the wearer drapes to her fancy using it to add volume to her frail figure or relieve it of its awkward bulk. The sari is unique in managing both, the extra bulk and the odd-looking frailness. Its inherent grace and elegance apart, a sari breathes, at least to an Indian, a kind of divine aura, perhaps for being since times immemorial a component of the divine drapery.
Whatever its name, an unstitched length of textile was the wear of Indian women since as early as the Mauryan period (300–185 B.C.), if not before. Worn on body’s lower half, below the waist, the wear was known as antariya.
In Ajanta murals, this antariya, sari's predecessor, has a massive range, no two sharing a common designing pattern or colour scheme. As varied are the styles of wearing them. Saris in Gupta sculptures are equally elegant and fine but appear to have a relatively short length. Sari's length was same short in subsequent period. Sculpted figures, lone source to form an idea of the kind of costumes people used those days, reveal two styles of wearing a sari, one, formal, and other, casual, former revealing in the attire of divine figures and highly placed women, and latter, in common women folks’. The formal style was uniform all over. It pursued more or less the style of Mauryan antariya. It was put on below the navel but above the hip-line, and a textile, which Sanskrit texts name Katibandha, or a girdle, secured it. It reached foot-joint or at least ankle level and had a well-pleated front.
A sari in casual mode was fastened a little below the waist leaving hips’ upper edges uncovered and navel, fully exposed. Katibandha, or girdle, was hardly ever a feature of this casual wear. Knots with which the sari was secured on the waist were sleek, and pleats, which adorned the front, a few.
In most forms, sari's middle part was laid behind, and ends, drawn in front. Stylistic variations revealed in the manner of arranging these ends. In one of the more prevalent styles, the right end wrapped the right leg and the left, the left, and finally, carried from under them both were tucked at the back. Widths, wrapping the legs, terminated fluted at ankle or foot-joint level. Sometimes seams of these terminuses were left open to let legs reveal their charm. Different from the front where both legs were independently wrapped, sari’s middle part, laid on the back, covered them together. Obviously, it was either a semi-sewn sari like the contemporary dancers use, or had a concealed string into which its ends were tucked from inside.
In some cases, these ends were carried from outside separating one leg from the other also on the back side, like the contemporary Maharashtriyan langad dhoti. In yet another variation, one end was larger than the other. The smaller one was tucked at the back as usual but the larger one was pleated and then tucked, identical to what Tamil women do now days.
Sometimes the sari's widths, covering the legs, were turned upwards from knee-height generating a kachchha or tight loincloth-like look.
In yet another innovation, ends carried from under the groins were turned to their respective sides and tucked pleated with the precision of an ornamental lace. Though rarely, the sari was also wrapped skirting round both legs together in lungi style, but so tight that it only more sensuously revealed the wearer's figure.
Women in South wore it loosely skirted. The style prevalent in southwest region was different and quite exotic. A sari was put on with one-third kept to the left and two-third, to the right. Wrapping round each leg independently both ends were carried to the back and tucked. The right end’s extra length was turned rounding the right hip to the parting of legs on the front. Here it terminated left-inclined; its width tapered to right, and width’s edge, rippled waves-like.
Scholars have abstained from using the term sari for the type of wears Indian women used for centuries. They denoted these as ‘unstitched lengths of textiles’. Most scholars opine that sari, the term as well as the kind of textile, emerged around the late 19th century, not before. Such opinion is not tenable. Whatever the early Sanskrit denominations, the vernacular term ‘sari’, among others denoting Indian textiles, had evolved with specificity by the 14th century, if not before.
Apart their abundant use in writings of the 15th century poets like Kabir and Surdasa, terms such as chadara, kambaria – sheet, blanket…, were common man’s metaphors to reveal deeper meanings and contexts, besides denoting specific textiles. Kabir’s verse “Das Kabir jatan se orhi, jyon ki tyon dhar dini chandaria” (Kabir, the God’s slave, wore his chadara carefully and relinquished it spotless as it was given to him) is quite significant. By chadara – his metaphor for life, Kabir not only denotes a textile, or by ‘orhi’ its use – the way the life was lived, but also a profound philosophy. “Ye le apani lakuti kambaria, bahutahi nacha nachayo” (take back your loincloth and blanket, for them she has much exploited him), a verse by Surdasa, has the same symbolic width. Disgruntled Krishna of Surdasa threatens mother Yashoda to throw off her ‘lakuti’ and ‘kambaria’, as for them – symbolic of his ties with this world, he has been much used. Without any ambiguity the 15th century legendary Mirabai alludes to term ‘sari’ in her verse “kaho to kusamana sari rangayun, ya chhitakayun kesa” ( If He, her Lord, so desires, she shall have her linen sari dyed, or dishevel hair). In her absolute surrender, Mira is ready, if it pleases her Lord Krishna, to get her ‘kusamana’ sari dyed or dishevel her hair, that is, drape herself as ‘Yogini’ – female ascetic.
Such deeper metaphoric meanings that these terms reveal could evolve only after they had been in use since long and comprised part of common man’s diction.
Unfortunately, not many textiles from such early period have so far come to light. Whatever survive are art-works, cloth paintings, functional textiles like city or pilgrimage route maps or posters of itinerary bards, wall hangings, iconic representations of deities – printed, painted or embroidered, or those used for performing rituals. As for the actual unstitched wears, a fragment of a sari from the seventeenth century, in the National Museum, New Delhi, and a few others in other collections are their so far reported earliest examples. This paucity is not without reason. Influx of foreign costume styles that were reaching India with Islamic invaders during 15th-16th centuries was massive. Though the conflict in the common man's mind against invaders and everything related to them was unceasing, Indian princes had begun conceding their political superiority and styles of costumes by the 16th century itself. Obviously, not common man’s, worth storing could be the garments of nobility, and nobility’s formal and functional costumes were invariably sewn ones. Later, Akbar set a new model of court life, costumes and all. Eager to look like Mughals, Rajput nobility, by around early 17th century, adopted Mughal model of costumes and everything. However, in private moments and for performing rituals even nobility used saris and dhotis.
The 17th century sari piece, though just a fragment, not only has a sari’s decisive features distinguishing it from other textiles and revealing its regional identity, but richly crafted using expensive silk it also reveals its feudal links. Despite that, being relatively humble, a sari, even if from a royal wardrobe, was rarely an object to preserve. Sari’s, and even dhoti’s, more decisive presence reveals in miniatures, even those rendered at Akbar's official atelier, portraying dhoti and sari wearing men and women. Special care has been taken in portraying costumes of divine figures. Rama and Sita, in folios of the Ramayana, and Hayagriva and Shiva, in those of the Harivansha Purana, illustrated at Akbar's atelier, have been represented in dhotis and saris.
Thus, whatever the costumes at court or on formal occasions, royal wardrobes weren’t without richly produced saris. Weavers' families at Chanderi, Varanasi, Surat, Ahmedabad … claim that sari-weaving has been their hereditary profession for hundreds of years and that across generations they had been weavers for many ruling dynasties. Specimens of actually reported saris suggest that by early 17th century many weaving centres had developed their own regional forms of sari. Thus, however meagre its production, a sari was a weaver's pride, something he sought to excel in and discover his distinction.
As showcase paintings of artists like Raja Ravi Verma, sari had begun regaining its earlier status by around 1870s-1880s.
Though sewn Mughal fashions yet defined Rajputs’ formal costumes in the north, Hindu princesses in South, and rich, affluent and common women folks all over wore a sari with pride. Characters in myths and legends that Raja Ravi Verma and his contemporary artists illustrated were essentially in saris. This endowed sari with divine sanctity.
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