The Relevance of Saris
Is sari (or saree), the traditional Indian woman’s dress, six yards of sensuousness or six yards of shackles to bind them into a stereotyped cultural image?
It is exotic; it is sensuous, seductive and feminine; it is traditional. But why is it only women’s traditional dresses are imbued with this significance? Probably women, because of their child-bearing and rearing role, embody the continuation of culture. Women are more symbolic. Men can transgress them and wear more comfortable dresses. Is sari, the traditional Indian woman’s dress, six yards of sensuousness or six yards of shackles to bind them into a stereotyped cultural image?
Painting by Raja Ravi Varma depicting several traditional styles; Image via Wikipedia
Kanchipuram Silk Saree: Image via http://www.sareeworld.com/gallery/kanchipuramsaree.aspx
Want to learn how to wear a saree? Watch the video:
For today’s woman, the answer would depend on the occasion. For an evening or a late night party or a wedding , saris — luxurious chiffon or a silk georgette in soft hues or flaming colors — would be great. Women may set the evening ablaze with these one-piece drapes. But a woman hopping into a crowded moving bus to go to college or office — an everyday scenario in any typical Indian city — would definitely prefer a dress offering better mobility. A study on “South Asian Women in the Workplace” by the Harvard Business School says that most companies considered a traditionally dressed women as passive and submissive, unambitious and unassertive, despite being technically adept. A saree could thus be an anachronism in a highly competitive global work environment.
That said, we can glorify the enchanting six yards of fabric as a synonym for elegance, beauty and style. Sari is as old as the civilization of India. Cotton was grown and woven into fabric in India five thousand years ago. There are many sculptures of Graeco-Indian Gandharan civilization which show a variety of different sari draping styles. Today, the sari is worn by women in the Indian sub-continent, from Nepal to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Of all the garments yet invented by mankind, the sari did most to flatter the wearer. If you were stout, or bowlegged, or thick-waisted, nothing concealed those handicaps of nature better than the sari. Always in style, it is a forgiving garment that conceals a woman’s imperfections and enhances her assets. As an embodiment of feminine mystique, it entices by revealing just enough to keep you guessing; yet, probably by its association with virtuous womanhood, manages to stay away from giving a come-hither look. Even today for a young girl, draping a sari for the first time is the ultimate coming-of-age experience.
A sari is a very long strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine metres in length, which can be draped in various styles. The sari is first wound around the waist, before being pleated seven or eight times at the centre and tucked into the waistband. The remaining sari, called the pallu is then pleated again and draped across the left shoulder to fall gracefully behind. The sari is usually worn over a petticoat, with a blouse known as a choli forming the upper garment, baring the midriff. The choli has short sleeves and a low neck and as such is particularly well-suited for wear in the sultry South Asian summers. Cholis may be “backless” or of a halter neck style.
Each region of India has its own distinct style of wearing a sari. In Maharashtra, women wear the nine yard sari which is passed through the legs and tucked in at the back. This or similar kind of parting-at-the-legs style, somewhat trouser-like, is usually worn by working women, as it doesn’t impede movement. In Gujarat, the pallu comes from the back, and drapes across the front over the right shoulder. In Tamil Nadu, Brahmin ladies wear a nine-yard madisaar-style sari with no petticoat, with ‘pinkosavam’, or pleated rosette, at the back of the waist. Particularly beautiful is the sari worm by women in the Kodagu district of Karnataka. In this style, the pleats are created in the rear, instead of the front. The loose end of the sari is draped back-to-front over the right shoulder, and is pinned to the rest of the sari.
While the sari lives on in villages and cities and is worn by a majority of older women, young urban women have restricted it to formal occasions only. Young innovative designers in India, like Rohit Bal, J.J. Valaya, Rina Dhaka, Suneet Varma, Tarun Tahiliani, Sandip Khosla and Ritu Kumar have now given it a fresh life and a new twist for the new generation. These designers have revitalized the sari, adding heavily embroidered blouses to plain saris, or re-styling the pallu to expose the bust. There are zip-on saris for girls who may have trouble handling all those pleats!
Styling a sari with tassled patchwork, applique, mirror work, Bengali kantha-work, Kalamkari paint-work and zardozi have provided employment to rural weavers and artisans. As Indians have spread around the world, they have taken the sari with them. Saris are a common sight in London, Johannesburg, Trinidad, Toronto, Hong Kong and Singapore. In fact, saris are big business in countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan which produce bolts of synthetics like chiffon, satin and nylon which are bought in sixyard lengths by Indians as saris.