Ways with a sari

Ways with a sari

There are 108 ways to drape a sari, and Kapur Chishti will teach them all if you
are game for it. Hema Vijay speaks to the connoisseur of the sari culture in India

Like the zero, the sari is yet another testimony to the ingenuity of the Indian mind. No other culture can claim to have morphed unstitched flowing fabric into such varied styles and functionalities. This creative liberty goes back several centuries into the past.

After all, ages before fashion entered the scene, ancient Indian women had evolved myriad draping styles ranging from decorative genres at one end of the spectrum to the kach-cham style (the nine-yard Tamil Brahmin sari that is tucked around legs to create a trouser-overlaid-by-gown effect).

Functionality

Incidentally, the kach-cham empowered Tamil Brahmins to comfortably swing their legs and dance an acrobatic thillana or leap over the paddy field bunds maintained by the family. In fact, so did the women of Jhansi, whose draping style let them mount horses, fight wars and swim across rivers.

But now, as a functional garment, sari is fast becoming history. Then again, it might yet survive, and with much of its flowing glory intact, if RTA Kapur Chishti has her way.

Someone who has travelled across 15 states of the country over 12 years and spoken to thousands of weavers and elderly village women to collate information on motifs, weaves and draping styles of the garment, Chishti had shot into fame with the Saris of India volumes (which she co-authored and edited), besides her Handcrafted Indian Textiles-Tradition and Beyond.

She is the founder of the Sari School, the now famous New Delhi venture, which organises workshops and private classes for those who wish to learn more about the sari’s possibilities and make it more relevant to their lives today.

Earlier, Chishti collaborated with DakshaSheth Dance Company to develop the production titled Sari, which is a choreographed tribute to the process of hand spinning raw material into woven, unstitched garment. Chishti also happens to be the brain behind the Taanbaan label, famous for its indigenous organic cottons and low-twist silks from hand-spun yarns on the traditional charkha, and subsequently handwoven to exquisite texture.

Chishti’s concerns extend beyond the sari as a garment. She holds the country’s textile heritage legacy as well as our tradition of hand-spinning to be entwined in its charm, to the extent that she equates the creativity and calculation involved in weaving a beautifully patterned sari to the ‘ingenuity of a mathematical genius’.

She also reckons that embroidery, with due respect for its intricacy, is emerging as a threat to innate patterning through hand weaving. “Without these traditional weavers, the saris will lose much of their charm. With machine spinning, only the first 400 metres of the fibre can be reeled, the remainder of the cocoon can be handspun only. This part of the cocoon happens to be the textured variety, which goes on to create wonderful fabric.

Moreover, with hand spinning, no part of the cocoon gets thrown away. Hand spinning makes sense in more ways than one,” points out Chishti, who supports hand-spinning weavers in seven states — Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Bengal, Assam and Uttar Pradesh, helping these weavers set up units and procuring from them.

Beyond tradition

“Sari styles typify the aesthetics of the region, rather than the community,” Chishti muses. “Indian weaving traditions pack in infinite diversity and regional variations, from the lightweight gold and cream weaves of Kerala to the colourful weaves in the north-east,” she points out.

Unlike the kimono or the salwar kameez, a sari is not a structured garment. Apparently, the current urban sari style that we sport across the country was evolved by the Parsis, and made popular by Gyanodanandini, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law. “Sari is not a garment carved in stone and set in time... there is no one type of sari.

The garment morphs in diverse weaves, patterns, and drapes from region to region, reflecting the aesthetics and climatic conditions of the region. But within the community, the only variation you would find in their sari repertoire would be in terms of zari, embroidery or other overlay work,” elaborates Chishti, during her recent visit to the beautiful and culturally poignant campus of Chennai’s Kalakshetra Foundation for a lecture-demonstration workshop, Saris: Tradition and Beyond.

Incidentally, Chishti has been helping with the Kalakshetra Museum and the preservation of the Rukmini Devi Sari legacy. The traditional sari style is just a take-off point for Chishti’s sari experiments. For instance, at the Kalakshetra workshop, Chishti was clad in a sari style that was a confluence of Orissa and Andhra styles, with the folds of the sari creating a flowing and pleated trouser effect.

“You don’t have to wear a sari like a cloak. The style depends on how much functionality you need. Traditional versions of draping can be simplified. Some of the stages in traditional draping are simply not needed and can be done away with, but would still serve functionality just as well. For a style to survive, it has to be feasible and convenient. I like people to discover their own idioms,” she says.

The only draping mantra that Chishti holds sacrosanct is in resolutely keeping away from stitches and pins. “Pins tear them sooner or later, and stitches negate the spirit of the textile,” she adds.

So, what prompted the sari school, where she teachers women to transform  saris into swirling skirts, palazzo pants, and other different styles to cater to diverse occasions and functionalities, all without needle and thread or even pins? “We can’t give up on saris... it is a powerful legacy,” begins Chishti. She concedes that sari-wearing is substantially alive in south India, though Kerala women have understandably given up on mundu veshtis.

Lessons in style

At her sari school, Chishti teaches an assortment of draping styles, and this includes classical ones too, such as the Boggli Posi Kattukodam from Karnataka, the Tamil Iyengar-style kach-cham (both of which require a nine-yard sari), Kerala’s Mohiniattam style, Dhokna Jalpaiguri from West Bengal, the Nadia style and the Odissi style, to name a few. In fact, if you are game for it, Chishti would happily teach you 108 distinct regional styles.

“You would be surprised to see the women who take up these courses — students, designers, journalists, professionals. They all troop in, trying to fit sari into their professional lives, rather than waiting for an occasion to wear it. That is because they know that no other outfit sets off the Indian woman’s physique as well as the sari does. The Indian woman’s structure is like that.”

So the sari, which has an incredible ancient origin dating back to at least 500-800 years back, might just surprise us all and survive to have a versatile, vibrant and omnipresent future.

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