The sari is born

With indisputable roots in the subcontinent, the sari becomes a powerful cultural signifier. Gopika Nath stitches together a yards-long saga of the unstitched cloth

A quasi Maharashtrian-style sari.

In the recent past, wearing a sari has elicited responses that made me question the very notion of the garment. ‘Why I don it’ and ‘what this means for me’ resulted in an exploration of the historical and cultural importance of this unique, unstitched costume synonymous with the Indian subcontinent.

As a designer of textiles, I cut my professional teeth conceiving patterns for the sari. It was once my canvas, where painting them unparalleled everything else I designed. There was a full-length mirror in my studio so that every finished sari, removed from the frame, could be draped to evaluate how it looked when worn. When I graduated from designing to making textile art, it was the graciousness of the sari in moulding itself to any form and embellishment that led me to painting with the needle — which was the closest I could get to the irreplaceable fluidity of colours, my brush created on those six yards.

Infused influences

The sari is probably as ancient as the making of cloth itself. While Gandhara sculptures and friezes, of Hellenistic inspiration, show men and women wearing flowing robes, where the women carry a long length of fabric across the shoulders from the back, pulled down, around the hips, almost like a modern-day sari palla would be worn. However, suggestions of Greek influence remain untenable, for the sari’s lineage can be traced much earlier, to the Indus Valley Civilisation.

With indisputable roots in the subcontinent, the sari becomes a powerful cultural signifier “laden with unwritten language: the way you tie it, the length, the fabric, the way the pallu is draped over one’s shoulder, the under blouse, the accessories, the posture, is a grand statement, and finessing that is crucial,” elaborates Jessica Frazier, a scholar of Hindu studies.

Early Sanskrit Literature carries references to the garment with texts such as Kadambari (7th century CE) and the epic poem Silappadhikaram (100 to 300 CE), describing women in exquisite drapery. In the Mahabharata, during Draupadi’s vastraharan, emblematic of the violation of dharma, disrobing of a woman’s self-respect and her faith; her seamless garment became endless with the grace of divine intervention. Similarly, a statue of a sari-clad Kannagi, the heroine of Silappadhikaram, worshipped as Kannaki Amman in Kerala, was erected in Chennai in 1968, removed and re-instated because of protests stating that she was ‘an epic heroine… symbolising Tamil womanhood and Tamils’ zest for justice’.

More recently, the sari became a marker of power and politics in a fictional biography, entitled The Red Sari. Loosely based on the life of Sonia Gandhi — the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, who is never seen in anything but a sari — the book notates her life and rise to power. Her mother-in-law and late prime minister Indira Gandhi also dressed only in saris.

No longer worn only by Indian women, attired in one abroad, can carry racist implications. One protesting non-Indian blogger writes: “Every single day in the geopolitical West, brown women are glared at, harassed and even assaulted for daring to wear traditional garb out in public. Whether it’s a sari, a kurta, a hijab or a salwar kameez, these items of clothing code us as Other, and for our own protection and self-preservation, many desi women opt out of making inadvertent political statements by dressing in their own clothes. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s Electoral College win, even a jewelled bindi on my forehead has gone from being an accessory I wear proudly to making me feel like a walking target.”

The sari as we know it today, evolved from costumes belonging to the Vedic and post-Vedic period which comprised a three-piece ensemble or poshak. Fashioned for men and women alike, these articles of clothing were made of rectangular pieces of beautifully crafted, unsewn textiles. The antariya, which was passed through legs, covering them loosely and then flowing into long ankle-length, decorative pleats in front of the legs, evolved into the skirt, or ghagra/lehnga. The uttariya, a mantle, covering the upper part of the body, worn over shoulders or head, also draped across the back, resting on shoulders, to fall freely on the forearms, became the dupatta.

Two become one

Sometimes women sported two uttariyas, one on the head, and the other across the arms. They didn’t cover their breasts, but married women wore a chest-band, known as stanmasuka or stanapatta, similar to the mammillare worn by Roman women, and this developed into the choli or sari blouse.

The uttariya and antariya merged to form the single unstitched vestment known as the sari. This cloth can be wrapped in myriad ways, of which 80 have been recorded. Most commonly, the nivi style is tied around the waist with the loose end of the fabric worn over the shoulder, baring the midriff. Sari, the generic term used for the unstitched garment worn across the subcontinent, is also referred to as the pudvai, lugad, sardhi, xari, kapta, fariya and more. It varies in length from five-and-a-half yards to nine, and two to four feet in width.

Sculptures display the antariya as tied below the navel, emphasising the curves of the female form. In keeping with ancient traditions according to Natya Shastra, which considered the umbilicus of the Supreme Being to be the source of life and creativity, the navel was to be left unfettered by clothing. Later texts such as the Dharmasastras advocated that women should be dressed so that the bellybutton is never visible. Refashioned from its earlier avatars to represent apparel that was discreet and demure — emerging into a restricting stereotype, “a bunch of sari-clad women” wasn’t a statement of their sensuality nor considered a compliment.

Though worn throughout the subcontinent, including Nepal and Sri Lanka, it was post-Independence, when Pakistan disowned the sari for being unpatriotic, that it became unequivocally an ‘Indian’ dress — a symbol of national unity. This unstitched clothing derives its name from the Sanskrit word ‘shati’, meaning ‘strip of cloth’, and from shadi or sadi in Pali. Evolving over time, to become the sari of contemporary usage; ever-changing, it continues to revision itself.

Vidya Balan, the actor, sees it as being “versatile” and the “sexiest garment ever”, with Kajol adding that “everything is covered, yet a peep of an ankle can be a turn on…”

Indicative of its definitive associations, Indra Nooyi, living and working in the US, has said, “I would not flaunt my Indianess by wearing a sari to work everyday, because it distracts from the job.”

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The sari is born

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