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Saris > Woman's Globally Venerated Distinction

The 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 a 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 luster 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. Illustration

During Early Days 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 color 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. Evolution Of Term 'Sari' 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.

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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.

Early Reported Saris And Other Unstitched Wears 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 centers had developed their own regional forms of sari. Thus, however meager its production, a sari was a weaver's pride, something he sought to excel in and discover his distinction. Sari: Indian Woman's New Ideal 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. Illustration India's freedom movement, and national consciousness which it inspired, further strengthened this adherence to sari. Illustration. A valiant sari-wearing Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, and her entire team of female warriors, all in saris, dashing into columns of mighty British army and shaking it with terror, were women's new ideals.

Illustration  Participation of Indian women in freedom movement was massive. Male attire ranged from unstitched dhoti to stitched kurta-pajama . but sari was women participants' exclusive wear.

During the second decade of the 20th century Mahatma Gandhi shifted the movement from drawing rooms and barrooms to streets and public squares. His call for 'swadeshi', hand-spun and hand-woven, echoed alike across a farmer's hut, a rich man's haveli and a prince's palace. Now columns of women demonstrators, in hand-spun and hand-woven saris, often flooded streets and roads. They emerged as new role models of Indian women, rich or poor. A token of their commitment, the majority of Indian women wore at least a sari, sometimes hand-spun and hand-woven. Influenced by the Freedom Movement or portraying what was true to life those days, most painters, from around 1880 to 1940, Rabindra Nath Tagore and his brothers, Nand Lal Bose, Hemendra Nath Mazumdar, Basant Kumar Ganguly, Amrita Sher-Gil among others, rendered all their women - divine, distinguished or common, in saris.

Links of many of them with the Freedom Movement, as of Nand Lal Bose who even rendered posters for the 1930 Haripura Session of Indian National Congress, are well known, but their sari-wearing image of woman was not born of an ideology. It was simply the truth of the day transformed. Camera pictures, too, affirm that the ladies facing camera preferred sari for a wear. However, it was Indian cinema that led sari to its all time heights of popularity. With a wide range of themes and characters from all faiths, traditions, backgrounds and regions, Indian cinema investigated in details all prevalent styles of sari, reproduced them on the screen and innovated many new.

The Sari Now The independent India dawned with hundreds of forms of sari, ethnic as well as modern, which can hardly be the scope of an essay like this. Today, sari comprises over 30% of total textile production in India. Large textile mills apart, the number of sari-manufacturing centers is in hundreds and so the saris' innumerable types which the kind of fabric, weaving technique, methods of dying, printing or embellishing, designing patterns, kind of motifs, color scheme . define. Besides polyester yarn, silk and cotton are a sari's principal fibers as also its initial basis of classification. A tribal or village woman's coarse cotton lengths, or Dacca's fine muslins, all are to a commoner just cotton saris. These are rather the style of prints, printed motifs, modes of dying, yarn's type, or a blend of some other fabric that distinguish one cotton sari from the other. As for example, extra twisted or double threads intercepting normal weaves and creating a meshed surface denote a Kota sari.

A Gadwal
sari is one with silk borders and unbleached cotton field, and sometimes weaved-in temple motifs in end-piece. Alike, a Paithani sari comprises profusely zari-patterned muslin, and sometimes extra silk threads are used for creating details in zari patterns adorning the sari's end-piece.

Silk Saris It is different with silk. The kind of silk, more so one of the wild silks, is the foremost basis of a sari's classification. Its patterning and palette apart, a sari, manufactured using Assam's gorgeous Munga, a wild silk with natural golden color and great lustre, is known as Munga sari  A sari made of Raigarh's Kosa, another class of wild silk, is a Kosa sari, and one made of Tasar, a relatively finer wild silk, is just a Tussar sari. A traditional Kosa sari, a tougher fiber with Munga-like luster and golden hue, a graceful wear especially for those in public life, has plain or 'butidar' (covered with 'buti' motifs) field, deep colored longitudinal stripes, with or without temple motifs comprising borders and a patterned end-piece.

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Tussar, two-third of which Bihar alone produces, is a reeled silk. Now independent saris are also manufactured, Tussar's usual weaving was in the forms of bolts or 'thans' out of which a length, as required for a sari, was cut and sold. Besides pure Tussar saris, Tussar-cotton-mixed saris are also quite popular. A sari, known as Mukta, literally meaning free, is another class of Tussar saris. Sometimes the moth punches the cocoon and escapes leaving behind the fibres' broken pieces usable only when spun. Mukta is a sari made of such spun fiber. A sari made of chiffon, a diaphanous filmy fabric processed out of highly sophisticated silk, is also named after its fiber - a chiffon sari. Chiffon is a fabric with plain weave rendered using extremely fine twisted single threads, usually 43 per centimeter for warp and 43 for weft.

Saris made of chiffon-like fine crepe silk are also known as crepe silk saris. Even those, made of silk's regional varieties such as Mysore, Bangalore, Bengal or South . are ordinarily known as Mysore silk sari etc. etc.

Printed Saris Cotton or silk
Many saris seek their distinction in printing techniques and motifs that they use. Mill-printed saris apart, hundreds of known varieties of saris are manually printed using any of block-print, tie-dye, batik, resist and controlled dye, or free-hand techniques. Some of the better known centers of block-printing, India's most ancient art prevalent since Indus days, are Sanganer, Bhairogarh, Bagh, Bagru, Farukhabad, Fatehpur, Allahabad, Anjar, Deesa, Dhamadka, Ahmedabad among others. Inherited from family or local tradition, each of these centers has its own stylistic distinction, motifs, patterns, choice of colors. Bandhani, or tie-dye, another early technique of textile coloring and as widely practiced, uses knots to render some specific areas dye resistant, that is, when a dye is applied in general, it is obstructed from penetrating the areas which the knots cover. In some cases the tie-dye spots are left totally undyed, the white dots themselves creating a design. In other cases, just two contrasting colors, one for the field and other for borders, end-piece etc., are used. Under another scheme tie-dye spots are multi-colored and ground, monochromic. Sometimes the end-pieces and borders are made of long stripes which tie-knots create, and at other times, these stripes are rendered waving across the whole length, creating the so well known 'lahariyas' - waving stripes.

A sari, with design-patterns rendered free-hand using kalam - pen, or an identical instrument to apply dye and wax, is known as a kalamkari sari. Kalamkari was initially the art of Gujarat, which subsequently the Andhra dyers carried with them, and now Andhra is its better known center. Saris, dyed using batik method, a technique of wax-based controlled dying, were immensely popular around two decades ago but now batik saris are little preferred.

Dying And Weaving Ikat, a rare art requiring immeasurable skill, involves resist dying and intricate weaving. In ikat, parts of warp and weft threads, required to accomplish pre-meditated designs, usually simple or complex geometric motifs, floral and vegetal patterns, dancing females, elephants, parrots etc., are dyed before weaving using resist dye technique. In single ikat, the technique popular in Gujarat, Andhra and Orissa, warp and weft threads weave independent motifs but juxtaposed they are required to create an over all design in perfect harmony. Sometimes, as in a modern Vichitrapuri sari from Orissa, ikat dying is used just to create checks, meshes or stripes, not intricate motifs. A traditional Vichitrapuri sari effectuated these features by simple warp and weft weaving. Ikat in Khadi weaving is used for creating zigzag designs. In double ikat, the technique of the world-famed patola sari, the dyed parts of the warps and wefts jointly create a pre-meditated motif. A standard patola design is rendered with warps and wefts dyed in five colors. Once the Gujarat's prestigious art, patola is now confined to just one town and weavers' one family or two. Pochampalli, an Andhra version of patola, renders large and bold patterns using bright colors. Its range of patterns includes also modern abstractionistic and geometric motifs, not seen in Gujarat's patola saris.

Jamdani And Brocaded Saris Unlike ikat, in Jamdani and brocaded saris, almost identical techniques, supplementary weft threads, cotton, silk or metallic, are used for effectuating patterns. Bengal's Jamdani, the best in its class, usually a cotton sari but also silk, is a fabric with high thread count. It uses discontinuous supplementary weft threads, silk in silk, and cotton in cotton, for rendering patterns, usually birds, vines, flower-motifs, geometric designs, all angularly inclined. Usually the patterns are laid with thicker and colored wefts. On the contrary, Jamdani from Tanda, in Uttar Pradesh, traditionally uses white patterning on white ground. Nilambari, a sari with black or dark blue field and bright butis, and Tangail, with small butis rendered diagonally all over the field, are other popular classes of Jamdani saris.

Brocading
, a technique of effectuating patterns by using supplementary weft threads - silk or zari, continuous or discontinuous, is an outstanding feature of Banarasi saris, though also used in a wide range of other saris like Bomkai, Venkatgiri, Maheshwari, Chanderi, Mysore, Paithani, Kanchivaram etc., each the pride of a woman's wardrobe. Not like Banarasi saris of which brocade is the prime aesthetic, these saris use brocading just as a technique to create patterns and designs seeking their distinction in their color-schemes, style of patterning, types of motifs and their other regional characteristics. For example, on its diaphanous monochrome field a Chanderi sari blends with zari a good quantity of silk to execute with miniatures-like precision its delicate patterns ranging from floral designs to human and animal figures. Contrarily, the profusion of patterning, rendered on a lustrous silk length of high counts, defines Banaras brocade. Some of the Banarasi saris - Tanchoi, Abrawan, Amru, Kincab among others, produced for marriage-like occasions, have their beauty in the kind of brocade irrespective of anything else. Woven with finest silk warps and zari wefts Abrawan brocade gives a metallic sheen. In a Kincab sari zari patterning is so densely rendered that it often completely covers the underlying silk cloth. Amru brocade is a magic of silks colored in contrast. A Shikargah brocade, with hunting scenes brocaded all over, outstands all in its figural beauty.

Chikankari, Zardozi, Kantha, Baluchari And Others Numerous regional styles, Dharmavaram, Rochampalli, Kali Chandrakala, Korasani, Gopalpuri, Sambhalpuri, Ganga-Jamuni, Lavangaphula, Krishnagujari, Ramakathi, Rudrakathi, Pitambara among others, are largely different combinations of brocade, local styles of motifs, arrangement of field, borders and end-pieces, color schemes, types of narratives that they portray and the like. Some, such as Baluchari, a multi-warp and multi-weft figured textile, with elaborate borders and end-pieces created in untwisted silk threads in colours that mutually contrast, are simply amazing in their beauty.

Baluchari's end-piece, designed with a row of floral kalga, a kind of large buti, contained within an as beautifully conceived rectangle, is a feature not seen in any other class of saris. As much magnificent are some classes of embroidered saris, Lucknow chikan, embroidery with white thread invariably on light field, zardozi, embroidery with gold or silver thread usually on silks, and kantha, embroidery rendered in simple running stitch with threads in contrasting colours on a natural coloured base rendering figures of animals, foliage and other motifs from around.

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Article by Sri P. C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet
For Further Reading: Ritu Kumar : Costumes and Textiles of Royal India Martand Singh (ed.) : Tradition and Beyond : Handcrafted Indian Textiles Saris of India : Bihar and West Bengal Kamala S. Dongerkery : The Indian Sari G. S. Ghurye : Indian Costume Motichandra : Bhartiya Vesha Bhusha Indian Costumes and Textiles J. Forbes Watson : The Textile Manufactures and Costumes of India Linda Linton : The Sari Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller : The Sari John Gillow and Nicholas Bernard : Traditional Indian Textiles Vandana Bhandari : Costumes, Textiles and Jewellery of India : Traditions in Rajasthan J. B. Bhushan : Costumes and Textiles of India A. Buhler and E. Fischer : The Patola of Gujarat Dyed Fabrics. Read more
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