Saris > Woman's Globally Venerated Distinction
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
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
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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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.
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
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.
India's freedom movement, and national consciousness which it
inspired, further strengthened this adherence to sari.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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
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
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
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.
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.
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