Why the story of the sari is as complex as its pleats

What women wear can be and has been the subject of intense debate and discussion in the world. Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee might have now apologised for his remark invoking shame on the women who cannot tie a sari, but that was not before he tied himself up in a knot with his off-the-cuff comment.

But there are as many nuances to this conversation as there are pleats in a sari, because describing something “authentically” Indian — be it food, custom, lifestyle or attire — is a sure fire way of sidelining at least some regions, social classes or ethnicities. Sari — a rectangular piece of unstitched cloth — has been draped in hundreds of styles over hundreds of years in the parts of Indian subcontinent, differently by different communities and social echelons, due to its immense adaptiveness and suitability to the land’s climate and aesthetics. A glance into the sari’s uneven origins, colonial-era influences and confluent meanings encourages wearers to go beyond its broadstroke projection as a ‘timeless’ marker of pan-Indian-womanhood and identify the historical forces that shaped the meanings associated with sari as we know it.

Ancestors of the single-piece drape

Both the dhoti and the sari owe their existence to common ancestors. “For a long time, the ancient Indian men and women just wore the antariya (lower garment) and uttariya (upper garment) — both rectangular pieces of cloth which were draped in various styles,” says fashion historian Toolika Gupta, adding, “So some parts in the country just kept that but as early as in the BCs while others — those which came in frequent contact with foreigners — started changing”.

An oft noted mention of sari comes from a sixteenth century Portuguese traveler to India. “The women wear white garments of very thin cotton or silk bright color, five yards long, one part of which is girt round their below and the other part on their shoulder across their breasts in such a way that one arm and shoulder remains uncovered,” the traveler noted.

Historically, the Indian subcontinent was never a wholesome whole, but a multitude of kingdoms and cultures with dressing customs that bore only loose correlations to one another. “There are parts of the country where people were not largely wearing the sari, for example in Rajasthan where there was the lehenga, choli and odhani — not the sari. Sari was largely worn in Bengal and all over south. But even here, in many cases, the upper part and the lower part are different,” explains Gupta. This is true of Kerala’s Mundu Veshti and Assam’s Mekhela chador, for instance.

“It’s difficult to ascertain historically the sari’s evolution as a single-piece drape, though in many parts of India (Kerala, 6 northeast states, Rajasthan and Gujarat) its possible preceding versions of two or three piece drapes continue to be worn,” writes Rta Kapur Chishti, author, “Saris – Tradition & Beyond”.

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