I have always loved sarees though I rarely wear them now. In my childhood, I remember draping a saree and tripping over as I did not know how to ‘pleat’ them. My love affair with sarees is like having a long-distance lover who visits sometimes, yet leaves me yearning for the memories shared. As I caressed the stack of sarees that I have either inherited or bought over the years, I was filled with a nostalgia for the time when I would see my mother and aunts all dressed up in fineries for a wedding or a puja. The south silks, Paithani, Benarsi tanchois, Ghaatcholas etc.
I feel that nothing epitomizes the beauty of an Indian woman more than the age-old saree. The traditions of this nine-yard drape have evolved with changing times, yet it undoubtedly is the most universal wear for women from virtually all parts of the country and is worn in various styles by different communities like the Bengali, Parsee, Gujarati etc.
The story of how the saree has evolved from just being wrapped around the body or tucked between the legs a la Maharashtrian style is an interesting one. It is said that as Bengali women were making their advent on the national scene, these torchbearers of modern Indian womanhood began to emulate English ladies in wearing petticoats under their sarees. Thus were born the famed lace-edged Bengali petticoats which still find pride of place in the trousseau of any Indian bride. The credit for it goes to the eldest sister in law of Nobel Laureate Ravindran Nath Tagore, Jnandandini who adapted European and Parsee style of dressing to a unique way of saree draping, with pleats and Pallu across the shoulder.
Similar is the history of blouses, as the more prude Victorian version with its high collars and long sleeves replaced daring and revealing traditional wear like the skimpy Kathiawadi choli or the mirror-adorned Gujarati or Rajasthani choli. Women from high society took to wearing lacy blouses over their saris like their European counterparts, and these came to be known as `Brahmo blouses’ since the wearers were mostly followers of the elite Brahmo Samaj, led again by the women of Thakurbari, the house of Tagores.
The flavor of the saree changes from place to place, with a different design and style depicting a particular region. There is the delicate thread work of chikan from Lucknow, which has become a favorite with the heroines of Hindi movies as was seen in detailed intricate designs worn by Deepika Padukone and Kareena Kapoor.
These creations of chikan have moved far from the by lanes of Lucknow `Chowk’ and now find a place in glittering socialite evenings, as Muzaffar Ali, Abu Jaani (the favorite designer of the Bachchan family) and others give them a new look and format. The Bachchan family, from the matriarch Jaya to granddaughter Navya Naveli, sport their creations on the fashion ramps, often.
Earlier chikankari was done either on cotton or chiffon, but now all sorts of materials are being experimented with and vibrant colors like mango, ruby red, and many others have been added to the traditional pastel shades.
Then there is the Paithani, which usually falls in the category of formal wear from Maharashtra (Lata Mangeshkar always comes adorned in Paithanis and it is said that she favours a particular loom where the designs of her sarees are never replicated); Ikats from Orissa (Indira Gandhi loved Ikats and brought them into the limelight); glittering Ghat Chola from Gujarat and Kanjeevarams from the south (Rekha has an enviable collection of them).
And who can forget the `Benarasis’ from Varanasi, which have a unique and unparalleled status in the history of sarees. They are much back in vogue since Anushka Sharma wore a flaming red Benarsee for her wedding. They have different weaves and materials like the kadhua, jangla, tussle, roops, tanchois, kora silk, etc. My all-time favorite is a ‘tanchoi ‘ as it falls effortlessly in regal grace and does not crinkle despite being worn for hours.
Traditionally woven in pure gold or silver, Benarsis have now been adapted to manageable budgets. They have somehow become synonymous with weddings and trousseau, not only in India but for the upper-class Pakistani weddings too, where a trousseau is considered incomplete without a shimmering Benarsee.
Simple Starched Demeanor
All this describes the heavy, or one could say more formal styles of a saree. But simple cotton sarees too have a chic and savvy quality about them and they can awe onlookers with their starched demeanor. The taants from Bengal, Maheshwaris (worn by women politicians like Smriti Irani, Sonia Gandhi etc), Kota, Maharashtrian checked Batiks with geometrical patterns, cool Venkatgiris and rich Chanderis from Madhya Pradesh, all have a winning quality about them.
Another house or style of saree that has no parallel is the Bandhani or tie and dye of Rajasthan and Gujarat. They tempt women with delicate hues of lemon, pink or apple green and simultaneously dazzle the senses with peacock blues, emerald greens and ruby reds. Dyed in every imaginable color, they are adorned with patterns adapted from folklore, nature and even day-to-day life.
Then there is the `Lahariya’, peculiar to the sand duned deserts. Its brightness compensates for the bland look of the desert and the beauty of womanhood shines forth in these dazzling creations. Everyone, from a simple housewife to the `Maharani’, appreciates them. In fact, Maharani Gayatri Devi gave a new lease of life to the Bandhanis by introducing them in the international arena.
There are also embroidered sarees which bear the mark of a particular region and the expertise of its talented craftsmen. The well-known examples of this craft are zari, kalamkari, zardosi, Kashmiri embroidery, gota work etc which add a touch of elegance and sophistication to ordinary chiffon or crepe. French knots and Swiss lace, when added to a saree, accentuate its charm.
Then there are pure and simple crepes and chiffons (one still remembers the midnight blue adorned Sridevi in Mr India), polyesters and silks in contrasting or universal colours. The chiffon as a saree material was brought in vogue by the Maharani of Cooch Behar, Indira Devi whose tradition was followed by her daughter, Maharani Gayatri Devi who was ranked amongst the most beautiful women in the world.
Recently Priyanka Chopra chose to bedazzle in a net saree at the photoshoot for her American brother-in-law’s wedding.
Discussions have been going on as to whether sarees might become extinct like the kimonos of Japan. But can one really ever imagine this? True they have been traded in for the more comfortable salwar kameez or western jeans by the average Indian women in daily wear. Yet when it comes to festivals or formal get-togethers, a woman looks forward to dressing up in a saree as it brings forth her sensuality. The saree has the distinct characteristic of either camouflaging excess weight or filling up, depending on the structure of the wearer. Can an Indian wedding be complete without the brocades, the jewellery that would look out of place unless worn with a similarly dazzling saree?
Looking at the youth of today, be it in India or overseas, one gets the feeling that girls feel bonded to their roots when they wear this traditional wear which is part of the identity of their culture.
I hope to continue with my long-distance affair with sarees as I currently live in USA.
But it sure is a blissful companionship whenever we are together.
The views expressed are the author’s own.