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Nine Yards of Eternity

November 2003
Nine Yards of Eternity

Unlike the Japanese kimono, the Indian Sari appears immortal.


Nothing epitomizes the beauty of an Indian woman more than the age-old Sari. 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 Sari 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 Saris. Thus were born the famed lace-edged Bengali petticoats which still find pride of place in the trousseau of any Indian bride.

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.

Regional Flavors

The flavor of the Sari 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 is becoming a favorite with the heroines of Hindi movies as was seen in Mohabbatein and KKKG. 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. Earlier chikan 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 favors a particular loom where the designs of her Saris 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 Saris? Traditionally woven in pure gold or silver, they have now been adapted even to middle class budgets and have become synonymous with weddings. The list is endless.

Simple Starched Demeanor

All this describes the heavy, or one could say more formal styles of Saris. But simple cotton Saris 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 Priyanka and Sonia Gandhi), Kota, Maharashtrian checked batiks with geometrical patterns, cool Venkatgiris and rich chanderis from Varanasi -- all have a winning quality about them. Dyed in every imaginable color, they are adorned with patterns adapted from folklore, nature and even day-to-day life. Interestingly, the patterns of a Sari can never be counted ensuring that they can never become ?stale'.

Another house or style of Sari that has no parallel is the bandhani or tie & 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. 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 has given a new lease of life to the bandhanis as she has introduced them in the international arena.

There are also embroidered Saris 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 an ordinary chiffon or crepe. French knots and Swiss lace, when added to a Sari, 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 colors.

Discussions have been going on as to whether Saris 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 Sari as it brings forth her sensuality. The Sari 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 Sari?

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.

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