The world of modern fashion and dressing has evolved through the centuries much as humankind has. There are many costumes and styles of dressing that define countries and regions of the world by their unique appearance, sheer range of material, designs and prints.
But none occupies the premier position as the sari or saree, which is the national costume of India; its influence spreads not only to every corner of the country but its popularity has spawned related dressing styles all over South East Asia.
The Indian Saree
The term “sari” is a derivative of the Sanskrit word “sati” or “sadi” in Prakrit, which means ‘a strip of cloth. In later usage, it became adopted as sari or saree in Hindi. The Jatakas or ancient Buddhist Jain literature, while describing the attire of women, uses the word “sattika”. In ancient India, the sari was probably a long piece of cloth wrapped around the female body, especially the upper and lower portions, as a means of modest clothing to prevent exposure. The blouse, or the upper garment, also referred to as “choli” or “ravikai” was a shorter version of a vest with sleeves, a low neck in front and back fastened by buttons or tied into a knot and stopping above the navel. This garment was probably not used in the earlier days; as we see from paintings, drawings and sketches of women, most of the ancient women went blouse-less, preferring to draw the saree around the midriff, over the shoulders and back to cover themselves modestly.
The sari, in the modern era, is a typical long piece of cloth, stretching to five and a half meters or six yards in length with an average height of 44 inches. The top, inner portion of the fabric may be bare without any design or pattern while the outer portion or the part which is draped around the waist and over the left shoulder, called the “pallav” or the “pallu” usually contains a motif, embellished borders or designs in fabric, embroidered patches or metallic adornments. There are many ways to drape a saree but the usual method adopted is the one where it is worn over a petticoat or a loose skirt beginning at the waist and falling down to the ankles. The petticoat is referred to as ‘lehenga’ in north India, as ‘pavadai’ in the south, ‘ghagra’ in the west and as ‘shaya’ in eastern India.
History and origin of the sari
The earliest depiction of the sari as an Indian garment dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization that flourished in the Indian subcontinent from 2800-1800 BC. Both men and women draped themselves in long, flowing cloth akin to a sari. Ancient poems, epics and writings like Banabhatt’s Kadambari and the Tamil Silappadhikaram described women draped in exquisite, hand-woven saris. The ancient Indian treatise, the Natya Shastra, while providing details on ancient dance styles and costumes, describes the tradition of wearing the costume draped in swirling folds around the body leaving the midriff, in particular the navel, exposed. As the human body takes on the form of the Supreme Being where the navel is the source of creativity and life, the midriff is left exposed.
The Gandhara, Gupta and Mathura schools of art and sculpture from the 1st to the 6th century AD depict dancers and goddesses wearing the ‘fishtail’, a dhoti wrap kind of garment that covered the legs and then flowed in front of the legs in a decorative and long drape, knotted at the waist. The upper body is left uncovered without a choli or bodice.
Cholis or the short blouse worn under the sari probably evolved as a form of clothing in the 10th century AD, when women in royalty, started to appear in public, performing roles as rulers and administrators. The earliest cholis simply covered the front portion of the chest leaving the back exposed or fastened with strings; today, these back-less blouses are not only a modern trend but also depict tribal and village costumes worn by women of several states in north India.
The earliest works of Kalidasa mention the garments worn by women as a ‘dhoti’ or ‘sarong’ covering the lower body from waist downwards, combined with what was called a stanapatta’ or ‘kurpasika’ meaning a garment wrapped around the bust and a ‘uttariya’ or shawl used to cover the head. It is believed that the ‘mundum neryathum’ worn by women from Kerala even today, harks back to this ancient Indian style of clothing.
Controversy and the exposed midriff
As women were mostly confined indoors and rarely appeared before men, the absence of the upper garment was not felt strongly. In many parts of south India, women from most communities wore only the sari draped around their upper and lower bodies and covering their heads. One of the greatest Indian artistes, Raja Ravi Varma, sensuously portrayed the female form with yards and yards of flowing material loosely covering the lower and upper parts of the body but the choli is distinctly absent. By the mid 19th century, this baring of the midriff stirred a controversy in the princely Kerala state of Travancore and the style began to decline rapidly. Exposure of the navel became a taboo and later dressing styles show women with midriffs covered.
A sari is described as the ultimate symbol of Indian culture with its graceful and flowing appearance, molding the contours of the body without revealing too much, yet enhancing the female form in a tasteful manner. Seen as the ideal costume, most well suited for the hot and sultry weather of the sub-continent, the saree comes woven, printed, painted or embroidered in many types of material from pure cotton varieties of the hand-woven and machine woven qualities to nylon, silk, satin, net etc. They can be used for home wear, office wear, festivals & ceremonies, weddings and even for formal occasions like business meetings and engagements.