The Sari and The Magic of The Unstitched Garment

Sari Historian Rta Kapur Chishti traces the history of the sari and explains its symbolic, cultural and aesthetic significance.

The Sari is Draupadi’s unending fabric of time.
It is the past with a possibility for the future….
What was there? What is happening? What will be? 
Eternal Questions play on the senses as the sari unwinds 
The known rests upon the unknown, provoking us to look beyond the apparent

At the moment of her disrobement after Draupadi’s husbands have lost her at the game of Dice to Duryodhana (cousins of her husbands) and now must save her honour as no one comes to her rescue in a hall full of the extended family..! She calls out to Lord Krishna to save her from this dishonour and he, realising the gravity of the moment, magically turns the sari she is wearing to an unending series of saris which prevent her from being disrobed in public. It is an act of great courage, faith and sense of justice that she gives herself up to be saved by the illusion of an endless unstitched garment. It is as the sari unwinds that the congregation sees the reflection of the horrific events of the future and the inevitability of war that faces the two clans of the same lineage. The sari thus becomes a part of the legend of what was and what will be, the present and the future.

Hiuen Tsang in the 7th Century and a Portuguese traveller in the 1500s described the unstitched cotton drapes worn by women five yards or more draped around the lower half and then taken over the upper body “in such a way that one arm and shoulder remains uncovered”

The sari both as symbol and in reality has filled the imagination of the subcontinent with its appeal, its ability to conceal and reveal the personality of the person wearing it as well as those who encounter this presence in their everyday life.    

We live in a part of the world that except for the Himalayan Mountain regions and desserts of Rajasthan/Gujarat, large parts of the country have a nine to ten-month-long warm to hot weather and a short two or three-month winter overlapping with two to three weeks of spring and autumn. Our cultural predilections and climatic compulsions have tilted naturally towards the unstitched garment with its unlimited ingenuity to adapt, adjust and recreate the draped garment in accordance with the occasion, the need of the hour, or the functional flexibility of profession or activity. 

The unstitched garment exists in the subcontinent in many forms and is draped in innumerable ways by men and women, as a single or two piece sari or by men as a dhoti in the lower half with an unstitched length used as head cover and sometimes combined with a shoulder cloth or angvastram which can be used in various ways to ward off the heat and dust. It acted as the traditional half-faced mask, ingeniously adapted during the current pandemic by many.  

Though the unstitched is created on a loom with a measure of length and breadth, what distinguishes it from a flat piece of fabric is that it is conceived as a three dimensional garment with a difference in density in its various parts. The borders are at least twice the density of the body or more and the single or two end pieces Pallu are at least three or four times the density of the body. This is essentially because these need to have added strength often created by patterning. The sari allows us to go back at least a thousand years in design terms with variations in pattern, weave and structure between its inner and outer end-pieces and its two borders which provide drape, strength and weight while the body enhances the form of the sari or dhoti when it is worn. The sari, dhoti, pagdi/safa provided the base of what comprised the textile tradition largely because of the variations of texture they were able to provide in a single utility fabric. It is for this reason that they supported and promoted exceptional skills of weaving. The unstitched garment, which may not be used in its traditional context and form, could certainly provide the basis for future developments, both of the unstitched garment and fabrics for other contemporary use.

Whereas men changed much earlier to western wear at least for work with their colonial rulers, the sari stayed with the women much longer, even till the 1990s, as everyday wear. Somehow, functional mobility and global influences have overturned this balance only in the last twenty years. Although it is a fast disappearing garment for everyday wear, the sari will survive as special occasion wear. Yet, they once rode horses in saris in Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and even before our eyes, swam in rivers and ponds in their saris tucked between the legs, much like an unstitched pair of shorts or draped longer in pantaloon like fashion, in places as far apart as Shajapur in Madhya Pradesh and Kothapalli in Andhra Pradesh. 

The unstitched garment forms our outermost skin and thereby signals not only who we are and where we come from, but also as an expression of where we are going. Therefore, this is not a moral question or dilemma about western clothes or Indian wear, but an appropriate moment for us to reflect on who we are and where we wish to go because we still have a small window of the luxury of choice, something which we may not have in the near future. With her rich resources of skilled hand-spinning and weaving, India is advantageously placed to show the way in balancing the slower but highly skilled production sectors with the mechanised and high-technology end. 

We need better quality of saris to be produced by hand to be seen as vastly superior to their cheaper power loom and mill imitations which cannot match the different densities in fabric structure which a handcrafted sari can create between its body, borders and pallus (end pieces). A machine can also create these differences but it is not able to do so at a rate that is economically viable unless it produces a thousand pieces or more of the same design and colour way.

In the 1970s, when young women such as myself went to college in a sari, it was an expression of a coming of age and everybody’s heads turned to look at you but today the reaction would be exactly the opposite! So the sari was very much a part of one’s growing up and not a subject of concern.

The sari was losing relevance from the early 1990s till the early 21st century but there has been a renewed interest in its making and wearing in recent year. In fact, we at Taanbaan initiated setting up ‘The Sari School’ in 2008, aimed to raise awareness about the unlimited possibilities of recreating this magical unstitched garment in accordance with one’s personal convenience, comfort, body form and formality or informality of occasion. Participants in a Sari School workshop are encouraged to recreate the garment for their own needs as it is capable of being draped as a pair of pants, pantaloons, a dress long or short or even a gown. The wearing styles are based on the 108 presented in the last volume ‘Sari-Tradition & Beyond’ and there are more styles which exist in the country and many more could be created if the inspiration led to further developments. Among those who come to the Sari School workshops are young students, bureaucrats, professionals and of course young brides who want to wear it differently during the various ceremonies of marriage. The Dance theatre titled SARI by the Daksha Sheth Dance Company was also an initiative taken by Taanbaan to create a wider audience for the sari both as a concept and the process of its making culminating in its usage in terms of wearing styles from various parts of the country. It opened with shows in New Delhi in 2012 and has since also created renewed interest in the sari in the various cities in India and abroad.

The sari creates its own identity and can be seen on the rise in the law courts and among professionals working in multinational companies. Today women often go to work in such organisations in dresses or pants and keep a closet for saris which they will change into for important meetings as they say they ‘are taken more seriously in a sari’. This is often because there are many youngsters joining these professions and they don’t want to be overlooked because of their age.  

Basically our emphasis is on the tactile and therefore we use largely handspun yarns in cotton and silks or in case of machine spun silks that have been especially low twisted for our needs. The Taanbaan range includes saris, dupattas, scarves and fabrics for garments and home furnishings distinguished by their unique texture, a contemporary rendering of traditional skills.

We had realised that hand spinning on the Desi Charkha unfortunately, had become the most neglected and forgotten strength of Khadi whereas, the faster semi-mechanised Ambar Charkha had been in favour over the last 50 years. Therefore, a concerted effort was made to develop hand spinning up to 100s count on the Desi Charkha/ traditional spinning wheel and counts above this on the semi mechanised Ambar Charkha. Both had relevance and would never compete with mill spun yarns which spin to an average of 120s count with a flat even texture and thus hand spinning could reassert itself producing textured yarns in a non-competitive context.

In the early 21st century, we are still fortunate to have pockets of hand skills that were and could be India’s greatest and most unique resource for future development. This is based on the premise that there still exists the possibility of bringing alive the finest of hand skills in the textile area, given a form of limited period patronage. This would enable the hand skill sector to rediscover its relevance, both in terms of application and materials and redefine its marketing capabilities in areas that give it a competitive edge within the country and beyond. If this premise were developed consistently in all areas that still retain hand spinning capabilities on the Desi / traditional Charkha spinning wheel combined with Handloom weaving, then in ten years we could perhaps be the only country in the world with this unique resource for a national and international market.

With climate change wreaking havoc and ecological concerns with the world’s limited renewable resources, the pace of industrialisation is already being questioned as it is based on increasing consumption and dependency on the state for creating jobs and employment. Taanbaan is an endeavour to promote the handspun handloom industry which is facing an uncertain future, and to preserve the skills, aesthetic sense and traditions of India’s exceptionally skilled weavers. As we industrialise and globalise, surely we can support and absorb these hand skills as we may be the only country that has sustained hand-spinning and hand-weaving for its superior quality in texture and patterning. This is apart from the range of self employment it can provide to cultivators for desi cotton, non mulberry silks, preparatory processes, hand-spinning and hand-weaving. It is estimated that ten to fifteen persons are required to support a single handloom of quality.

The sustenance of high hand skills, both in the spinning and weaving sectors in economic, social and cultural terms is a challenge both philosophical and literal, for all societies in transition. Ultimately we are all in a process of transition, in the ‘developing’ and the ‘developed’ world. We need to find ways to recognise the worth of the human ‘hand’ even as the human ‘mind’ seeks to relieve it from the drudgery of constant application. We must find appropriate economic solutions to revitalise the great human resources of ‘hand’ skills and enhance their intrinsic strengths, to take on the challenges and contribute substantially to human development.

To stay updated with the latest sari collections from Rta Kapur Chishti, follow her work on @taanbaan

October 1, 2020
Photo Pallavi Verma

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