What is the Sari?


What is the Sari?

Chatterjee, Ashoke

What is the sari? According to the Concise Oxford, “A length of cotton or silk draped around the body, traditionally worn as a main garment by Indian women.” Ah, the perils of being concise, or being understatedly Oxford.

This ‘length of cotton or silk draped around the body’ is surely the most magnificent garment the human imagination has ever been able to invent. Its magnificence has less to do with cost or embellishment. It has much more to do with its love of the body, its ability to bathe the wearer in colour, to move with her in a thousand ways, to alter its structure to suit her moment, to transform every woman and each of her movements into creations of art irrespective of age or of dimension. The sari doesn’t stop there. It is in itself an entire civilisation, carrying artistry and craftsmanship of infinite variety — material, texture, weave, pattern, shade, embellishment. And yet the sari is never a uniform. It offers endless possibilities of distinct identity to each wearer — an identity of place, of community, of taste, of standing out from a mass. A sari can be a design encyclopaedia, and yet for all that, the sari is discrete. It offers its wisdom and knowledge through service to the wearer, while beckoning the scholar with its memories. A generation and more ago, the sari led the handloom movement, shaking an empire in one of the greatest design stories of all time. In the years of its glory, Air-India proved to the world that the sari could not only serve as a brilliant brand in a ruthlessly competitive market, but that it could also meet the practical needs of a demanding industry. Affording dignity and beauty without exception every time, the sari also offers livelihoods. Millions (no one knows for sure how many millions) depend for survival on the tasks and processes of spinning, weaving, making, embellishing, distributing and selling the sari. For them, the sari spells the difference between hope and misery, a ‘product of conscience’ if there ever was one. Yet this is the garment under relentless attack by dictates coming in from alien cultures that offer grotesque catwalk ‘statements’ lapped up by those for whom mimicry means progress.

Indian men may be to blame, once again. They started the mimicry long ago. The dress culture that resulted now encourages some (including several Clubs I know) to declare that male garments of this land are unacceptable to ‘shining India’. Their foolish lead is, alas, one that many of the other
gender seem determined to follow. The loss will be theirs, and of all for whom the sari-clad form in its myriad ways has remained one of life’s enduring rewards. Women, men — and children too.

Some time ago, on a long train journey, the miracle of the sari was demonstrated by two mothers travelling in the same tiered compartment. Both had children. One also had newborn infant. She was in a sari, the other in blue jeans and a shirt. As the day wore on, the sari served to protect
the baby from light, from heat and then from the evening chill. It was at once a shield, a fan, a shawl, a curtain that allowed nursing the infant without any compromise of modesty. Every now and then, the older child would use her mother’s sari as a napkin, a towel, a handkerchief, or for the sheer
comfort of burying her head in its folds between romps up and down the passageway — the sari as a symbol of reassurance and protection, once familiar to every Indian child. By nightfall, both children were wrapped in one end of the sari as they and their mother drifted off to sleep. The
mother in blue jeans was an ‘organised traveller’, constantly ferreting in a large bag for towels and kerchiefs and other supplies to soothe her lively ward. Two shirt changes, and a third before arrival at our destination, where the child wanted to hang on to her mother in all the confusion of
alighting at a crowded station. Mother in jeans had her hands full and kept reminding the child not to cling and to be watchful. Mother in a sari needed no change, even if her ‘length of cotton or silk’ had been softened with folds and creases. She too had her hands full. Yet her tot clung on
to the sari as they went down the aisle, a regal figure in motion, a child secure through contact.

Dignity, reassurance, protection, love. The message of the sari is for all time.

This article was originally written for the Craft Council of India

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