THE WORD “SARI” means “strip of cloth” in Sanskrit. But for the Indian women—and a few men—who have been draping themselves in silk, cotton, or linen for millennia, these swaths of fabric are more than just simple garments. They’re reminders of national pride, ambassadors for ancestral (and cutting-edge) design and craftsmanship, and an outstanding example of the rich differences in India’s 29 states. Sari is in no word- an emotion!
“The sari both as emblem and reality has filled the imagination of the subcontinent, with its charm and its ability to conceal and reveal the personality of the person wearing it,” says Delhi-based textile historian Rita Kapur Chishti, author of Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond and co-founder of Taanbaan, a fabric company devoted to reviving and preserving traditional Indian spinning and weaving methods.
Some women, especially in rural areas, still wrap and fold themselves into lengths of cotton, linen, or other fabrics for everyday work. “You’re more likely to see saris on older women, the aunties, and grandmas in some regions. They might wear one all the time,” says Cristin McKnight Sethi, a South Asian textile professional and professor of art history at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Youthful women and city dwellers, she says, might opt for Western clothing or a salwar (tunic and pants suit) most days but a vibrant sari for a wedding or other celebration. The material is a symbolic rite of passage for young Hindu girls, who wear a sari or half-length sari for a Ritu Kala Samskara coming-of-age ritual. The garment has even been utilized as a political prop. According to Chishti, there are more than one hundred ways to drape a sari depending on the region, fabric, length, and width of the garment, and what the wearer might be achieving that day. She established a series of videos showcasing dozens of ways to tie one on. “The younger generation wants to be able to experiment with it, to wear it in various ways,” she says.
Among the procedures for wearing a sari: the omnipresent Nivi drape (pleated, wrapped around the waist, with the pallu (the embellished end of the garment) flung over the left shoulder); and the countrified Dharampur drape, which cleverly transforms a long rectangle of material into knee-length bloomers. Most sari demonstrations need a choli (cropped top) and slender half petticoat, the latter often assists to anchor all that textile wrapping and fabric manipulation. Some sari folds need to be held with stitches or pins, others are more available form, like fabric origami for the body.
Saris weave their way across much of India, on women rainbowing through the roads of Mumbai on bicycles, on actresses starring in Bollywood movies, or sprucing up multiple generations of a family in Rajasthan.
Tourists seduced by the peppiness and mythology of saris can shop for one to take home. Unlike other conventional garments in some cultures, the sari isn’t stored for people of one nationality or set of beliefs. “I don’t think it’s disrespectful for Westerners to wear a sari,” says Chishti. “It’s more of an honor.” There is nothing improper with sewing a dazzling one into a skirt or displaying it like art on a wall, says Sethi.
Tourists, residents, and bridal parties chase for saris in the shops that seem to line every azure alley in Jodhpur or buzzing street in Mumbai. You’ll find them at grander, more luxurious boutiques such as Delhi’s Ekaya Banaras, known for its hand-loomed silks and support of over 8,000 Banaras weavers, or Chennai’s Nalli, open since 1928, and sprawled over two floors of an Art Deco building in the T. Nagar neighborhood.
Wherever they go, sari browsers find themselves dazed by candy-colored stacks of neatly folded silks, cotton, and chiffons. A sari can be had for as little from a street seller or as much as lakhs of rupees for a Banarasi beauty. “When you buy a sari, it’s usually a long process—you get the sari fabric at one store, have a blouse altered somewhere else, and purchase a petticoat at yet another shop,” says Sethi.
It’s a complex dance through stores and tailors to score a sari and not a commodity of clothing you throw on quickly. “But it's a piece of fabric that has become iconic, and there are so many varieties,” says Sethi. “Saris are so important, and certainly worthy of a celebration."- keep no doubt about it.
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