has it that when the beauteous Draupadi - wife
of the Pandavas, was lost to the Kauravas in a
gambling duel, the lecherous victors, intent on
humiliating and harassing Draupadi, caught one
end of the diaphanous material that draped her
demurely, yet seductively. They continued to pull
and unravel, but could not reach the end, and
thus undrape her. Virtue triumphed yet again in
this 5,000 year old Indian epic, the Mahabharata.
Legend, fantasy, history or fact, it is the first
recorded reference to the enduringly attractive
Sari - the longest running 'in fashion' item of
feminine apparel in the world.
a metaphysical sense the Kauravas symbolize the
forces of chaos and destruction, trying to unwind
what is in effect, infinity. They are finally
forced to stop, frustrated and defeated.
A charming folktale explains the
origin of the Sari as follows:
"The Sari, it is said, was
born on the loom of a fanciful weaver. He dreamt
of Woman. The shimmer of her tears. The drape
of her tumbling hair. The colors of her many moods.
The softness of her touch. All these he wove together.
He couldn't stop. He wove for many yards. And
when he was done, the story goes, he sat back
and smiled and smiled and smiled".
Indian myths often use weaving
as a metaphor for the creation of the universe.
The sutra or spun thread was the foundation, while
the sutradhara (weaver) or holder of the thread
was viewed as the architect or creator of the
The etymology of the word sari
is from the Sanskrit word 'sati', which means
strip of cloth. This evolved into the Prakrit
'sadi' and was later anglicised into sari.
There is ample evidence of the
sari in the earliest examples of Indian art. Sculptures
from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st-
6th century AD), suggest that the sari in its
earlier form was a briefer garment, with a veil,
and usually no discernable bodice.
There are also several references
to the fact that in South India the sari had been
for a long time one piece of material that served
as both skirt and veil, leaving the bosom bare.
Even today in some rural areas it is quite common
for a woman not to wear a choli.
In extant North Indian miniature
paintings, (particularly Jain, Rajasthani and
Pahari schools from the 13th to the 19th centuries)
it seems to consist of the diaphanous skirt and
an equally diaphanous veil draped over a tiny
bodice. This style still survives as the more
voluminous lehanga of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Gradually this skirt and veil
were amalgamated into one garment, but when and
how this happened is not precisely clear. One
theory, not fully substantiated, is that the style
was created by Noor Jahan (d. 1645) wife of the
Mughal emperor Jehangir (reigned. 1605-27). Perhaps
it would be more accurate to speculate that the
confrontation between the two cultures, Islamic
and Hindu, led the comparatively relaxed Hindus
to develop a style that robed the person more
discreetly and less precariously.
Some costume historians believe
that the men's dhoti, which is the oldest Indian
draped garment, is the forerunner of the sari.
Till the 14th century the dhoti was worn by both
men and women. Thereafter it is conjectured that
the women's dhoti started to become longer, and
the accessory cloth worn over the shoulders was
woven together with the dhoti into a single cloth
to make the sari.
civilization has always placed a tremendous importance
on unstitched fabrics like the sari and dhoti,
which are given sacred overtones. The belief was
that such a fabric was pure; perhaps because in
the distant past needles of bone were used for
stitching. Hence even to the present day, while
attending pujas or other sacred ceremonies, the
men dress up in dhotis while women wear the sari.
Thus even though the different waves of Islamic
expansion (13th - 19th century AD) resulted in
new versions of stitched garments, the primacy
of the sari and its gently changing form couldn't
be changed. Even today, when the Islam influenced
Salwar-kameez (loose trousers with a tunic) is
an increasingly popular garment, the Sari continues
to hold its sway. The flow it confers to the natural
contours of the female form enhances the gracefulness
of the fairer sex, as no other apparel can.
The Sari, like so many other textiles,
gives the lie to the hierarchical distinction
made between fine arts and crafts. The approximate
size of a sari is 47 by 216 inches. Although it
is an untailored length of cloth, the fabric is
highly structured and its design vocabulary very
sophisticated. The main field of the sari is framed
on three sides by a decorative frieze of flowering
plants, figurative images or abstract symbols.
Two of the borders define the
edges of the length of the sari and the third
comprises the end piece, which is a visible, broader,
more complex version of the other two borders.
This end piece is the part of the sari that is
draped over the shoulder and left to hang over
the back or front, known popularly as the Pallav.
The pallav usually elaborates
the theme found in the two borders and the actual
field of the sari, a sort of repetition and amplification
in the manner of the Indian musical mode, the
raga. The raga has a set number of notes and these
are intoned in a form of verbal mnemonics, before
the song is actually sung. No new notes other
than those in the introduction are used, but improvisation
is allowed and results in endless permutations
and combinations. This beautiful metaphor thus
compares the two narrow borders to the introductory
recital of the pure notes and the pallav to the
The design, whether woven, embroidered,
painted or block-printed, needs to maintain the
proportion and balance between the actual field
of the sari, the borders and the pallav. The pattern
creates its own rhythm. For instance, the scattering
of spot weft gold dots increase in the pallav
for a denser, richer pattern and gradually and
softly decrease on the actual ground of the sari.
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