Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A timeless legacy

Reham El-Adawi tours a thrilling exhibition that traces the history of the Indian sari and its development over time

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Al-Ahram Weekly

It is a dream that has filled the imaginations of many girls, who, on the verge of marriage, want to dress in an Indian sari on their wedding day. Such girls are doubtless infatuated by the Bollywood cinema stars who appear in ravishing embroidered saris in the weddings on and off screen, such as the ravishingly beautiful Aishwarya Rai in her film version of Pride and Prejudice.  

Egyptian women had the opportunity to see a wonderful collection of Indian saris at an exhibition entitled “The Magic of Indian Weaves” at the Mahmoud Moukhtar Museum in Cairo as part of the Second India by the Nile Festival.

Curated by Rita Kapur Chishti, the exhibition is a tribute to the craftsmanship and skills of Indian spinners and weavers, showcased through saris woven in seven of India’s states and representative of the north, south, east and west of the country. The saris reflect both traditional and contemporary design interpretations, highlighting a diversity of natural materials and techniques, as well as an evolving aesthetic and colour narrative.

A sari or saree, is a South Asian female garment that consists of a drape varying from two to nine yards in length and two to four feet in width that is typically wrapped around the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder, baring the midriff.

It is usually worn over a petticoat (called a lehenga in the north, a langa or pavada, or pavadai in the south, a chaniyo, parkar, ghaghra, or ghagaro in the west, and a shaya in the east), with a blouse known as a choli or ravika forming the upper garment.

The blouse has short sleeves and a low neck, and it is usually cropped at the midriff. As such, it is particularly well-suited to be worn in sultry South Asian summers.

Cholis may be backless or in a halter neck style. They are usually more dressy, with plenty of embellishments such as tiny mirrors or embroidery, and they may be worn on special occasions. Women in the Indian armed forces wearing a sari uniform don a short-sleeved shirt tucked in at the waist. The sari signifies the grace of Indian women, displaying curves in all the right places.

Widely regarded as a symbol of Indian culture, the sari, an unstitched, draped garment with a fluid grace that conceals as much as it reveals, goes back at least a thousand years in design. It continues to be worn in India today, as it still captures the imagination of Indian women, with the sensuous pleasure of draping the unstitched garment over and around the body and adjusting it to suit one’s own particular form giving a sensuous form of enjoyment.

This woven and textured-with-pattern garment, unpierced by the needle, is appropriate to India in terms of aesthetics and climate. The sari was also the backbone that supported the traditions of skilled hand-spinning and handloom weaving that still exist across India today. With the increasing emphasis on ecologically viable growth, these traditional resources can help India demonstrate how to balance slower production methods based on skilled craftsmanship with mechanised, high-technology processes.

Built on the loom as a three-dimensional garment of varying pattern and weave, the sari has at least four different structures for the outer and inner end pieces, the body and the two borders that help maintain the drape of the sari when worn. It is also part of a unique and timeless legacy and is constantly capable of reinventing itself. It suits not only special-occasion wear, but also everyday contexts that require the projection of a uniquely Indian image, from boardrooms to catwalks.

Kanjivaram saris are mostly hand-woven in the Tamil Nadu state, for example, and have contrasting borders that make them different from other silk saris. They are very costly because of their intricate work and silk thread: the latter is made of silver thread dipped in gold and this what makes the sari so expensive.

Various styles of wearing the sari have developed over time in different regions of India.108 such styles have been identified by the curator of the present exhibition, and many more could be and are being created for contemporary use.

The word sari is derived from Sanskrit and means “strip of cloth.” The Sanskrit words śāḍī or sāḍī were later corrupted to sāṛī in Hindi. The word sattika is also mentioned as describing women’s attire in ancient India in the Buddhist and Jain literature called jatakas. The term for the female bodice, the choli, is derived from the ancient ruling clan of Tamil Nadu, the Cholas.

The Rajatarangini (meaning “river of kings”), a tenth-century literary work by Kalhana, states that the Deccan choli was introduced from Kashmir. The pallava, the end piece of the sari, is named after the Pallavas, a ruling clan of ancient Tamilakam.

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