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Tuesday, September 19th 2006

09:55:19 AM

The Origins and History of Sari or Saree

Origins and History

The word 'sari' is believed to derive from the Sanskrit word 'sati', which means strip of cloth. This evolved into the Prakrit 'sadi' and was later anglicised into 'sari'.

A sari (also spelled saree) is a garment worn by many women in the indian subcontinent.  It consists of a long strip of cloth which can be wrapped in various styles. The most common style is wrapped around the waist, then one end is draped over the shoulder. It is usually five to six yards of unstitched cloth worn over a midriff-baring blouse (known as a choli), and a petticoat. Some sari styles require nine yards of cloth.

Ancient Tamil poetry, describes women in exquisite drapery. This drapery is believed to be a sari. In  an ancient Indian treatise describing ancient dance and costumes, the navel of the Supreme Being is considered to be the source of life and creativity. Hence the stomach of the dancer is to be left unconcealed, which some take to indicate the wearing of a sari.

Some costume historians believe that the men's dhoti, which is the oldest Indian draped garment, is the forerunner of the sari. They say that until the 14th century, the dhoti was worn by both men and women. Some sculptures show goddesses and dancers wearing what appears to be a dhoti wrap, in the "fishtail" version which covers the legs loosely and then flows into a long, decorative drape in front of the legs.  No bodices are shown.

Other sources say that everyday costume consisted of a dhoti or lungi (sarong), combined with a breast band and a veil or wrap that could be used to cover the upper body or head.

 It is generally accepted that wrapped sari-like garments, shawls, and veils have been worn by Indian women for a long time, and that they have been worn in their current form for hundreds of years.

One point of particular controversy is the history of the choli or sari blouse, and the petticoat.

Some researchers state that these were unknown before the British arrived in India, and that they were introduced to satisfy British ideas of modesty. Previously, women only wore the one, draped cloth and casually exposed the upper body and breasts.

Other historians point to much textual and artistic evidence for various forms of breastband and upper-body shawl.

It is possible that the researchers arguing for a recent origin for the choli and the petticoat are extrapolating from South India, where it is indeed documented that in some areas, women wore only the sari and exposed the upper part of the body. Poetic references from works like Shilppadikaram indicate that during the sangam period in ancient South India, a single piece of clothing served as both lower garment and head covering, leaving the bosom and midriff completely uncovered. Even today, women in some rural areas do not wear cholis.

The sari considered as cloth

Most saris are five to six yards long. However, some Brahmin women wear the nine-yard madisaar sari, in a dhoti wrap. Saris are woven with one plain end (the end that is concealed inside the wrap), two long decorative borders running the length of the sari, and a one to three foot section at the other end which continues and elaborates the length-wise decoration. This end is called the pallu; it is the part thrown over the shoulder in the Nivi style of draping. It is one of the most visible sections of the sari and is woven and decorated "for show".In past times, saris were woven of silk or cotton. The rich could afford finely-woven, diaphanous silk saris that, according to folklore, could be passed through a finger-ring. The poor wore coarsely woven cotton saris. All saris were handwoven and represented a considerable investment of time or money.Simple hand-woven villagers' saris are often decorated with checks or stripes woven into the cloth. The borders and the pallu are defined only by the use of contrasting thread in the warp or weft. Inexpensive saris were also decorated with block printing using carved wooden blocks and vegetable dyes, or tie-dyeing, known in India as bhandani work.More expensive saris had elaborate geometric, floral, or figurative ornament created on the loom, as part of the fabric. Sometimes warp and weft threads were tie-dyed and then woven, creating ikat patterns. Sometimes threads of different colors were woven into the base fabric in patterns – an ornamented border, an elaborate pallu, and often, small repeated accents in the cloth itself. These accents are called buttis or bhutties (spellings vary). For fancy saris, these patterns could be woven with gold or silver thread, which is called zari work. Modern zari work is usually executed with glittering synthetic fibers rather than real gold or silver thread (made by wrapping gold or silver around a base thread).Sometimes the saris were further decorated, after weaving, with various sorts of embroidery. Resham work is embroidery done with colored silk thread. Zardozi embroidery uses gold and silver thread and sometimes pearls and precious stones. Cheap modern versions of zardozi use synthetic metallic thread and imitation stones, such as fake pearls and Swarovski crystals.The free-hanging end, the pallu, could be additionally embellished with punkra or punchra work, in which part of the weft is removed and the warp threads are knotted into elaborate patterns, sometimes decorated with beads or precious stones.In modern times, saris are increasingly woven on mechanical looms and made of artificial fibers, such as polyester, nylon, or rayon, which do not require starching or ironing. They are printed by machine, or woven in simple patterns made with floats across the back of the sari. This can create an elaborate appearance on the front, while looking ugly on the back. The punchra work is imitated with inexpensive machine-made tassel trim.Hand-woven, hand-decorated saris are naturally much more expensive than the machine imitations. While the over-all market for handweaving has plummeted (leading to much distress among Indian handweavers), hand-woven saris are still popular for weddings and other grand social occasions.

Maharashtrian/Kache – the sari is draped like the male Maharashtrian dhoti. The center of the sari (held lengthwise) is placed at the center back, the ends are brought forward and tied securely, then the two ends are wrapped around the legs. When worn as a sari, an extra-long cloth is used and the ends are then passed up over the shoulders and the upper body. There are many complicated styles based on this wrap.

  • Gujarati – The sari is draped over the right shoulder rather than the left. For modern non-Gujarati women, this style represents a fashionable alternative to wear to social occasions.
  • Dravidian – sari drapes worn in Tamil Nadu; many feature a pinkosu, or pleated rosette, at the waist.
  • Gond – sari styles found in many parts of Central India. The cloth is first draped over the left shoulder, then arranged to cover the body.
  • the two-piece sari, or mundum neryathum, usually made of unbleached cotton and decorated with gold or colored stripes and/or borders.
  • tribal styles – often secured by tying them firmly across the chest, covering the breasts. The nivi style is today's most popular sari style. Sari enthusiasts lament that it is replacing regional styles of draping the sari, some of which – say wearers – are more secure or more comfortable.
  • The nivi drape starts with one end of the sari tucked into the waistband of the petticoat. The cloth is wrapped around the lower body once, then hand-gathered into deep, even pleats just below the navel. The pleats are also tucked into the waistband of the petticoat. The pleats form what is called, in Western couture, a kick-pleat; they make walking easier. They also create a graceful, decorative effect which poets have likened to the petals of a flower. Older sari styles secured these pleats with a knot (possible only with extremely finely-woven cloth, for which India has always been famous).

After one more turn around the waist, the loose end is draped over the shoulder. The loose end is called the pallu or pallav. It is draped diagonally over the front of the torso. The long end of the pallu hanging from the back of the shoulder is often intricately decorated. (Some nivi styles are worn with the pallu draped from the back towards the front.)The term nivi was popularized by the researcher Kamla S. Dongerkerry, in her 1959 treatise on the Indian sari.Theoretically, the nivi sari is held in place only by the tucks into the petticoat waistband, and the weight of the pallu hanging over the shoulder. In practice, many women find this insecure and resort to presewing the pleats and/or pinning the sari into place with safety pins. Sari draping is an art requiring practice and an eye for style. For directions with pictures, see the external links

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