THE ETERNALLY ENCHANTING SARI
“When the beauteous Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas, was lost to the enemy clan in a gambling duel, Lord Krishna promised to protect her virtue. The lecherous victors, intent on ‘bagging’ their prize, caught one end of the diaphanous material that draped her so demurely, yet seductively: they continued to pull and unravel, but could reach no end.”
Myth, whimsy, history or fact, this story from the 5,000 year-old Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is the first recorded reference to the eternally enchanting sari.
I remember well the first time I wore a sari: I was twelve years old and about to accompany my parents to a ‘Ladies Night’ as they felt that I was old enough to begin my education in the art of ‘socializing’. In vain did I protest that there would be no-one my age there, that I wouldn’t know anyone and that I didn’t know how to dance; my protestations fell on deaf ears. So, not only was I nervous about the evening itself, having to converse with my parents’ friends and business acquaintances, but also wondering frantically how on earth I was going to cope with a sari if someone asked me to dance or I needed the ladies’ cloakroom.
So what is a sari? According to Wikipedia, the word sari or saree (both spellings are correct) is derived from Sanskrit meaning “strip of cloth”. Hence a sari is a long piece of cloth about a metre wide and ranging in length between four and nine metres. The material is pleated and tucked into a full-length underskirt, which is usually made from cotton, satin or silk, and tied firmly at the waist by a drawstring. The underskirt should match the colour of the sari as closely as possible; this is particularly important if the sari is made of chiffon or other diaphanous material.
A tight fitting blouse, known as a choli, is worn on the upper part of the body; its colour and style should compliment the sari and may be used to denote new fashions. It is important, therefore, that the blouse is chosen carefully to enhance the sari. Although an individually woven sari usually includes the ‘extra’ material needed for the matching choli, cholis may have many variations, such as, length of sleeves, shape of neckline, front, back or side fastenings, embellishments, and be made from various fabrics. Usually, because it is shaped to fit like a second skin, a highly experienced tailor is employed to create the choli. I have tried making cholis for myself but it is impossible to tailor a choli on oneself, and consequently I have resorted to using stretch material where the fitting is not critical. So it is with amusement that I look back to when I was twenty-three years old and having several cholis made for me; I couldn’t understand why the tailor had to alter the measurements and ‘let out’ the cholis at each fitting. Well, no doubt you have guessed the reason – I was, of course, pregnant with my first baby and did not know it!
Typically, saris are made from silk or cotton, each unique pattern or theme being hand-woven. However, cheap cloth saris are printed with vegetable dye or are factory-made using polyester, nylon or other man-made materials. Essentially, though, every sari is individual and designed from conception to completion by its maker. Hand-woven saris are much sought after, and considered to be of superior quality, as they are unique, beautiful and durable since a considerable amount of time and skill is invested into creating and weaving the sari. A normal Baranasi silk sari, for example, usually takes around fifteen to thirty days to finish but, depending upon the intricacy of the design, may need up to six months to complete.
The most expensive silk sari in the world cost over US$100,000, took 4,680 hours to complete and is based on a famous painting by Raja Ravi Verma entitled “Lady Musicians”. The women depicted on the loose end, called a pallu or pallav, of this sari are intricately hand-woven and beautified with a myriad of precious jewels – gold, silver, platinum, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, topaz, pearls and corals.
My first sari was not nearly as magnificent as that, of course, but was a delicate shade of mauve synthetic material embellished with white flocking and suitable for a young girl. My choli felt far too constricting, and the petticoat tied tightly at my waist was extremely uncomfortable but I dared not loosen it in case my sari fell off! However, for that one and only occasion, the one concession that my Indian father made to my inexperience was allowing me to use a large nappy pin, hidden of course, to hold my pleats in place. As it turned out, dancing was quite manageable but my mother had to help me cope with all the yards of material when I needed to visit the ladies’ room.
In India, there are many different regional and cultural variations in wearing a sari, but most localized styles are giving way to the famous ‘Nivi Drape’, where women wrap the sari around their waist and tuck it into their petticoat. The sari material is then hand-gathered into several pleats of equal width, the number depending on the length of the sari material: the pleats are then tucked in to the petticoat to create an even, graceful, ‘flower’ or ‘fan-like’ design. After one more turn around the waist, the pallu is draped over the shoulder and may be pleated, left hanging freely, tucked into the waist, or used to cover the head or midriff as occasion dictates.
For a woman to feel confident whilst wearing a sari, control of one’s pallu is absolutely essential – for to be effortless in a sari and to display one’s pallu with ease, especially without the use of pins, means establishing one’s authority over it. The pallu can also be used to indicate caste or religion: for example, in front of strangers, Muslim women will tend to cover their heads with the pallu, while Hindu women will do the same as a sign of respect for various family members. Conversely, when wearing a sari, my English mother absolutely refused to cover her head with her pallu as she said that she was “not going to kow-tow to any man!”
Putting on a sari is easy with a little bit of practice and know-how: start at the right hip, tuck the plain end in to your underskirt, check the floor length and hemline to ensure your petticoat is not peeping out and your ankles are not showing. Then make one complete rotation, tucking in as you go, again checking hemline length. Next, make four to seven pleats according to sari material length, making sure your pleats are even, settle just off the ground and fall straight. Securely tuck the pleats into your underskirt in any position you like – left, right or middle of your stomach, the pleats facing either right or left depending on the look you want. Continue by bringing the sari across yourself to the left, under your left arm, then up and around your back and under your right arm, next bringing the material across your front and over your left shoulder. Usually, the pallu is secured at the shoulder, on the underside of the choli, with a small, gold safety pin.
Now-a-days, one can buy pre-pleated and sewn saris that are more secure and make life easier, although I consider that cheating! Mind you, on one occasion, at a Hunt Ball, my very inebriated dancing partner trod on the front of my sari which sank in a heap around my feet, whereupon I made a hurried exit from the ballroom to repair the damage. On returning to the dance floor, I found my dancing partner still standing exactly where I had left him!
“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 colours 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.” – A Folktale
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