To a woman from India, the saree is much more than a 6-yard garment to wrap herself in. While looking through the stacks to pick one out to wear on any particular occasion, many factors come into play. It’s not just about colour or feel or weave – it’s about sensory memory, the blessing of tradition, and connection to roots.
I pondered these things the whole of last month. May, you see, is South Asian Heritage month here in my adopted homeland. Paying the tribute of remembering is essential to me, reminding me of where I come from. While it is important to look forward, it is imperative that we sometimes glance behind as well. Then the sense of rootedness strengthens us from within giving us the gumption to weather the storms brought on by our ‘instant-gratification’ culture.
Why are sarees special?
First, a little bit of information about sarees from India. I’m not going to give you a huge history lesson, I promise, only a little one! This garment has been in continuous use for about 5000 years, my research tells me. Which means, this single piece of cloth has been around for a very long time indeed – since the pyramids in Egypt. At it’s most rudimentary, what is a saree but only an unstitched piece of cloth. Over the years, the saree has transformed into something magical almost, turning the wearer into a repository of stories, tradition and art.
There are many ways to drape a saree – some say, about 80 distinct ways. Even in India, many states have different ways to drape this colourful garment. So, for instance, the southern states wear it differently from the eastern. Sarees come in literally thousands of designs – geometric, floral and ethnic. Sometimes sequins, gold thread, and appliques are attached for brilliance. There’s as many colours, from bold contrasts to muted expressions. Sarees are found for every occasion, indeed for every mood.
There are specific types of sarees for religious functions, or weddings, or not-so-happy occasions. Sarees have the potential to become heirlooms, prized possessions passed down from mother to daughter. Sarees accentuate or hide the figure of the wearer. Sometimes they flow sensuously and make statements. Going to buy a saree is a ritual in itself, involving a lot of research, trying on the fabric, consulting others, and looking for that unique combination of design, colour and texture that is bespoke.
And now, with the haute couture people looking to make a punchy impact, wearing a saree is even more out-of-the-box. Anything goes. And then there are the accessories, and the blouses! But that’s another post.
Different warps and wefts
Let me show you some of mine. Though there are so many varieties of cotton/linen sarees, I generally favour silks. Silk or ‘Resham’, is, at best, a generic term. There are many hundreds of varieties of silk. Silk comes from the mulberry-leaves eating silk-worm, which is cultivated in China as well.
This one is called Benarasi silk and is usually worn at weddings. This is my wedding saree, and last year, my daughter wore it at her wedding. This saree is from a city called Varanasi, or Benaras, on the banks of the holy river Ganga. It is characterised by intricate designs in gold or silver embroidery. Traditionally it used to be deep red, to signify a bride’s colours. But modern day Benarasi sarees are to be found in all colours of the rainbow.
Ghicha silk is produced in the Eastern states of India and has a raw unfinished feel which is very attractive. Something about the silkworms and cocoons, apparently.
I simply love the Ikkat weave. This is a silk and the vibrant colours make it the number one choice for a special occasion. Ikkat is one of the oldest weaving techniques (the resist-dyeing technique) known to man and was used in many other South East Asian countries like Malaysia and Thailand.
A Jamdani Dhakai is an integral part of a Bengali woman’s wardrobe. This one is my mother’s. The Dhakai saree is from Bengal, and occupies pride of place in a saree-lover’s heart. You can clearly see the Mughal influence in these sarees – the world ‘Jamdani’ itself is a Persian word where ‘Jam’ means flower and ‘dani’ refers to vase/holder. So generally, floral motifs in this saree originating in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Once upon a time, in the distant past, there was a great king called Ram. His queen, Sita hailed from a place called Mithila in Bihar. Whether or not this is ‘fact’, I can’t say. All I know is that motifs and paintings by Madhubani artists celebrating this mythology have found a way into the Madhubani silk sarees. The artisans use wooden brushes to paint their exquisite and distinct designs on the sarees. I’m lucky to have one.
Nowadays, online boutiques can deliver your chosen sarees at home, wherever you live. I’m pondering (and stalking) a gorgeous Paithani silk. Maybe it’s got my name written on it!