“Other clothing is on you, but it is not with you. But the sari is with me. I have to constantly handle it. I just can’t let it lie. The whole thing creates movement and one is moving with it all the time. That is why the pallu is not stitched. And that is the grace of the sari.” – Deena Pathak, Actress
Infinitely flexible it is protects a woman of the sun or her modesty, can be used to quickly wipe a table, lift hot pot from the stove, filter out smog or wipe sweat from the brow. The sari is the most personal of clothes. Its sensual caress on the skin connects you to an inner and outer world.
… and you never grow to big for it!
In modern times the nivi style, draped from right to left, twice passing the lower body, no part of the body is caressed or touched the same way. The weight of the pallu on the left shoulder tihhtens across the right breast, the left feeling exposed but for a camisole or choli that reveals the navel around which the whole garment revolves.
Wear the petticoat to high and she is compared to a nun. Too low and she is to “filmy” Gold threads can irritate the navel, sweat trickle down legs but are pleasurably cooled by the air.
The epitome of graceful movement, it is the most sensuous of intimate garments and the garment of road workers. The pallu can make girl coy peep hole of folded cloth, cover her laughing smile, reveal subtle decorum or be erotically draw attention to her eyes and lips.
But from where did the sari start?
Small terra cotta images Indus valley civilization (2300-1750) display fabric around hips sarong like gathered or pleated at the front below the navel in a girdle or kamarband (belt, knotted chord). Women were jewellery, lip stick and bracelets.
Except a small fragment of woven material, pasted inside the lid of a silver vase, and a bundle of mordant dyed cotton thread, no Harappan thread remains.
The word sari is found is found in ancient literature but the modern style over the lower body only are not as the modern sari. However, some suggest it derives from the Prakrit word Sattika, later morphed into the word sari.
Draped garments , shawls and scarves existed in the Vedic era (1500-450 BCE) and the Vedas mention a strip of cloth worn above the knees called nivi, “gathered”, which was possibly like short garments above.
In the 4 century BCE a nivi was worn with an ankle length lungi-like a skirt and an upper body cover , adivasa, and a scarf like over garment overhang.
However, the scholar Fabri suggests the modern sari evolved not from the nivi but from the dupatta or scarf that lengthened over time.
Also, by 320 BCE a sari like wrapped garment was worn with one free end called a pallu, to cover the upper body. By the second cent CE the pallu came to be over the head as elaborate headdresses became less fashionable.
But was there a Greek influence? Softly draped Greek garments were bought to India by the Greek wife of Chandragupta Maurya (ruled c323-298 BC) founder of the first great Indian empire. During the reign of his grandson Ashoka ( c272-231 BCE) both sexes wore one peace draped garments.
Sculptures from subsequent Sunga and Kushan periods show prototype saris and in Ghandara (now northern Pakistan) under the Kushans (late 1 – -3rd century CE). Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st–6th century CE) show a dhoti like wrap, loosely covering the legs with a long flowing drape and no bodices.
We find images are clothed in “saris” wrapped around waste, with a free end either pleated or tucked into back waistband, or thrown across the upper body or shoulder. Variation’s of this theme developed to culminate in the modern sari in the 18th century.
Today’s, modern sari may be plain or woven, generally 5 to 8.2 metres in length, and is draped by personal or regional considerations. It is worn with a long slip and a choli, a tight fitting blouse, leaving bare midriff. It is usually fasten to the front, but some are backless and tied chord at neck and lower back. In earlier times, garments with the same name used as breast supports.
The Rig Veda talks of cloth of “shining gold” and silk garments with gold thread favoured by Hindus. Possibly gold leaf was wrapped around a core, probably silk, to create metallic threads. Even to this day silk brocades with floral motifs, kimkhah, have delicate woven gold. The most famous from Banares other centres Hyderabad, Bombay, and Madras.
What I would like to believe comes from a legend reported at sareedreams.com:
“The Sari, it is said, was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver. He dreamt of a 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”.