Fashion is a reflection of inner self as it mirrors not only a person’s taste but also how they choose to express themselves. ‘Sari’ though a simple garment, surrounds the wearer with honor, dignity, and sensuality, it is the past traditions and present notions combined in a huge cloth. ‘Sari,’ a piece of garment which was initially used as a humble drape by women, quickly turned into a fashion masterpiece as well as a symbol. Although the word sari is derived from a Sanskrit term ‘satika’ which means ‘strip of cloth,’ in the modern era this piece of cloth has emerged as an emotion and epitome of grace and elegance not only in Indian society but on a global level as well. Sari which is also spelled as ‘Saree’ is a silk, cotton or even a synthetic piece of cloth which is generally three to nine yards long and is dyed in multitude of hues, this clothing is majorly worn by the women population of the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial. Saree is considered to be one of the most vibrant and versatile pieces of clothing as it can be draped in 108 diverse ways where each draping style is assigned a different nomenclature, and yet at the same time it is also subtle and simple. Saree, though simplistic, consists of three pieces in total- the lower garment, a veil over the head and a chest band, although this arrangement can vary when it comes to different demographic regions within India. 

The saree is one of the most popular and beloved pieces of clothing in India and even globally, the aura of a saree successfully crossed oceans and is now being featured not only on red carpets but also on international ramp walks as designers could not escape from its ethereal beauty. Even in Indian market, sarees are available with a fusion or modern twist, with saree variations such as half-saree, lehenga saree, Indo western saree and several others in order to meet the market demands of the younger generations that prefers fusion wear, which is a combination of two or more styles which originate from diverse cultures are combined to create one unique clothing. Saree, along with being traditional, is also worn in formal settings or meetings and has thus emerged to be a professional outfit in recent times. 

The traditional value of a ‘Saree’ would lead us to its origin which can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilization, the fact that it was a common piece of clothing, is well corroborated by the ‘Rig Vedas’ which is a group of religious texts that dates back to approx. 3,000 BC and is written in Sanskrit language. Traditionally, women wore sarees that were typically made of a long piece of unstitched cloth, which was usually made from cotton and silk, and it was casually draped around the body. These unstitched pieces of cloth were dyed using natural colours and dyes such as flowers, indigo, turmeric, and red lac. With the coming and popularisation of the handloom industry, the inclination of the general masses moved towards embroidery and brocade silk sarees; the most preferred sarees were usually Banarsi, Mysuru, Chanderi, and Garhwal. These silk exquisite materials were reserved only for special occasions like marriages, festivals, and other such functions, meanwhile cotton sarees like- Patola, Tant, Dhakai, Kota Doria, Khadi were preferred for regular or everyday clothing. Next, the sarees were impacted with the coming of foreign powers which included – The British, The Dutch, The Portuguese invading the Indian subcontinent and thereby entirely changing the notions of clothing and royalty.

The early sarees were curated with a delicate and slightly transparent or sheer material, but The British considered this as inappropriate and deemed opaque material for making sarees, as the superior one. The British also criticised Indian women for wearing indecent petticoats underneath the saree and instead pursued them to wear an upper bodice or blouse, which quickly turned into a fixed upper garment that was worn by most Indian women. Following this, the next major impact was caused by the freedom revolution wave that swept throughout the entire Indian subcontinent and saree became a tool of emancipation and liberation as more women started to opt Khadi sarees in order to protest against the British Raj and stand in unison with the freedom fighters of India. The textile industry became a central symbol for independence as he British would export raw cotton from India to England at a cheap rate, turn it into clothing, and resell it back in India at an enormous cost, thereby earning a hefty profit and deteriorating the plight of Indian farmers and industries. However, with the inception of civil disobedience movement pan India, Khadi production was increased by the industries which led the women to embrace khadi sarees. One of the major changes in saree evolution took place post-independence, when saree first became the epitome of power and authority as women started to play major roles in Indian politics, thereby turning saree into a symbol for each Indian woman. Saree was now turning into a symbol of woman empowerment and upliftment because the women who wore it yielded power and were high impact leaders of India. This transformed saree which was once a mere piece to cover body, into something more substantial and heroic as women felt a power while wearing it, their idols being great women political leaders like Sarojini Naidu, Mother Teresa, Kasturba Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi.

Saree now became a tool for revolution, unity and identity amongst women who could now observe how they were kept bereft from equality, rights, and freedom that were otherwise available to others. Under British rule, women were generally not allowed to vote, and those who were exceptions were allowed because they owned land, thus, women demanded universal suffrage or ‘Right to vote’ in the year 1950 and it was granted to all adult Indian citizens, irrespective of their gender. Similarly, ‘Right to Political Representation’ allows women to participate in political procedures of election that take place in the country, however, initially women were not appreciated in the field of politics which completely changed with the coming of strong women political leaders. The rates of participation for women in the Lok Sabha elections of the year 1962 were 46.63% which later on rose to 58.60% in the year 1984, but still frugal when compared to the rates of male participation in these elections. However, gradually this gap began to narrow as women realised their rights and the power that unity holds, this led to women being elected for major positions at the political front and also down the hierarchy at the ground level. Women constantly tried to stand at par with everyone, identified themselves to be capable but still could never achieve true freedom to exist without threats and dangers to their mental and physical wellbeing. Cases of exploitation at the workplace, unequal payment, molestation, and murder are just to name a few stresses that women are compelled to live with. Akin to how ‘Meena Kandasamy’s – Mascara’ develops a beauty object (Mascara) as a symbol of  female pain endurance , a Saree being a strong feminine symbol could play a key role to unite women as it is a piece of clothing which could be a common factor on every woman’s body who seeks strength in togetherness and mutual help, in order to create a better society for everyone including them. 

The contemporary times made the saree a muti-faceted symbol that could differ from person to person, but it still surrounds the sari-clad woman with charm and grace. A woman belonging to any social and gender strata can be found wearing a saree- a poverty stricken woman who could be found wearing a simple cotton saree , an economically privileged woman who could be wearing a designer custom- made saree, a middle income woman who works and thus wears saree as a formal attire and even a transgender woman who finds comfort and peace by wearing a saree.  Thus, in modern times saree can be seen as one of the biggest examples of cultural inheritance which is the transmission of cultural information through methods of communication, teaching as well as learning about cultural heritage that includes assets such as visual art, clothes, architecture styles. The value of a saree in modern times has not drastically changed, as saree is still considered to be a symbol of poise and beauty, even when it is majorly defined as a traditional Indian garment which has been passed down several generations, a saree can still stun with its subtle elegance. It has withstood the test of time, without losing its importance and hold, the meaning of the symbols attached to it may have varied but it established itself as an important part of inheritance and legacy of our country.

The journey of a saree which might have begun with a woman covering herself with an unstitched piece of cloth, traced a beautiful path to the modern world where innumerable variations in the material used and draping style are available-

  • Banarasi Saree- Banarasi saree is produced in the city of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, the designs of the saree are inspired by Mughal architecture which used minute and delicate floral designs. It also includes elegant gold work linings called ‘jail’ and ‘Meena.’ These may also have leaves placed in an upright manner which are called ‘jhallar.’

  •  Kanchipuram Silk Saree- This saree is produced in Kanchipuram with pure mulberry silk which also forms one of its distinguishable features. The borders and fall of the saree are usually dyed with contrasting colours and it uses rather light and simple gold lines and gold dots. The designs made on the saree are inspired from elements found in nature such as birds, leaves, flowers etc. The kancheevaram or Kanchipuram saree recently obtained a GI tag due to its cultural importance.

  • Paithani Saree- This saree is traditionally produced in Maharashtra in a city called Paithan by using raw silk strands that are handwoven together along with strands of silver Zari. The borders are made with solid Zari and the saree is dyed in bright colours, the patterns on the saree resemble birds and flowers which include lotus, peacock, and parrots. 

  • Chanderi Saree- This saree is manufactured in the Chanderi town of Madhya Pradesh by using pure mulberry silk as well as fine cotton. The Chanderi sarees are slightly sheer due to the fine and lustrous silk quality used in order to make it and are hence also called ‘woven air,’ because of this particular sheer texture. The common designs found on Chanderi sarees use flowers, small leaves, geometric designs, peacocks and even coins. 

  • Sambalpuri Saree-This saree originally comes from the districts in Odisha which includes- Sambalpur, Baragarh, Boudh and Sonepur. The materials used in making a Sambalpuri saree is a combination of silk, cotton, and mercerized cotton. These sarees usually stick to three colours red, black, and white as these three colours hold significant importance in native Odia culture. The common symbols found on the saree includes- shell, wheel and floral art as these sarees are simplistic by design. 

  • Bandhani Saree-This saree is produced by three states in general which includes Rajasthan, Gujrat, and Tamil Nadu, though their nomenclature and production procedure differs from state to state, yet they remarkably resemble each other in design. The symbols found on these sarees include floral art, bells, creeper plants. 

  • Phulkari Saree- This saree hails from Punjab and requires some good embroidery skill to use darn stitch on the wrong side of a cotton cloth. The colourful silken threads are then woven to create beautiful and intricate patterns on the saree. The term ‘Phulkari’ signifies needlework to create flowers, floral art, geometric patterns, and these are widely used on clothing as well as footwear.

Sarees thus began from an inexpensive piece of clothing to protect the body from heat or environment and transformed into a varying symbol for several people belonging to different economic and gender levels. However, despite the variety in the level of interpreting saree as a symbol, it still somehow unites everyone by providing an ‘Identity’ exclusive to them, just how the threads of a saree, though innumerable, are ultimately woven together to unite and form a beautiful saree. Saree aptly claims to be a cultural heritage which was valuable in the past and is significant even today, although the contemporary times may have made saree a versatile symbol, but it will always remain a timeless wonder.

✒Yashwarya Gupta