Growing up, I was never forced to embrace sarees; my mother rarely wore sarees and I assumed sarees were commonly worn by those of my grandmother’s generation. I would wonder how my mother could carry herself so well in a sari each time I saw her wrap herself in handlooms for special occasions, and I had little faith in my own abilities to do the same.
That changed drastically when I began classical dance lessons and sarees became a fairly common attire. I was wrapped in cottons for dance shows and bundled out the door by my mother, who hastily filled my head with tips of how to balance while I walked and how to avoid letting the pallu trail on the ground. It was nerve-wracking, but time played its magic and I soon became adept at dancing in sarees.
After you learn to dance in a sari, walking in one is a piece of cake!
When I began working in Bangalore, I was thrilled at the prospect of wearing sarees to work. Young professionals in ecology tend to prefer low-key clothing, and I was highly comfortable in my field pants or jeans with a simple blouse. A part of me was afraid that wearing sarees would brand me as overly traditional or small-town, but I decided to take the leap and embrace my heritage.
The first time I wore a sari to work, I begged my friend to wear one as well; she obliged, and I arrived in one of her sarees, a cream linen sari with red Warli patterns. I loved it, and it spoke to my Maharashtrian heritage, and I felt powerful and beautiful. After that first day, I started to wear sarees more often, especially when I was doing office work. My grandmother had gifted me a beautiful red cotton sari with a thin gold border; that became a favourite of mine. I also picked up sarees of my own – a red and white mul cotton from Bengal (check out the collection of mul cotton sarees on suta.in for some amazing colours and incredibly soft weaves), a pink Benarasi silk, and a blue and gold Tussar silk. My mother gave me a peacock-colour silk sari that I had received at my arangetram but never worn, and I cherished the memory that accompanied the sari as much as the feel of silk against my skin.
The sari is a graceful garment, one designed to empower the wearer regardless of size or shape. It is the grand equalizer that shows off the feminine side without constricting motion – at least once you are accustomed to moving in them. I learnt that it was easy to sit side-saddle on a scooter and maneuver the sari away from the wheels, something I had no experience with before arriving in Bangalore. As an ecologist, my work often requires me to be rugged and self-reliant, and sarees can be a hindrance in the field. But by no means do I feel less capable when swaddled in five metres of silk.
In 2015, Prime Minister Modi declared August 7th to be National Handloom Day to honour weavers and their traditional art of working the loom. The art of weaving sarees, however, dates back to the Swadeshi movement at the time of Bengal’s partitioning. India is home to the world’s largest weaving industry. Here is a closer look at some of the sarees hailing from different states in the country:
Benarasi silk sari (Uttar Pradesh) – Enhanced with golden embroidery and hailing from India’s Hindu pilgrimage city, Varanasi, this sari is light and shimmery. A must-have for those who like gold embroidery and vivid colours! This is a relatively- heavy sari and I wear mine for special occasions, not for daily wear. Silk brocade weaving in Varanasi is said to have begun in the 17th century, with the migration of silk workers from Gujarat during the 1603 famine. Its designs were introduced during the Mughal rule.
Kanjeevaram silk sari (Tamil Nadu) – With a temple-patterned border and bright colours, no one can miss these traditional silk sarees from Tamil Nadu! These are the original bridal sarees of the state, but also have use in classical dance costumes and are increasingly popular across the country for formal and office wear.
Kasavu sari (Kerala) – Known as “Mundam Nereyatham,” this sari is off white with a golden border. This colour combination is seen in the Mohiniyattam dance costume and exudes simplicity and grace. The origins of this sari have been traced to ancient Buddhist culture. It is said to have been brought to Kerala in the 19th century by His Highness Balaramavarma.
Paithani silk sari (Maharashtra) – These gorgeous silk sarees embrace the natural world and traditional temple designs. Hailing from the small Maharashtrian town of Paithan, Paithani sarees have oblique geometric designs and a peacock-design on the pallu. They utilize the dhoop-chhau (light and shade) effect, created by weaving two different shades of silk together. I visited Paithan, near Aurangabad, as a child and had the opportunity to watch the weavers work their magic on yards of enchanting, multicoloured silk.
Bandhani sari (Gujarat) – Lightweight and colourful, these tie-dye sarees hail from the western state of Gujarat. They are generally made from chiffon but can also come in cotton, crepe, georgette, and cotton-silk. Bandhej is India’s oldest tie-dye art, originating nearly 5000 years ago. It was begun by the Khatri community of Gujarat, and the art form of weaving these sarees is firmly rooted in Gujarat and Rajasthan today.
Chanderi sari (Madhya Pradesh) – One of the most diverse silk sarees in India, Chanderi sarees have light and bright borders with simple weave. They are a favourite for daily and office wear, as they look elegant but are not heavy or flashy. This sari originated in Chanderi, MP, and the weaving tradition emerged in the 13th century. Muslim weavers were the first to bring the Chanderi to light. Thereafter, around 1350, Koshti weavers migrated to Chanderi from Jhansi and further spread the weaving tradition.
Muga silk sari (Assam) – Made from the strongest silk, one that is said to outlast the wearer, Muga silk sarees have a natural yellow tint and a glossy texture. The silkworms are found in the Brahmaputra river valley, where their larvae feed on som and sualu leaves (plants of the Lauraceae family). This is ancient cloth; the first references to Assam silk date back to Valmiki’s Ramayana. The fabric is spun while the threads are still wet, unique to this style of weaving. This fine art is intrinsically linked to the history and culture of the Assamese people.
Sambalpuri Ikat sari (Odisha) – Ikat is a unique style of resist dying, much like tie-dye or batik, where yarns are tightly wrapped in a desired pattern and then dyed. Once the dyeing is finished, the bindings are removed and the yarns are woven into a sari. Unlike tie-dye or batik, in Ikat, the resist (binding) is put before the yarn is spun into cloth, whereas in the former two styles, the resist is applied after the yarn is spun. Thus, unlike these styles, Ikat sarees have patterning on both faces of the cloth. The term “ikat” hails from Indonesia and means “cord” or “bundle.” This sari can be both silk or cotton, and typically has a checkered design. Odisha is one of the few states in India where Sambalpuri Ikat sarees are woven today.
Pochampally Ikat sari (Andhra Pradesh) – Similar in design to the Sambalpuri Ikat sari, this weave originated in West Bengal and was taken up by weavers in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana. They have intricate geometric patterns made using the ikat style of dyeing. Pochampally sarees tend to be a blend of silk and cotton, and come in bright colours and patterns, making them highly attractive for semi-formal events.
Jamdani sari (West Bengal) – Originally known as Dhakai, this sari hails from Dhaka, one of the oldest weaving centres in (then) Bengal. It came to be known as Jamdani or Jamdani dhakai under the Mughal rule. The material is hand-woven cotton, commonly known as muslin, and the weaving tradition is considered one of the most labour-intensive and intricate of all forms found in the country. Decorated motifs are woven using a loom, usually in grey or white, and tend to be geometric or floral in shape. This sari is commonly included in wedding gifts to Bengali brides.
Leheriya sari (Rajasthan) – Leheriya is a traditional Rajasthani dyeing art, resulting in wave patterns. This zigzag pattern of multicoloured stripes is seen across the state and uses indigo to create the final staining, resulting in brilliant shades of blue that catch the eye. This dyeing pattern is also used on turbans, worn by men.
Sarees are a part of India’s vibrant culture and rich tradition, and while modern attire has moved away from many of the traditional weaves, their strongholds do still remain. It is important to embrace this elegant garment even while adopting modernity, for the sari is timeless and testimony to the long and colourful history of India and its art.
There are many more sarees that are found across India, but I must stop here and let you – the interested reader – explore these on your own!
2 thoughts on “A Love for Handlooms”
Excellent Priya, Loved this. Do say hi to mom and dad. Take care
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Thank you! Will definitely convey
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