All about living in this crazy, wonderful city called Bombay

October 25, 2003

Am in the middle of doing a story on the history of the Sari for a US-based fashion magazine. The sari is seriously one of the most sensuous garments known to mankind and I feel really proud to have it as part of my heritage, even though I end up wearing it only on special occassions. There is something so luxurious and exotic about this attire. Reminds me of what Kiron Kher once told me, and she should know because she has some of the most gorgeous saris I have ever seen in Bombay!

Kiron Kher on Indian Saris:

Sensuous silks, sheer chiffons, soft muslins, diaphanous organzas or gossamer nets. Woven, printed, embroidered or plain in six sexy yards, translating into the most beautiful garment in the world…the saree.

One of the most wonderful things about being an Indian woman is that we have a wealth of shringar to adorn ourselves with. Where else in the world can you wear bindis, bangles, parandis, exotic ornaments and sarees? The magical saree is our own heritage, and we can wear it legitimately.

My love affair with the saree started when I was a child. I would watch my mother dressing up to go to a party with fascinated eyes. I remember her zari-bordered georgettes and printed French chiffons. Come winter and silks would come tumbling out from the suitcases, and the sarees would be spread on durries to soak in the sun. I longed to grow up and swathe myself in the myriad hues glittering in the afternoon light. Finally, when I turned sixteen, I got to wear my first saree. Since then it has remained a passion. As I grew up and travelled across our country, I learned a lot about the saree.

Kanjeeverams, woven in the temple town of Kanchipuram near Madras, are my favourites for winter eveningwear. The silk is heavier and stronger than other sarees and has solid brocaded borders that are pure gold. The traditional style pallav and borders contrast in colour to the main field of the saree and usually have deep rich jewel tones.

Legend has it that the Dhakai mulmuls once used to be so fine that an entire saree could easily pass through a finger ring. These Bengal handlooms, along with the Tangail sarees, are unbeatable for summer wear. They usually use sindoor-red, green, blue, black or purple colours to weave designs on the border and buttis on the main body of the saree, the latter having an off-white or cream background.

Benarasi sarees also use heavy gold and silver brocades. Their jaamevaar weaves and tanchoi satins are exquisite and make elegant winter wear and their heavy jaal and butti brocades are a must for every bride’s trousseau.

The Patola from Patan in Gujarat, woven in the double ikkat style is probably the most complicated of all textile designs in the world. Using a unique tie and weave method, it has a tremendous richness in colour. A single saree can take up to six months to make and prices range upto two lakh per saree.

One of my favourites in heavy sarees is the Paithani from Maharashtra. The most exclusive paithanis are woven in Paithan, a small taluka on the banks of the Godavari near Aurangabad. It has its origins in the tapestry weaves of Central Asia. The Rig Veda mentions a golden woven fabric and Greek records talk about gorgeous Paithani fabrics. The Peshwas had a special love for Paithanis. The Nizam of Hyderabad made several trips to Paithan and his daughter-in-law Niloufer, introduced several new motifs to the border and pallav designs. The favourite motif used during the Maratha period was a kind of flower called the asavali. Real zari is used for brocade work. The traditional colours used are red, pink, black, yellow, purple, peacock blue and a greenish-red combination. The shot effect with two-tone colours is exquisite and gives great depth to the silk. The original Paithani colour is kusumbi-purple with a green border. The brocade pallav and border take on a bejewelled appearance. The best Paithanis are available in boutiques owned by ladies who are designing and working directly with the weavers.

The soft coloured Chanderis in muslin or silk from Madhya Pradesh, the Maheshwaris introduced by the Holkar royal family also from Madhya Pradesh, the Bandhinis of Kutch and Rajasthan, the ikkats of Orissa and Pochampalli in Andhra Pradesh, the Baluchari and Gorod from Bengal…the list is endless.

Sadly, today’s urban Indian women seem to be moving away from the saree towards more westernised and (dare I say) asexual clothes. Younger girls are into faded jeans. Older women mistakenly feel that a saree ages them and prefer to wear trousers or skirts. The result is obvious at most parties. You get a roomful of black trousers and shirts. Dull, boring and jaded.

The saree can be the most versatile dress of all. There can be nothing more dramatic, elegant, understated or sexy…whatever the statement you want to make, there is a saree available for every occasion. The world is waking up to the workmanship of India. We have master weavers and craftsmen. But only if we wear the saree will we be able to keep the market alive and ensure that the craftsmen can earn their livelihood. We must not let these artisans disappear. It is easy to take our heritage for granted and scoff at centuries of artistic evolution. Let us enjoy our Indianness and revel in its luxury. Do we need a Madonna to make the bindi into a fashion statement?

Read the entire transcript in India Today Plus (November, 2003)

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