Sari: The six-yard fabric goes the whole nine yards

November 3, 2013

This traditional Indian attire, which has also become a hit internationally with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Naomi Campbell draping it, is giving the little black dress a run for money
Two days after the Indian sari store Kala Niketan opened its first international store in Dubai, I sat gloating about the three saris I had acquired — two from the said store and a blood-red chiffon number with chikankari which I’d coerced a colleague to buy for me on her recent visit to Lucknow — to a colleague when he queried: “How many saris can one really have?”Well, just as a woman can never have enough shoes or handbags, women who love this graceful, classy traditional garment must have one of each style — unique to each state or region. And I’m sure I’m not the only one to think this way.
Just as the tricolour, the lotus, and the peacock are intrinsic symbols of India, the sari takes on individual styles and textures, depending from which state’s loom it has originated.
It reflects the Indianness of a woman, yet endowing an enveloping sensuousness to her. From the traditional, luxurious jamdanis, kanjivarams, balucharis, benarsis, crispy chanderis, to the contemporary, wispy hand-painted chiffons and printed crêpes, the appeal of the sari will never die out.
“There are some 30-35 categories of saris [we have],” says Hiten Parekh, owner of Kala Niketan. Parekh has been part of 72-year-old family business for the last 22 years.
“What Kala Niketan offers is traditional — our strength — and styles which are not so easily available here — jamdani, pochampali, uppada, kanjivaram … We have our handloom centres in Varanasi, Chennai and Bangaluru,” he says.
“Within India there’s a strong evolution of the sari because India is going through a series of introspection,” says the renowned Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee.
“The newer generation did not grow up during insurgency; they did not see the partition, political fall out or the great famine or the Naxalite movement. They are the children of plenty, who’ve grown up in the internet age. In many ways they’ve been disconnected with the real India and so the propensity to understand a country becomes more and more strong.
“What I see is many of them are ready to embrace traditionalism. They are no longer going to be looked upon as children without identity; they are going to recreate their own identity and will embrace anything with a strong national identification. In that sense, the sari is here to stay.”
Another advantage to women who “never-have-anything-to-wear” for any occasion, the sari can easily be dressed up or down, keeping in mind the tone of the event. Moreover, whatever the quality, design and style of wearing it, a sari will always turn heads at any event. Trust me, I know.
“Wearing a sari gets attention — good attention — but the question is why? It should be treated normally,” says Dubai-based graphic designer, avid sari lover and stylist to friends Sagarika Sundaram, who feels one can wear the sari at anytime, anywhere — even at work.
“The sari is breaking out of its conventional format in a very modern way and people are embracing it.”
If you were allowed a peek in my wardrobe, you’d find a mix of the traditional and modern, but, like most clients of Sabyasachi, it is the hand-woven variety that attracts me more.
“[When women come to me, they] firstly ask for something more handloom quality and something that will stand the test of time. Then they want colours, they want contrasts … and so on,” says Sabyasachi, whose saris have been worn not just by Bollywood superstars such as Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan and Vidya Balan but international stars such as Oprah Winfrey (who incidentally sought him out when on her visit to India last year) and Naomi Campbell.
“I try to do traditional saris for hardcore sari wearers, I try to do embroidered saris for those who are just finding their feet with the sari and I try to do modern saris for women who are Dolce&Gabbana dressers.
“What I want is to create a relationship between the sari and the woman. Either it is a very mature relationship or a new one, but the idea is to get more and more women into saris.”
However, with more and more women working longer hours, the sari can become a tedious wear, especially the process of draping it. But the innovative designers of India have found solutions to that too.
“Earlier the fabric and texture would determine its richness — the kanjivaram, bandhani and benarasi,” says Surily Goel, a leading Indian fashion designer.
Now, it has taken on a new haute couture element. “You have morning saris, evening saris, cocktail saris. A woman can now wear a black sari instead of a black dress.”
“I think a stitched sari is very good idea,” says Sabyasachi. “You need to understand that a woman who’s just learning to wear a sari will buy a stitched sari today because she doesn’t know how to pleat. But next time she may buy a non-stitched sari. Then she’ll buy a purist sari without a border, and so on. She’s evolving too. The idea is to lead her from fusion to zones of purity.”
“If you see Bollywood there was a time it was confused with little Herve Leger dresses and Gucci gowns but now cocktail saris, designer saris are more in demand.
“Now I see a Dia Mirza or Maria Goretti — not just Vidya Balan — who are the real ‘it’ girls, wearing a chanderi or benarasi or kanjivaram. The evolution of the sari has been in the move from being exotic to something much more mainstream.”
“I believe it’s a personal choice [to wear a stitched or a regular sari]. You wear what you are comfortable in,” says Madhuvanthi Ramakrishnan, Miss India UAE 2003 and a Dubai-based banker.
“Personally I like the traditional six yards because it gives you room to choose how you wish to drape it. South Indian, Gujarati, Bengali, Coorgi … You can go crazy with it. I feel if it’s draped it has a certain charm to it. It brings up one’s confidence although here we don’t have opportunity to wear it.
“The reach of the sari is so great that it immediately fits into an event and you look stunning. It’s not daunting. It depends on how you carry it off, and that applies to any outfit. If you know how to drape it, it’s OK.”
Parekh says business has picked up in the last two years after a lull of 7-8 years and credits that to the rise of Indian television serials and renowned designers taking such great interest in designing for Bollywood films.
“Bollywood influences [fashion] a lot because India is a diverse country and what Bollywood does is connects the minds of the people,” agrees Sabyasachi.
“If you see the content of English Vinglish [in which Sridevi’s saris were designed by Sabyasachi], it is a simple story about a common Indian housewife that everyone related to. There were no frills and fancies.”
“In India a customer — if I may be allowed to use the expression — is very ‘dheeth’ (stubborn). You can’t seduce an Indian with big money and big brands all the time. That way the average India is far more removed from the blinding brand game as the rest of the world.
“When you show India something that’s good, that’s cheap, easily accessible and with which you project the popular culture it becomes a rage.
“The English Vinglish saris, though I don’t produce them — I have a project called Save The Weaver And Save The Sari — has given the handloom sector an incredible boost. Every single woman is going to a state emporium or a khadi bhavan and saying ‘Oh, I can look like Sridevi and it’ll only cost me Rs800 (Dh48)’.”
“It was women such as Devika Rani and Meena Kumari who brought traditional touch in Bollywood,” explains filmmaker Soniya Kripalani. “It was a time when the slogan was ‘buy Indian, be Indian’.
“Then, came the era of Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi and Rekha, and everyone was wearing polyester. But the evolution came with actresses such as Jaya Bhaduri and Rekha who once again brought in the traditional — till today, Rekha wears only traditional to all events.
“Yash Chopra started a new trend, before designers taking on actresses as muses. Sabyasachi-Vidya Balan, Tarun Tahiliani-Shilpa Shetty, Abu-Sandeep-Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan … they all started representing the culture and we’ll see more contemporary work with newer designers.”
Yet, in many ways the sari lacks an international appeal.
“The sari is very mysterious. Its biggest charm is that ‘I don’t know how to wear it’. For a lot of people it’s like discovering the unknown,” says Sabyasachi.
“People love a sari because they don’t think it’s just exotic but it’s a difficult garment, and internationally it’s becoming more and more popular. It’s becoming something of a curiosity culture case.
“When Oprah Winfrey came to India, she was like ‘I didn’t know it was so easy to wear. I feel I’m wearing comfortable lounge clothing, yet it is red carpet glamour. It can’t get better than that.”

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