Behind the Sari: It’s a Wrap

2 minute read
Jyoti Thottam

Like the garment of its title, Saris: Tradition and Beyond is gorgeous to look at, rich with history and a product of painstaking labor. Rta Kapur Chishti started her research in 1984, when she was commissioned by the Indian government to document the nation’s handloom textiles, a source of immense pride because of their close association with the independence movement. (Mohandas Gandhi wore only khaddar, Indian hand-spun cloth, to protest the import of British textiles.) Chishti spent the next eight years traveling across India, interviewing and photographing women and weavers. She published several academic volumes but also wanted to produce something for a general audience.

(Read “The Dying Art of the Sari.”)

The result is an exhaustive, beautiful book that explains the subtle variations in the sari over time and across different states of India. It’s also an unusually intimate work. Along with the descriptions of each style of textile are diagrams documenting 108 different ways of wearing the sari: an unstitched piece of cloth that is usually about a meter wide and up to several meters long. Every fold, tuck, pleat and drape is explained and identified, from the elaborate styles worn by Brahman women in southern India to the utilitarian approach favored by farming communities in western India, where the sari is often wrapped and tucked around the legs so women can work in the fields. “In the manner of her carrying the sari,” Chishti writes, “the wearer reveals her nature and demeanor.”

In the 25 years since Chishti began her research, the sari has undergone revolutionary change. Cheaper machine-made synthetics threaten the livelihoods of weavers, and India’s economic boom has pulled more urban women into the workforce, where many have abandoned saris in favor of Western clothes. Chishti spent more than a year updating her research to reflect those developments, but she believes there is still a market for what she calls “low-tech, high-skill” textiles, if weavers would only stop trying to imitate mass-produced cloth and instead exploit the enormous variety of handwoven saris. Chishti imagines a pyramid, with expensive saris made by master craftsmen occupying a small niche at the top and everyday cottons produced by younger weavers at the bottom. “I’m not talking about Gandhian economics,” she says. “It’s the future.”

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