Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Design of the Sari - Unravelled

Text of the Talk on The Design of the Sari 
at Alliance Francaise, New Delhi 

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji 4 May 2014

I am going to begin this talk about the sari and its relationship with individual, regional, and national identity, with some personal reminiscences. The first, concerns an intricate purple, pink and gold Benarasi silk sari that was bought for the wedding of my grandmother-in-law, in the early decades of the 20th century, almost a hundred years ago. I was introduced to this beautiful heirloom, just before my wedding reception. New to Bengali customs and completely unused to wearing saris, I was asked to drape this on. I did so, with a great deal of trepidation, and the fervent hope that both the sari and I would emerge unscathed from the experience. Fortunately, we did.
Some of my mother’s saris, including the red Benarasi silk worked in silver thread that she chose as part of the wedding gifts my father’s family bought for her, have also come down to me. My mother spent her girlhood in and around the Garhwal Himalayas, much removed in space and time from the Kanpur of my grandmother-in-law’s childhood. Many of the Benarasis that formed part of my mother’s wedding trousseau, despite frequently jostling across army cantonments in iron trunks, cheek-by-jowl with my father’s treasured whisky bottles, still retain their lustre and delicacy. Though it is only infrequently that I wear saris, I took the red Benarasi out recently to wear at a wedding.

 The Sari as representative of a Regional and National Culture
What has all this got to do with design, or identity? First, that in my subjective opinion, the design of the sari ensures that it is flattering to most women in the sub-continent. So, it was the overwhelming mode of dress for Indian women, whether a Bengali brought up in North India, or a Pahari travelling all over the country. Secondly, the fact that the sari, even with its dwindling popularity, is an identifiable symbol of India. This is why, so many of us, who may not wear saris on a regular basis, still fish them out on formal, celebratory occasions. Or why, professions or people who are involved with presenting India to the outside world, also often opt for the sari as a formal mode of wear. Thirdly, that different regions in India have different and recognisable patterns, weaves and motifs and even ways of tying the sari. The Benarasi, the Chanderi, the Sambalpuri, the Dhakai, the Kanjeevaram, the Paithani—saris from different parts of India, carry the names and ethos of their cities or regions with them, and conjure up specific variations on the theme. And though associated indelibly with these regions, famous regional ‘types’ of saris are cherished possessions all over India—wherever it is the preferred mode of garment. Even in the mountains of Kumaon, where the flared skirt or the lehnga is more practical and also the traditional choice for wedding apparel, the Benarasi sari is still a significant part of special wear for many women.

A Shared Indian Lexicon
In fact, attributes of saris from different areas inspire and inform a shared Indian lexicon, of forms as much as words. Some months ago, I was reading out an article on the tailor-bird to our ten year old daughter. The writer, an ornithologist, had written it in Marathi, from which it had been translated into Hindi for the Children’s Science Magazine, Chakmak. The article contained a description about the appearance of the tailor bird, which in English would read like this: ‘its orange eyes, rusty head, set off by its green jacket – soft as Chanderi silk.’[1] Both my daughter and I could immediately envision its appearance, especially since I happen to own a dupatta in green Chanderi. That the delicate Chanderi sari, named after the town in Central India where it is still woven, can be used as such an effective image to evoke the texture of the feathers of a bird, reflects the penetration of different sari types into our very vocabulary and imagination, from that of a writer and naturalist from the Ghats of Western India in this case, to a reader in a metropolis in North India.

The sari then, is as much representative of a regional as it is of a national culture. This is not to disregard the fact that the sari is not worn all over India, even traditionally. The lehngas of Rajasthan, Kumaon and Kutch and the woven shifts of the Nagas are just some spectacular exceptions. Neither is the sari worn in the same way over different regions of India. As Rta Kapur Chisti, who has researched and written extensively on the saris of India, also demonstrates, some of the many ways in which the sari is worn, includes a form of draping and pleating which makes it function and appear like a lehnga![2] Thus, the same sari looks different on each person; transforming itself both by taking on the silhouette and the volume of the form it drapes, and the manner in which it is draped. This invests most traditional saris, with a perfect compound of not just obvious hallmarks of regional and national identity, but also makes them reflect an individuality that owes as much to each of their makers as to their users.[3]

Exploring Design, and the Design Principles of the Sari
How does this happen? To understand this, we will have to explore and unravel the design-principles of the sari. Before doing that, we have to first comprehend ‘what is design’. Design, in its conventional meanings today, is limited to dictionary definitions. The Chambers English Dictionary defines it as ‘to indicate, to draw, to contrive, to form a plan of’.[4] But, evidently the sari is a designed garment, and equally evidently, rarely is it made through elaborate drawings. To quote from Rta Kapur Chisti: ‘The sari allows us to go back at least a thousand years in design terms with variations in pattern, weave and structure between its inner and outer end-pieces and its two borders which provide drape, strength and weight while the body enhances the form of the sari or dhoti when it is worn.’[5]

Definitions by themselves, then, will not take us far, especially in the context of India. As Chaturvedi Badrinath notes in a discussion on the Mahabharata: ‘One characteristic of Indian thought has been that in the place of definitions of things, it asks for their attributes or lakshanas. That is because all definitions are arbitrary, whereas the lakshanas or the attributes, are what show a thing, through which a thing becomes manifest. Thus, not the ‘definition’ of truth, or of love, but the attributes of truth and love by which they are known is what is central.’[6] It may be worth our while then, to look for the lakshanaa of Indian designs. Are there any characteristics in form and external treatment, or any intangible features about designs made in India that render them recognizable as Indian? Can the sari be used as a metaphor for Indian design, to illustrate these lakshanaa? What is their relevance in the context of our time, as well as earlier times?

Shared Knowledge and Appreciation of Aesthetics
One attribute of design historically over a fairly wide area of the globe, and certainly in India, was a shared knowledge and appreciation of aesthetics informing the practitioner and the patron alike. The renowned architectural theorist and teacher, Professor N. J. Habraken, in his writings on Thematic Design records and analyses design-methods in different parts of the world, from the North American Indian way of constructing canoes to how the famous Steinway pianos are created, to the evolution and growth of city-form in areas ranging from Mexico to the Netherlands. Through these examples, he explains how design practiced within a shared image and language allows the active creation of cohesive yet varied and well-suited forms and details.[7] The presence of a shared image, and the engagement of the craftsperson as well as local resources in the production and development of artefacts, was a factor in most societies in the world—not merely in Indian society—before the onset of large-scale mechanisation. That seems to make the sari a metaphor of universally and historically valued design attributes.

Something More than Localization and Customization
However, notwithstanding such similarities in localization and customisation, historical examples of Indian design across various fields, show some elements that seem to be quite distinct from other traditions. What are these? Well, one of these distinguishing elements in the Indian tradition seems to be the preference for attributes that offer flexibility and versatility, for designs that can be used for multiple purposes and occasions. In architecture, this is perhaps most evident in the tradition of designing multi-use and flexible space, brought to perfection in the 17th century magnificent palace-fortress built in our very own city of Delhi, for the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. In attire, this translates into a preference for an unstitched, woven, multi-purpose garment such as the sari—despite the technology and the knowledge of stitching from very ancient times, evidenced by the archaeological finds of needles in many sites of the Harappan civilization.[8]

In most traditional saris, the decoration is part of the structure of the garment. That is why it is resilient enough to withstand continued use. The design effort knits together and goes into spinning the material, composing the patterns and directly weaving them on the fabric. The overall dimensions of the sari are more or less fixed, and the variations happen within a certain range of length and breadth. And once it is done, the same sari can fit different women of different sizes at different ages and different times of their lives. Since it is not tailored and sewn to fit one individual at one point of time in their life, the sari can be bequeathed from generation to generation. The weavers’ and spinners’ skill can be conserved and presented, and displayed and worn for generations. This predominance of a flexible, unstitched garment may also be seen in traditional men’s wear—in the form of the dhoti, the mundu, and the lungi, where depending on the fabric, the intricacy of weave and the style of drape, it may be used for pujas or weddings to simply lounging around at home.
Even most traditional stitched garments in India, such as my personal favourite, the lehnga, offer this feature of flexibility and multiple use, though naturally not as much as the sari or the dhoti. Like them, the lehnga too can suit both casual and formal occasions; the waist can be drawn in or let out depending on how much you have eaten in the recent or distant past; it can be lent or handed down successfully to people of different dimensions. One of the lehngas I treasure the most was made in the early decades of the 20th century for the marriage ceremony of my grandmother, which has come to me via my mother. Odhnis, duppattas and shawls—other unstitched garments which the lehnga is conventionally teamed with—demonstrate similar attributes of an ability to suit multiple users as well as multiplicity of use. They can encircle one’s head and ears, be wound around one’s arms, protect one’s neck and chest—in dry summers, sudden monsoon squalls, blustery winters.

Individual Creativity and the Freedom to Improvise
The other distinctive element of Indian design was the strong streak of individual creativity that eschewed replication even within a strong structure of form. Consider the stonework of the Taj Mahal or the pavilions and courtyards of traditional palaces.[9] To understand what this implies in terms of saris, one has only to look at them. Even when they bear characteristic motifs that render them recognisable as being from a certain region or area, there is still considerable variation within saris from the same region, depending on the material, different guilds, different craftspeople and so on. Not just that, even saris woven by the same craftsperson, are never identical. 

It was because there was the freedom to improvise within a defining yet accommodating structure, that such designs, which were distinctly individual but were united by an aesthetic sensibility and skill, could be made. This design approach did not reduce the everyday functional object to something mundane or banal, but elevated it to something special. And it gave the craftsperson the opportunity to engage in work, which though strenuous was actively personal and creative. Thus, designs ranging from saris to cities, were in almost every case, not just practical but also beautiful. So, not just those of my mother and grandmother-in law, but the saris of a majority of women from their generations and before, are stunning pieces of craftsmanship and design.

This context-sensitive ‘freedom to interpret’ was pervasive in most indigenous folk and classical Indian traditions—whether music, theatre, architecture, crafted art, philosophy, literary texts, and even daily ritual.[10] But, the sari is perhaps the best representative, and also practically the only living example, of this tradition. At a cousin’s wedding recently, my aunt brought out some of her old saris to see if any of us would like to wear them. One of them, a particularly beautiful pink cotton Banarasi, was her wedding sari. As we handled its now fragile folds, we decided not to risk wearing it, till we could get someone skilled enough to add on a cotton lining to it. I instead photographed it in detail, and e-mailed the pictures to her daughters in China and England, who had been unable to attend the wedding celebrations at short notice. I had forgotten, till my cousin in China reminded me, that while in college, I had worn this very sari at her sister’s wedding! My aunt’s sari linked three weddings in different decades in our extended families, and reawakened memories across two continents.

It is in this context that the sari can be used as a distinguished example of the qualities that marked out much of Indian design in the past, which we can learn from and apply over a wide field.[11] Values of lasting efficiency, multiple purposes, and customization. Let me reiterate the lakshanaa of traditional Indian design that the sari embodies—where resources can be used optimally but frugally; where an artefact can be simultaneously functional and decorative; where infinite variety and complexity are possible within an idea of striking simplicity; where work, despite being a necessary means of survival can also be part of an individual quest for creative expression; where rigorous knowledge and appreciation of aesthetics can enable the creation of distinctive design within a shared language and structure. Does formal Indian design in the hands of professionally designated designers exhibit these qualities? What does rooted regional and national identity mean for the creation of a culture of design? These are questions we need to ask—and answer.
It would be presumptuous to think that we could do so in the space of the time at our disposal today. But, I would like to point to some observations as a prelude perhaps to the answers.

First, that continued creation and evolution of pertinent design depend on continued and evolved patronage. Today, when most of us, like many other people and governments in the world wish to become like the industrialised countries of Europe, or North America and mimic standardised, stereotypical images from that part of the world, our aspiration is for objects generated by ‘Big Industry’. We cannot then hope to be evolved patrons of distinctive customised design. The sari is but one example of such distinctive design and apparel, which is now getting ‘de-recognised’ as ‘proper’ or ‘appropriate’. The Times of India recently carried a report about a 67 year old Indian visitor being denied entry by a policeman into a Metro Station in Dubai. Why? Because he was wearing a dhoti! Despite the Roads and Transport Authority there having no official dress code or policy, and despite the policeman being explained that the dhoti is modest and traditional Indian attire.[12] Along with the ethos and recognition of such regional and national markers of identity, their makers too are dwindling. In India—home to the largest number and the most skilled craftspeople in the world—small farmers, craftspeople, and weavers are being pushed out of their livelihoods. So, like many of their counterparts in different parts of our country, the weavers of Benares and Bengal are now pulling rickshaws or breaking stones for roads. 
For those of us who do opt to wear the sari, even if only occasionally, when we choose to ‘make-over’ the sari into the hands of large industry and its attendant exploitative practice, and into materials and methods spawned by large-industry[13] we superficially continue to wear the sari, but we make a mockery of the principles of decentralised innovation, and the culture of ‘small is beautiful’ inherent in its basic design-strength. Even worse, in the manner typical of large-scale commerce and media, we refuse to recognise attributes of design in traditional crafts, and instead profess to have an exclusive right to appropriate them. So, the cover story in the Hindustan Times Brunch July 2013, themed on ‘Indian Fashion’s Greatest Hits’,  and titled ‘The Sexy Sari’, announces that ‘armies of women are getting customized saris’ with Manish Malhotra’s designs, ignoring the fact that the sari was always a customized article of wear.

That brings me to my second observation, about the idea of luxury touted and sold even today, and which, as described in the magazine of The Park Hotels, ‘still harks back to bespoke…not just ownership or consumption of an expensive object, but an enriching, individualizing, personal experience…which stays with the user for posterity’[14].  This idea of luxury was accessible to rich and poor alike in India, in the past, especially in the form and design of the sari. Consider the notes of a British officer in the Nizam’s court at Hyderabad, in the late 18th century, that he could not distinguish much difference between the dress of the poor and the rich, except that the clothes of the rich were perhaps slightly cleaner.[15] A Persian text from the 1820s on eleven trade-crafts and their practitioners, from Bareilly conveys the same information. These are some images from a translated version of the Folio; they show respectively a Paansari, a Crimper and a Goldsmith. In many instances, the description of their clothes is simply that they ‘are just like other inhabitants of the country’ or ‘like upper-class people’.[16] 

Today, however, we have two ends of the spectrum. One, where, we unquestioningly cough up money to buy audaciously priced, industrial ‘branded’ products, but consider crafted products ‘too expensive’. This was brought home to me by a master-craftsman from Tamil Nadu at a crafts fair eleven years ago. He was a weaver of very delicate and strong reed chattais, which could be rolled up into tiny cylinders and literally wrung without spoiling their weave. We were debating whether to buy one at 1100 Rupees, when he asked us “Did we think so much before buying branded shirts at the same or higher cost, produced in a factory, and identical with many others?” At the other of this spectrum is the huge government support to large-scale industries, which makes products of smaller hand-crafted enterprises rare, and therefore too expensive for the poor. So, my cook who dislikes wearing nylon saris, which make her perspire profusely in the kitchen and are a great fire-hazard, can only afford these mill-made saris of artificial materials. Cotton saris even in her village in Bengal cost a minimum of three hundred rupees, and are therefore reserved for special occasions such as Durga Puja.

My third observation is that when we design ephemeral products today, for a ‘fall or spring season’, we are not breaking new ground, but merely following a different tradition—that enunciated by western designers in a post-World War world. This concept of ‘planned and perceived obsolescence’—popularised in the last century by Clifford Brooks Stevens[17]an influential American industrial designer, means that objects are not designed to last, and simultaneously advertising is harnessed into "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary". And the reason we opt for this, reversing the qualities of optimum efficiency of our indigenous design tradition, can be explained by a statement of the Indian psychologist and sociologist Ashis Nandy to the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo: ‘…a sizeable section of the Orient itself has begun to look at its own past through the eyes of the West. Because that, they think, is the more modern, progressive, scientific, and universal outlook.’[18] In another interview in a national newspaper, Chandra Bhan Prasad, the mentor to Milind Kamble, founder of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) answered a question about changes in the lives of Dalits and tribals, by saying: ‘…now Dalits and upper castes and OBCs have common sources of food—wheat and rice. And jeans and T-shirts have become new weapons of emancipation...Dressing well, eating well.’ [19] 

That jeans and T-shirts are seen as ‘new weapons of emancipation’ and instances of ‘dressing well’, is a reflection that local food and crafts, and even the traditional sari are now symbols of the ‘un-emancipated’. But emancipation, among other things, is the freedom to decide what we want to wear or display or use. Though we may not realise it, this freedom is continually compromised—by corporations, large entities and business-policies which covertly or overtly shape our choices, and graft on meanings of progressive to large-scale mechanization, when it is actually the reverse. As designers and users in India, we have the alternative to work with a versatile vocabulary of skills and principles, lakshanaa that can create ever-new compositions. We can still use uniquely crafted and designed articles, and at the same time empower small communities, individuals, craftspeople. So I would like to end, as I began, with the image of a sari. Not one woven a hundred years ago, but in today’s time. This beautiful Kerala cotton sari was bought in Delhi at a Sari Shop in Khan Market, and is both less expensive and more valuable than the industrially-made branded plastic watch I was given a choice of being gifted. And for those who crave novelty and endless variety, we still have people who can teach us how to drape the sari in some or all of its 108 recorded ways—to give us a constantly refreshing individual identity within a regional and national context. I was fortunate enough to learn one recently, where the Sambhalpuri sari from Orissa forms a resplendent and comfortable dancing costume for the oldest surviving classical dance in India, Odissi.

[1] Kiran Purandare, ‘Cheuhit’, p.17, translated from Marathi into Hindi by Aamod Karkahnis, as published in the Children’s Science Magazine in Hindi, Chakmak, June 2012; translated into English by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
[2] Worn among the tribals of eastern Gujarat and in western UP; for a demonstration of the different ways of tying the sari, see Rta Kapur Chisti on TED:
[3] For a brief and brilliant discussion on the sari, see ‘What is the Sari?’ By Ashoke Chatterjee,,
[4] The dictionary has more words under Indian, but nothing that is listed or distinguished as ‘Indian design’.
[5]The Unstitched Garment’, Rta Kapur Chishti, http://www.india-
[6] Seminar April 2010 issue: The Enduring Epic, ‘Living with the Mahabharata’, p. 69
[7] ‘Sharing’, The Appearance of the Form, N.J. Habraken, Awater Press, Cambridge, USA, p. 13-17, pp. 23-34
[8] Along with spindle whorls and needles, a piece of woven cotton has been found in Mohenj-daro,; needles have been found in Rakhigarhi and Banawali; evidence of silk, wheel-spun cotton in two new sites, p.112, Michel Danino, The Lost River, Penguin 2010
[9]  Habib Tanvir’s explanation of how Sanskrit drama as well as the folk and classical traditions that succeeded it, is illuminating in this respect, p. 23, ‘My Milestones in Theatre, Habib Tanvir in Conversation’, Charandas Chor, Seagull Books 2004, Kolkata. Nageen, Habib Tanvir’s daughter, explains her father’s experience with scripting his plays and directing folk actors “Up to a point it’s important to leave the actor free. And in Indian art it’s important to let them improvise.”  
[10] ‘Is there an Indian Way of Thinking’, pp.34-51, The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan, edited by Vinay Dharwadker, OUP, 2012
[12]Dubai Metro denies entry to Indian in dhoti’, The Times of India, 5 August 2013, p. 16, PTI
[13] In the July 28, 2013 issue of Hindustan Times Brunch, Yashica Dutt (pp. 8-9).
[14] Living, Issue 7, The Park Magazine, ‘Made to Measure’, p.03,
[15] Dharampal, Essays in Tradition, Recovery and Freedom, Collected Works Vol.V, 2001, Reprinted 2007, pp. 17-8
[16] Crafting Traditions, Documenting Trades and Crafts in Early 19th Century North India, Ghulam Yahya, Edited  And Translated: Mehr Afshan Faroouqui, IGNCA, Aryan Books International., 2005, New Delhi
[17] Clifford Brooks Stevens (June 7, 1911 – January 4, 1995) popularized the concept of planned obsolescence (the practice of artificially shortening product lifecycle in order to influence the buying patterns of consumers)., accessed 24.04.1014
See also:
[18] Talking India, Ashis Nandy in Conversation with Ramin Jahnabegloo, ‘Looking in the Mirror of the East’, p. 27, OUP 2006

1 comment:

  1. Respected Anisha Sekhar Mukherji madam

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    Anisha Sekhar Mukherji madam recently i am conducted my Third Seminar on Indian Heritage and Culture. In this seminar i am sharing my collections relating to our culture and many children actively participated in my seminar and they cleared their doubts about our heritage through me.

    Anisha Sekhar Mukherji madam please look into my Third Seminar on Indian Heritage and Culture post and give your valuable and inspirational comment.