The Return of the Sari

March 08, 2008
Rumana Husain

I was only sixteen then. Although they say it is the sweetest of all ages, and there is a lot of hype about it, the fact is I was extremely self-conscious and did not want to look different. Strangely, I wanted to look the same as everyone else did.

We were planning to go to the movies that day. This was in Bombay, where I was visiting from Karachi for a summer-holiday. "I want to wear a sari, like everyone else," I confided in my cousin who was much older. She obliged and, minutes later there I was, standing in front of the mirror marvelling at her ingenuity. She had not only managed to drape me in a sari, she had secured it in place with safety pins as well. I still recall the careful, calculated steps I took on our way to the cinema, despite assurances that all was well and I could take long un-lady-like strides if I so wished!

Thus began my romance with the sari and for several years now, my reasons for wearing saris remain multi-fold: The grace, poise and charm of other sari-clad women led me to believe that I too could look like them. Saris hardly ever age. I could therefore borrow my mother's saris and get away with it. It is much cheaper to invest in a sari than in a shalwar, kameez and dopatta suit, as these fashions keep changing. Moreover, cotton saris are a boon to wear in the hot summer months, especially since the dhobi charges are nominal and I get to wear a crisp, starched sari every morning without having to iron it. A sense of easy luxury pervades. I also get thrills knowing that I stand out wearing a sari at any party. I am sure people will excuse my narcissism.

My infatuation with saris led my mother to part with her own wedding sari - a patola with brilliant hues and an opulent design. I received it long before I was married, but conditionally: I could wear it only after I was married. The Gujarati patolas have elaborate and intricate designs in fiery colours, resist-dyed into warp and weft threads prior to weaving. I can't say her patola had any part to play with my marriage plans, but I have certainly enjoyed wearing that sari on very special occasions.

Although some sari materials, and the way they are draped have been in and out of fashion a few times, the classic materials and the classic method still enjoy popularity. The Gujarati and Parsi style of draping the pallu, palava or anchala - the end-piece — in the front is followed by some young women, but the Parsi saris with their distinctive borders and Chinese embroidery have rarely been adopted by others. The ikat saris, which also take their inspiration from the Gujarati patola, have always been popular, and so have the Benaras silk and the tanchoi brocade saris. The large number of looms and businesses set up by the Benaras weavers in Orangi, Karachi, bear testimony to this. Transparent chiffon saris and embroidered saris have also remained in fashion for many years now. The titillating designs and colours of the chundri or bandhani (tie and dye) saris that were worn by women of all religions and castes, mainly in Sindh and Punjab in Pakistan, and in Rajasthan and Gujarat in India, still steal the show, sending many a male heart fluttering.

Even the patterns and motifs, ranging from flowers to geometric designs to animal images have a distinct flavour as each motif, each colour signifies the region from where that sari has originated. For example, the peacock motif is taken from Moghul miniatures, the paisley from Kashmir, the narrow stripes or bands of a chundri sari from Jaipur. Inspiration is also derived from jewellery, like in the jhaalar design, or from flora, like the vine or bel designs. Some tiny motifs are inspired by the moong or lentil, and the zeera or cumin. There are also checks, squares and plain-coloured saris that could have elaborate pallus with embellishments in a contrasting colour, design or embroidery.

Right up to the late 1970s, saris were a rage in Pakistan. Not only did the migrant communities wear this unique, unsewn piece of cloth as daily wear as well as party wear, 'daughters of the soil' also wore it happily and gracefully. The daughter of that full-blooded Pathan - Field Marshall General Mohammad Ayub Khan -, who was always by her father's side for all official functions, usually wore silk saris. These were probably acquired from the east wing of the country, from Dhaka or Rajshahi, which have always been famous for them. Dhaka has also been famous for its muslin and jamdani saris. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's wife Nusrat was seldom seen in any other dress but a sari.

Unfortunately, during the last two decades, which included the military rule of Zia-ul-Haq, many things related to beauty, culture and freedom took a nose dive. The 'democratic' set-ups of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif did not help matters. The sensuous lengths of the sari were lost in political turmoil and double-standards.

Although the origins of the sari are obscure, it is said that it has been worn in South Asia for the last five thousand years! Four to eight metres of unsewn cloth wrapped around the body was the 'proper thing' to do, as cloth cut and pierced by needles was considered impure. The sari is very much part of our heritage and lifestyle.

The younger generation seems to be waking up to the legend of the sari. On several occasions now, I find a few 'new entrants' in the sari-fashion arena. Sometimes it is obvious that the sari is being worn to show off a heavily embroidered designer blouse or a mini-blouse which clearly says, 'now you see it, now you don't.' Nevertheless, the return of the sari is being noticed. Be it the opulent designer sari or the poor woman's cotton sari - this is one dress which may have to be pleated and tamed, but which continues to make waves!

Rumana Husain trained as a graphic designer. She is co-founder and Senior Editor of an art biannual, NuktaArt. She also co-founded the Book Group, a publishing house for children's books. She has authored and/or illustrated nearly forty books for children and dozens of teachers’ guides. She works as Head, Activism & Outreach at a non-profit organization - the Children’s Museum for Peace and Human Rights – being set up in Karachi.
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Deepa Krishnan
March 8, 2008
06:52 AM

rumana, i just wrote on desicritics about the saree! and here you are, with another one. maybe this is saree-month!

rumana husain
March 8, 2008
08:10 AM

deepa, your article prompted me to upload my first on desicritic. thanks. you can well imagine my love affair with the sari!

March 8, 2008
05:41 PM

welcome to DC rumana:)

as i mentioned on deepa's board...it is graceful indeed but not everyone can gracefully wear it

rumana husain
March 9, 2008
12:16 AM

thank you temporal! for a moment i thought you meant Washington DC!! :-)

March 9, 2008
06:22 AM

bring them on, you can never have too little of sari discussions!

March 10, 2008
12:56 AM

Aah! Rumana, you need to come down to Chennai and Hyderabad to see the treasure trove of South Indian cottons and silks. The andhra cottons are simply amazing like Pochampalli, Gadhwal (cotton body, silk border), Uppada (revived weaving style where weavers committed suicide owing to rising cotton prices) Narayanpet etc. Madurai sungudi (tie-and dye), Coimbatore cottons, Krishnagiri make up some of the Tamil Nadu handlooms. Co-optex, the Tamil Nadu Co operative weavers Corporation supports the livelyhood of hundreds of thousands of small weavers across the state. And dont forget the classical Kanjeevarams- I just inherited my mother's 40 year old Kanjeevaram. The ikkats of Orissa and Mysore silk from Karnataka, the simple white with gold border of Kerala, the Puna sari, the grand Paitani from maharashtra, the Vishnupur and Dhakai sari from Bengal, Maheshwari from Indore... the list continues.

March 10, 2008
09:51 AM


Thanks for writing about the Saree. It makes a woman look divine, sensous, charming and subtle - all at once. To me the genious of its creation is amazing. Taking just a cloth and making it so easy and standardizing its style is a stroke of a genius. Not many clothes designers in the last 2-3000 years have been able to create something so simple yet so elegant with an unstitched piece of cloth!


rumana husain
March 10, 2008
01:56 PM

desh and bd, thanks! i agree, you can neither ever have too much of a sari discussion nor can you ever have too many saris! :-)
as for blokesablogin, what can i say to you... it is sheer cruelty on your part to cite such tempting creations from places i have never visited (but certainly intend to, someday).

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