The Traditional Indian Saree is the synthesis of technology, science, art, agriculture, religion, philosophy and sustainability.
Integrated flawlessly into a garment which is as practical as it is royal, the saree stands as a tribute to the sophisticated and highly evolved status of ancient Hindu civilization. It is truly remarkable that such diverse disciplines can be represented in just one dress.
This integration can be examined through a discussion of the production of a traditional cotton saree. Until recently, the cotton was sewn, grown and harvested by hand on a small or medium scale permaculture plot. The cotton would then be sorted, and spun by hand. The threads were dyed using natural substances. The fibres were then taken to the loom, where the magic truly began. If the saree was to have a gold border than considerable effort was used to turn 24 carrot gold into weavable thread. In the dying and weaving process there was an amalgamation of science and art.
In many parts of India today, this ancient handloom industry still thrives, relying on technology that is ancient, and yet capable of producing such refined textiles, that they surpass the sophistication of textiles produced by any other culture.
Throughout the process, it is human energy that powers all of the technology used in the production of this sublime end piece. The technology is so simple, and yet, it is capable of producing results that can surpass a garment made from any modern complex process. What greater demonstration of sustainability exists? From start to finish, it is only the sun and human power that are required.
The minds of the designers are truly gifted, particularly those who must memorise free-hand warp and weft patterns to produce a single body design. Their ability to interpret and stylise natural and religious symbols is superb, with particular themes being chosen for each different garment. Somehow, religious symbolism can’t help being included and various motifs such as Vishnu’s conch shell, the swastika, or Ganesh’s mango will appear in many designs.
The process of creating a single saree via these means, is a slow one. Slowness is a tenant of sustainability, in that, it gives the natural resources upon which a final product is dependant, the time and ability to regenerate, before market demand increases. It is this very slowness of existence that has ensured the survival and prosperity of the Indian people, who rely on such limited natural resources, in such confined geographical space.
Being continuously worn on the subcontinent of India for several thousand years, the saree is the oldest continuously-worn ethnic dress.
In it’s varying regional forms, the saree communicates various aspects of ethnic traditions. Although, hundreds of different prototypes exist, there are broad categories that can be broken up according to geographical location. The sombre understated natural textures of the east and south, versus the exuberant colours and shiny finishes of the West and North is perhaps the first obvious distinction that one will notice when entering the world of sarees.
The second largest differentiation occurs according to state, with each having it’s own characteristic borders styles, head patterns, colour preferences and weaving methods. Some states favour embroidery as a means of decoration, while others use patterns that are built into the warp and weft in a method known as ikat.
For me, the Eastern pure cotton sarees of Andrah Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bengal & Orissa represent the heart of traditional Indian iconography & are, for this reason, my favourites.
They are subtle, refined and require a more intimate knowledge of culture to be truly appreciated. They sand for a culture that was perfectly integrated with the natural world, but one that had achieved great heights of philosophical and moral reasoning, spiritual realisation and sustainability. This is reflected in the natural textures and colours of these pieces, the harmony of designs and the intricate nature of weaving methods. This particular saree style is the dress of India’s agricultural majority. To me is speaks of the people and for the people standing for unity through combined effort, agricultural labour and humility of existence.
Below are samples of more famous varieties from these 4 regions.
Orissa cotton saree – the wheel is used extensively in Orissan textiles. This ikat method of weaving, was transported to South East Asia, by Indian traders. This founded the entire South East Asian Ikat tradition
Orissa cotton saree – lions and sacred palm tree design
Bengal Cotton with tree motive and temple border; soft pastel hues and bright orange and yellow shades are the preferred colour combination of this region
Bengal cotton saree: Checks are a favoured design in this region
Bengal cotton saree: Wide borders and complex head patterns are another characteristic of the Bengal cotton saree
Andra Pradesh peaches: Light pinks and Sandalwoods are a specialty of this state’s cotton varieties. These are Indias most refined and subtle sarees
Andrah Pradesh sandalwoods: This demure saree’s border has the tiger’s claw pattern woven in gold zaree thread
Andrah Pradesh cotton: Squiral border pattern, with mango and botanical motifs on the border and buttis
Tamil Nadu: Playful block prints with horse design
Tamil Nadu cotton saree: Bandini tie and dye method used for creating a dot pattern on the border
In contrast to these understated beauties, are the extremely dazzling, and stately sarees of Paithan and Patola on the North West coast of India in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Patola is known as ‘The Queen of Silks’ and paithani, likewise, are so grand that they are handed down from one generation to the next as family airlooms. They range in price from several hundred to several thousand dollars depending on the amount of pure gold that is used in the border and head piece. Both these varieties are the pinnacle of India’s sublime textile tradition.
Paithani Head Piece Below: The complex border design with parrots and peacocks is a typical traditional theme in this region
Patola Silk: Like, Orissa, this tradition uses a complex warp and weft ikat technique
The message that is communicated through the saree is modesty and cultivated femininity. To me, this is more appealing than the garish, in-your-face sexual display promoted by many modern fashions.
The sarees’ practicality only becomes apparent when observed in situ. The length of an unfolded saree ranges from 5 to 9 meters and allows for a great number of folding styles. Agricultural workers will allow for higher folding that gives freedom of leg movement, while city dwellers will employ a folding style that covers each visible part of flesh, adhering to the tradition of allurement through ‘less is more’.
One of the features of the traditional saree that made it a truly sustainable dress is that it was able to be worn as a garment or dress without the need for any stitching, buttons, zips, clasps or other additions. It was complete in itself, and easy to iron and fold, being a single flat piece of cloth.
Today the saree is worn with a blouse and petticoat.
The head piece of this dress has multiples uses. For workers, it is used for protection form the sun out in the fields, wiping sweat of the brow, holding hot vessles in the kitchen while cooking and swatting away annoying mosquitos.
The length of the garment allows for full body coverage from the sun and at night is a useful cover from mosquitos – particularly the variety that have the feet as their preffered place of attack. At night or during a siesta the saree can provide enough coverage and double up as a blanket.
The asymmetrical drape of the saree allows cool air to circulate over the torso, while still providing protection from the sun’s ray’s. The loose drape of the garment provides protection from the elements while minimising sweating.
Some, have noted that the pleats of a saree are greatest over a woman’s chest and pelvic region. This emphasises the importance of protecting these areas, as delicate, sensitive and sacred aspects of the female form.
This way of dress has evolved over thousands of years to accommodate a woman’s requirement to look elegant, but also her need to be active and do heavy labour when necessary. It has managed to capture so many different aspects of the culture, including class and status, that the saree, in itself, has become a language.
There is a whole world that exists along side the culture of the saree that governs accessories worn with this dress. As complex as it is old, it is outside the scope of this article, but is worth noting as an important point.
In Indian literature the saree is mentioned in numerous places. The most famous story is several thousands of years old and tells of a famous heroine Draupadi, who was saved from rape, when she prayed to God who converted her saree into an endless ream of cloth. The men who were trying to unravel her saree soon grew tired of pulling and pulling on the endless fabric, and she was able to escape!!!
All in all, the saree is truly marvellous. In all it’s splendour as the garment of royalty, or in it’s humble version as the cloth of the working class - it is an intrinsically beautiful dress, that is an inseparable part of the true Indian psyche and a garment which should be respected and appreciated by humanity World-wide.