The intricately crafted long drape of a saree runs down a 4000-year-old history giving Indian women an identity alongside providing a covering, a visible social standing and a thing to fancy among many other things. Collectively to India as a nation it provides a sense of pride as an artistic heritage.
It’s easier to identify sarees as a heritage of handicrafts- specially harvested yarns spun and weaved into Kanjivaram, Chanderi or Banarasi textiles at a length of labor-intensive methods finally to yield a drape. However, differentiating between art and craft - if manufacturing of a saree is a craft, the patterns of decorative coloured threads, the dyed designs, the painted pictures along with the very different ways the fabric wraps different bodies around different communities contribute to the art and aesthetics of a saree. The Bengali style known as ‘Atpoure’ requires the iconic red border to form broad box plates coming over the shoulders to the front covering the chest giving women an elegant royal look. While the Munda tribe of Jharkhand requires the similar broad red border to come short around the knees by folding the length of the skirt portion and the ‘Pallu’ (veil) goes backwards from the shoulder to be tuck round the waist, giving the tribal women convenience while working out in the fields or forests.
Talking of red borders, every community in India has their distinctive patterns or prints in their traditional sarees. Fabric art of Kalamkari from Andhra Pradesh, literally meaning pen art (‘kalam’-pen and ‘kari’-craftsmanship), requires handmade outlines made from a tamarind pen and then filled with natural dyes usually depicting motifs of religious significance such as deities and temples. Bandhni from Gujrat and Rajasthan is the traditional version of India’s own tie-dye style, iconically printed on a red cloth with small yellow, green and blue diamond shaped patterns or even in a dotted leaves pattern. Banarasi sarees from Uttar Pradesh feature gold or silver threaded ‘zaris’ or brocade and intricate embroidery designs of florals and foliates.
However, sarees don’t require to be strictly traditional. The old heritage has evolved to have its modern dimensions. From wearing sarees with turtlenecks and statement belts to patterns on them now depicting newspaper prints or cartoon designs, they continue to provide catered personalized identities to Indian women. Sarees have continued to be a legacy of traditional craftmanship and ever evolving art but unlike the art poised behind bars in museums or stuck frozen in time inside costly frames, women possess the ownership to this ancient heritage unbiased of class, caste, age and even of biological sex.
Next time you’re out in the streets make sure you notice the saree clad women- how the lean banker lady at the store, the plump housewife beside her and the sturdy vegetable vendor at the opposite side of the street all equally own this heritage and reflects in it their own individual identities.