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The quintessential eastern fashion statement, the sari seems to be the most misunderstood garment, in the history of apparels. Though a number of European designers are increasingly vouching for its comfort and beauty, it is still an enigma for western cultures, mysteriously draped and staying in place without any help from pins or buttons!!!!!

A charming folktale goes "The Sari, it is said, was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver. He dreamed about a woman. The shimmer of her tears. The drape of her tumbling hair. The colors of her many moods. The softness of her touch. All these he wove together. He couldn't stop. He wove for many yards. And when he was done, the story goes, he sat back and smiled and smiled and smiled."

The long length of garment in rich hues weaves and warps, is just another few yards of textile, till it is draped on a woman's body. And that is the beginning of the transformation, both for the garment and the woman. The world's oldest surviving fashion statement, the sari first finds mention in the Vedas, the ancient wisdom of the Asian sub-continent. More than 5000 years ago it existed in a similar form and was called `cheera', meaning covering cloth. Some people think that Indian sari is influenced by Greek or Roman toga, which can be seen on ancient Roman statues. This is not correct. Saree is essentially Indian in nature and was best suited to local climatic conditions. Cotton was cultivated in India centuries before Alexander the Great landed on the borders of India and Indian cloth was a wonder to the Greeks. In fact, Herodotus and other ancient western historians thought there were trees in India which grew cloth!

Times changed and its patterns changed too, and after many changes, evolution and styles later, it is today the primary wear of the Indian woman, and still the only wear for the rural Indian woman. More than 75% of the population of the Indian subcontinent wears the sari, in one form or the other.

The dress has survived the test of time, cultural invasions and even colonization. It is to its credit that the Muslim invasions, Europe colonization and even the recent globalization of styles, fashions and cultural ethos, have not managed to dent the authenticity, utility or the fan following of the sari. It still is considered the best dress for occasions like marriages, festivals and gifting to women, across the length and breadth of the country. Another interesting thing that is now seen is the adaptation of the sari for nouveau fashion styles, even by some European fashion houses. One can understand the interest that the classically oriented French culture can have for a classically beautiful garment like the sari.

The sari, in its original form, was a single length of cloth with designs, worn pleated on the lower half of the body and draped across the upper part. It is worn in at least 10 to 15 styles throughout the India, though the ways of wearing above used to be common. In Maharashtra and North Karnataka region, wearing a nine-yard Saree (without a petticoat - long underskirt - which was superfluous) was in vogue till 20th century. In many tribal cultures of India it is still worn like that. But after the entry of Muslim and Middle Eastern influences in India, the petticoat or the undergarment covering the lower half of the body, started. The sari was fastened on this base layer, pleated to allow free movement of the legs, then the remaining garment thrown over the shoulder to drape the top.

The style of draping the sari differs between regions in India. The rural women wear it with the topmost pleat tucked into their backs, going from between the legs, and this seems to be the most comfortable style as far as hard workingwomen are concerned. The warrior queens who went to battle on horseback would wear their saris this way, so do the women who work in the fields, as hard as their men themselves, planting, hoeing and transplanting. The garment is convenient because it leaves the arms and legs free, covers the essential parts and gives a good drape too.

In other areas, styles differ, in the cities, it is worn with more style, even as a glamorous party outfit. The sari can be made to resemble shorts, trousers, flowing gown-like or convenient skirt-wise-all without a single stitch!

The textile used to make this ethereal garment boasts of real variety. From the diaphanous cottons, soft and delicate, the muslin from Dhaka, to the sturdy silks of South India, the weaves and wafts hold sway. Each region has its own special texture and design, depending on the regional crafts and the climate of that particular area. Woven silks, gauzy muslins and textured silk cottons hold sway over millions of female hearts.

The areas which are hot and humid around the year have a unique style where the upper part of the body is not restricted to any more clothing, hence the traditional mundu of South India-Kerala is comfortable for women in those sticky, long months of tropical monsoon.

The garment has undergone functional changes even if its original style has stayed. For instance, the warrior races of Northwest India, the Rajputs developed the `odhni', a slightly shorter garment worn over a flowing skirt and upper garment. The flowing skirt is called ghaghra and owes its origins to the gandharan garment that was wore in these regions in ancient times. The upper garment in the form of a small jacket or blouse is a Victorian addition, because when European cultures came into India, they were in the Victorian era, so even a naked ankle was scandal. For the far more open culture of India, this was difficult, but a mean had to be struck. So the sari adopted the blouse to please the colonial masters. Traditionally, Indian women wore what was called a kanchuki ( a single cloth tied across the breasts, much like a strapless bikini top), and there are many paintings and other evidences to prove this. But those were the times of the Kama Sutra, and for a culture that can come up with a treatise on sex, a revealing female garment was nothing extraordinary. In fact, prudery came to India only after the tenth century, first in the form of the Purdah with Muslim invaders, then Victorian values with the colonizers.

This 'odhni' should be diaphanous, soft and billowing, conceal and yet give away the curves and beauty of its wearer. In fact, that is what the sari is supposed to do, and it does its job quite well.

The sari is perhaps the only garment in the world that can make its wearer look modest and demure while baring the midriff, outlining the hips and draping sensuously around the curve of the waist, What is revealed is much more than what is concealed, the modesty is retained and the sensuousness is effectively conveyed. What better statement of fashion does one need?

By Kanika Goswami

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