Evolution of the Sari

11 Nov

It is a form of cloth our mothers and grandmothers wore traditionally but is now phasing out among the younger generations; the sari. It is a dress form that has been worn in the Indian Subcontinent for millennia and has caught the fancy of the West for as many years. Elizabeth Taylor is said to have remarked that the sari was one of the most beautiful dress forms ever invented. The famous British fashion journalist Colin McDowell, who has been covering fashion for decades now, confided his admiration of the Indian sherwani (men) and sari on a recent trip to Sri Lanka: “It dawned on me why India doesn’t have such a varied fashion industry as in the West. They had already perfected the most beautiful of clothes.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s Sari inspired wedding dress

Perfected or not, the sari had evolved and continues to evolve in various fashion crazes. It is not unusual to attend fashion shows that highlight only the sari and the various innovative ways it can be draped. Where though, did it originate from? That is a little harder to answer. The oldest recorded form of the sari is that of a priest in the Indus Valley Civilization, sporting a draped lower portion of the sari around his waist. Both men and women wore these pieces of unstitched cloth, artistically draped in neat pleats at the middle, once upon a time. Both sexes went uncovered about their upper bodies except for a piece of shawl, occasionally draped about the shoulders.

There are many a description left by scandalized Arab and European travellers, of the bare-chestedness of both sexes. As cultures, weather patterns and religious injunctions on modesty evolved however, so did the sari. There are depictions of women in South India as well as in Sri Lanka going bare-chested until the late 19th Century.

The sari jacket (also known as blouse/ravike /choli) made its first appearance under the Cholas hundreds of years ago, but was adopted for wear in Sri Lanka and South India only within the last 150 years.  The commonly known Indian word for the sari blouse, choli, apparently derives its name from the Chola Empire that introduced it. Similarly, it was during the Pallava Kings’ time, that the concept of elongating the cloth to cover not only the lower portion of the body but the upper as well, developed. So the piece of cloth, left over from draping the waist that is used to cover the upper body and thrown over the shoulder, is known as the pallav.

Although only a long piece of cloth, usually six yards in length, the way the sari has been draped to bring out the curves of a woman’s body as well as adding an elegance and aesthetic appeal of its own has drawn appreciation from many – even from cultures where the sari is not traditionally seen.

A famous quote on the sari, attributed to Orissa’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik goes, “The sari‘s radiance, vigour and variety, produced by a single straight length of cloth, should give us in the West pause and make us think twice about the zipper, the dart and the shoulder pad.”

It is also amazing how that single, straight length of cloth has adopted itself to various different styles. The most commonly known style is the ‘Nivi drape’ – what Sri Lankans call the ‘Indian style.’ There are however various other Indian styles of draping the sari, depending on the areas they originate from; Gujarati style, Madisar style, the Bengali/Oriya style, Kodagu style and so on.

The sari in Sri Lanka

Kandyan Sari (Osaria) of an earlier avatar

Sri Lanka too has its own famous regional version – the Kandyan style.  According to fashion designer Kirthi Sri Karunaratne (81), the Kandyan sari evolved only in his mother’s time as a ‘new’ form of fashion. Before that, high-born Sinhalese ladies wore European-style skirts and blouses while the middle and lower classes wore a version of the redde-hatte.

“I remember ladies of an older generation wearing the full skirts and blouses of the Europeans, fashionable at that time. My grandmother wore that dress but my mother took to wearing the Kandyan sari as it came to be known. In those days, the fall (over the shoulder) was not so long and they wore very decent blouses which covered their full arms and midriffs.”

So according to Kirthi Sri, the sari is a fairly new form of dress to the Sinhalese community; a little more than a 100 years old. According to the book Costumes of Sri Lanka by K.D.G Wimalaratne and Dian Gomes, the Indian sari was introduced in the early 20th Century to Sri Lanka by the women of Moratuwa and hence was known of as the ‘Moratuwa sari’.

This sari as well as the Kandyan sari became more popular through the nationalist campaigns of Angarika Dharmapala who, it is said, detested the sight of Sinhalese women in skirts, hats and gloves. He had his mother champion the cause of the sari as the ethnic dress of Sri Lankan women by having her take up that dress form and be photographed in several popular publications of the day, wearing it.  The book quotes Dr. Ananda Guruge, well-known academic and writer, as saying, “The European fashions among Sinhala women vanished almost overnight, under the influence of this publicity.”

Mallika Hewavitharana, mother of Angarika Dharmapala circa 1936

Although introduced several generations ago, the sari continues to flourish – literally as well as figuratively, with several flourishes and embellishments making new appearances as well as phasing out over time, under the vagaries of fashion.

Western fashions are on the wax again after the wane brought about by Angarika Dharmapala but the sari is still very much a part of the ethnic identity of Sri Lankan women. It is still their national dress and costume of choice at weddings and functions.

For just a straight line of cloth, it can be proud of all the ways it has lent itself to women’s fashion. Just a piece of cloth it may be, but a humble piece of cloth it is not.

Western designs inspired by the Sari

The Sari’s different avatars

Nivi (Indian) Sari

This is the most commonly known style of sari drape. Its popularity is attributed to Bollywood and other Indian actresses sporting this style of drape in their movies. It employs the use of an underskirt and choli. One end of the Sari is tucked into the skirt and then brought round the waist before being pleated at the navel in graceful folds. The rest is thrown over the shoulder as the Pallav and depending on the wearer, it can be left free flowing, pleated on the upper body like in the Kandyan Sari, or brought round the shoulders to cover the head. Some Muslim ladies are known to employ the last style of draping the Nivi sari.

Kandyan Sari

Also known as the Osariya, it was an extremely modest piece of clothing covering even midriff and forearms, when it first appeared. The Osaria distinguishes itself from Indian styles of drapes by having no pleats about the waist although the head-piece (Pallav) is neatly pleated and thrown over the shoulder, similar to Indian styles.

Another distinguishing feature of the Osariya is the frill at the side. The frill varies in size and shape depending on which part of the country it is worn, but the sari style as a whole is credited as having originated from Kandy; hence the alternate name, Kandyan Sari.

Gujarati Sari

This style of drape, commonly worn by the ladies of Gujarat, has also become quite popular in other parts of the world including Sri Lanka. Here the lower portion is tucked in the Nivi drape but the Pallav is brought back over the right shoulder and draped at the front. Many Sari textile designers heavily embellish the pallav with patterns, for design and artistic purposes and this style of draping shows the Pallav to best advantage.

Kodagu (Coorg) Sari

This is the sari worn by the ladies of Kodagu, formerly known of as Coorg, in Karnataka. Another favourite drape on the party circuit, this style distinguishes itself by having the pleats at the back of the Sari rather than at the front. The Kodagu ladies trace back the reason to mythology. The Sage Aghastya had a wife called Lopamudra who became the river Kaveri. As she transformed into the river and rushed away from him, the sage attempted to hold on to her by pulling her sari. The folds of her sari moved from front to back and thus the women of Kodagu wear their pleats at the back to commemorate the event.


Madisar Sari

This is a sari traditionally worn by the Brahmin ladies of Tamil Nadu. It distinguishes itself by having a puffed pants like appearance about the legs instead of the skirt / sarong like appearance of the other Sari drapes. It is a hardy style that is conducive to movement not to mention affording an appreciative glimpse of shapely calves. The way the sari is draped, quite a bit of legs show, affording views of the feminine pulchritude that other cultures might not be stranger to – but is nevertheless unique for the South Indians.

Photo Credits: Amitha Tennekoon, Costumes of Sri Lanka and the internet.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: