Legend has it that when the beauteous Draupadi - wife of the Pandavas, was lost to the Kauravas in a gambling duel, the lecherous victors, intent on humiliating and harassing Draupadi, caught one end of the diaphanous material that draped her demurely, yet seductively. They continued to pull and unravel, but could not reach the end, and thus undrape her. Virtue triumphed yet again in this 5,000 year old Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Legend, fantasy, history or fact, it is the first recorded reference to the enduringly attractive Sari - the longest running 'in fashion' item of feminine apparel in the world.
A charming folktale explains the origin of the Sari as follows:
"The Sari, it is said, was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver. He dreamt of 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".
Indian myths often use weaving as a metaphor for the creation of the universe. The sutra or spun thread was the foundation, while the sutradhara (weaver) or holder of the thread was viewed as the architect or creator of the universe.
The etymology of the word sari is from the Sanskrit word 'sati', which means strip of cloth. This evolved into the Prakrit 'sadi' and was later anglicised into sari.
There is ample evidence of the sari in the earliest examples of Indian art. Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st- 6th century AD), suggest that the sari in its earlier form was a briefer garment, with a veil, and usually no discernable bodice.
There are also several references to the fact that in South India the sari had been for a long time one piece of material that served as both skirt and veil, leaving the bosom bare. Even today in some rural areas it is quite common for a woman not to wear a choli.
In extant North Indian miniature paintings, (particularly Jain, Rajasthani and Pahari schools from the 13th to the 19th centuries) it seems to consist of the diaphanous skirt and an equally diaphanous veil draped over a tiny bodice. This style still survives as the more voluminous lehanga of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Gradually this skirt and veil were amalgamated into one garment, but when and how this happened is not precisely clear. One theory, not fully substantiated, is that the style was created by Noor Jahan (d. 1645) wife of the Mughal emperor Jehangir (reigned. 1605-27). Perhaps it would be more accurate to speculate that the confrontation between the two cultures, Islamic and Hindu, led the comparatively relaxed Hindus to develop a style that robed the person more discreetly and less precariously.
Some costume historians believe that the men's dhoti, which is the oldest Indian draped garment, is the forerunner of the sari. Till the 14th century the dhoti was worn by both men and women. Thereafter it is conjectured that the women's dhoti started to become longer, and the accessory cloth worn over the shoulders was woven together with the dhoti into a single cloth to make the sari.
Indian civilization has always placed a tremendous importance on unstitched fabrics like the sari and dhoti, which are given sacred overtones. The belief was that such a fabric was pure; perhaps because in the distant past needles of bone were used for stitching. Hence even to the present day, while attending pujas or other sacred ceremonies, the men dress up in dhotis while women wear the sari. Thus even though the different waves of Islamic expansion (13th - 19th century AD) resulted in new versions of stitched garments, the primacy of the sari and its gently changing form couldn't be changed. Even today, when the Islam influenced Salwar-kameez (loose trousers with a tunic) is an increasingly popular garment, the Sari continues to hold its sway. The flow it confers to the natural contours of the female form enhances the gracefulness of the fairer sex, as no other apparel can.
The Sari, like so many other textiles, gives the lie to the hierarchical distinction made between fine arts and crafts. The approximate size of a sari is 47 by 216 inches. Although it is an untailored length of cloth, the fabric is highly structured and its design vocabulary very sophisticated. The main field of the sari is framed on three sides by a decorative frieze of flowering plants, figurative images or abstract symbols.
Two of the borders define the edges of the length of the sari and the third comprises the end piece, which is a visible, broader, more complex version of the other two borders. This end piece is the part of the sari that is draped over the shoulder and left to hang over the back or front, known popularly as the Pallav.
The pallav usually elaborates the theme found in the two borders and the actual field of the sari, a sort of repetition and amplification in the manner of the Indian musical mode, the raga. The raga has a set number of notes and these are intoned in a form of verbal mnemonics, before the song is actually sung. No new notes other than those in the introduction are used, but improvisation is allowed and results in endless permutations and combinations. This beautiful metaphor thus compares the two narrow borders to the introductory recital of the pure notes and the pallav to the song.
The design, whether woven, embroidered, painted or block-printed, needs to maintain the proportion and balance between the actual field of the sari, the borders and the pallav. The pattern creates its own rhythm. For instance, the scattering of spot weft gold dots increase in the pallav for a denser, richer pattern and gradually and softly decrease on the actual ground of the sari.