This post was last updated on August 12, 2021 by Preethi Sukumaran
The traditional Indian garment for men and women is just a piece of unstitched rectangular cloth, a dhoti and a sari respectively. A simple, woven rectangular piece of fabric six to nine yards in length. With very few accessories this piece of unstitched cloth was draped in several ingenious ways to cover the head , torso and lower body. Variety was provided through colours and different fabric types like cotton or silk.
When we examine our Indian textile traditions it is clear that we have great strengths in spinning, natural dyeing and weaving. But to me there is not much obvious evidence of a great Indian tailoring tradition.
Perhaps this had its roots in religion where only unstitched cloth is considered appropriate for all holy occasions and to help a seeker enter a pious frame of mind when doing reaching out to god. It is fascinating to note that wearing unstitched cloth for holy occasions is a tradition that is found among Hindus, Jains and Muslims.
Over time, with several invasions notably the British, the urban Indian dress is a lot more aligned to the rest of the world and has drifted considerably from the unstitched cloth.
Was it a process of global assimilation driven by travel and media symbols?Did this decline happen just for practical reasons ? Can one go for a morning run in a sari? Can one drive a bike to work wearing a dhoti?
This poses many questions about the relevance of the traditional Indian garment.
Is it now just a symbol of culture to be unleashed during weddings or at Diwali?
Textile Scholar, Rta Kapur Chisti is India’s pioneer in reviving the Sari and keeping it relevant for folks today. She has shown 108 different ways of draping the Sari to suit different occasions. Her research shows that Women in erstwhile princely state of Jhansi draped the Sari in special ways to ride horses and even swim across rivers. In 2009, She has also started the “Sari School” , a unique workshop conducted regularly in New Delhi that introduces novices to a whole new world of this unstitched garment. Rta is also the author of a book called the Saris of India, which is a bible on the subject and is a celebration of India through its Sari traditions and now part of India’s textile canon.
In this interview with the Krya blog, Rta Kapur Chisthi gives us her own crisp, pithy version of the whole nine yards.
On the relevance of the Sari in “modern” Indian woman’s wardrobe
The sari is capable of constant adaptation & recreation In fact in the Sari School Workshops we conduct, participants are encouraged to create their own level of comfort, suitable for body form & occasion. What makes the sari unique is its capability of transforming itself into a long or short dress, a pair of pantaloons or even a pair of shorts & on the other hand can become a grand gown if required.
The question of what we wear is not a moral one but we should atleast know who or what we are in the way we dress.We are blindly taking to western wear but most often what we reveal are our short comings & not our assets. In particular the upper arms, the bust, the backside, the knees which are either dimpled or knobly at best. As we imitate others, we do not see ourselves anymore!
Dress is not a question of right or wrong but something aesthetically suitable to all the aspects you have mentioned including climate, body form, comfort level & occasion. We are what we wear & unfortunately most of us are looking more like “export rejects” !
The sari is being relegated for special occasion wear but is it not as difficult if not more difficult to handle the way we sit or stand or move in a short dress especially if we are not moving within the same social circle & have to go out on the crowded street or bus or any other part of the majority of India? I often see young people on television trying to take a seat with crossed legs turning side ways to prevent the view ‘upwards’.
Are Saris and handlooms tied together intricately? Would you explain this connection further?
The sari in concept is deeply connected to an unstitched garment with different densities created by patterning in the borders, end pieces & body at times. This is a functional necessity for the way it is to be draped as the borders & end pieces take the load of the wear & tear at the feet or the tying at the waist & the inner end piece takes the load of the sitting or squatting & the outer end piece is often used to tie over as a pouch or as a shaded head cover.
Handlooms are disappearing because those who are involved in the spinning & weaving process cannot earn enough to sustain a livelihood leave alone being at par with other professions. Hand work is naturally slower but it can produce a superior quality of fabric at its best. It should not be propped up with subsidies which lower quality & justify poor quality because it is handloom made. The hand must produce finer & superior textures that cannot be handled by machines.
In all cases handloom produced saris should not require starching or shade drying. They were our heirlooms at one stage if you recall. Handed down from generation to generation & this was not because of high maintenance but largely because of superior yarn & fabric quality.
We happen to be fortunately placed with multiple levels of production possibility by hand & machine & we should use this to our advantage rather than opt for complete mechanized production. For instance we could be the only country in the world that can make handspun handlooms in some significant quantity & quality as we have the skill, fast disappearing raw material & a work force that cannot be entirely absorbed in the mechanized sector
We are opening our markets to the world but likewise are not entering the world through what we look at as ‘slow skills’ which give us an edge even among south & east Asia. These are being relegated to the past, neglected, ignored or at best being made to produce & compete in volume & not quality of the hand.
The “Ananda Khadi” movement & Sari School.
In 2003- 04 ,the exhibition titled ‘khadi- the fabric of freedom’ had travelled to several cities in India. Over the next 3 years we realized that hand-spinning on the Desi Charkha unfortunately, had become the most neglected & forgotten strength of Khadi whereas, the faster semi-mechanized Ambar Charkha had been in favour over the last 50 years. Therefore, a concerted effort was made to develop hand-spinning upto 115s count on the Desi Charkha & develop 115s to 500s count on the Ambar Charkha. Both had their relevance & would never compete with mill spun yarns which spin to an average of 120s count & thus hand-spinning could reassert itself in a non-competitive context.
A team provided design & quality support, appointed a local weaver’s son/ daughter with some formal education to stay back in the village & look after the production work. After the first year, it was realized that the cotton quality & availability was not reliable & therefore cultivation for the support of organic farming was provided to indigenous cottons that could become totally organic & varieties of silk that were facing adverse conditions due to lack of interest in the market.
We now encourage local farmers to cultivate short staple desi cottons both brown & white with totally organic protection & soil enrichment to produce high quality rain fed cottons that can provide a regular flow of raw material to the spinners & weavers involved in this project. These cottons are ideal for fine textured, inlay patterned & 3 shuttle weaving which is prevalent. The challenge is to combine the unique skills in spinning & weaving for contemporary usage for both stitched & unstitched garments.
The unique quality of khadi is a low twist yarn that provides a soft supple fabric absorbent in the heat of summer & fulsome & warm in winter. It can provide the widest base of home employment as atleast 10 spinners if they were adequately compensated along with atleast 5 people involved in cultivation to cleaning, combing, carding could sustain one handloom for twelve months a year.
Products made from Ananda Khadi are now available in select stores across the country.
The Sari School was set up in 2009 as the last volume of the book “Saris of India” was going in for publication & we needed to connect with another generation to show them how simple it is to re-work an unstitched garment. To make of it what they want. Also weavers conceded that the books were useful in the long run but they needed support with weaving ‘now’ not later.
Preethi’s notes on the sari school: I was unfortunate enough to have missed Rta’s Sari school workshop at the Kalakshetra Foundation last year, but participants at the workshop swore by Rta’s acerbic wit and passion and came away mesmerized & inspired at just how versatile the Sari is. If you live in Delhi, the Sari School is worth a visit.
A guide to washing and maintaining handlooms
Our series on handlooms, the fabric traditions of India and our various detours into our cultural wardobe and how you could bring in more sustainability into your clothing ends with this post today.
But a series by Krya on fabric is not complete with one of our signature guides on how to care for this fabric. All along this series we have encountered questions from curious readers about the maintenance of natural and hand woven fabric, and this, apart from the question on why it is priced a certain way, is one of the big barriers to more and more people adopting handlooms.
Our little guide on maintaining handlooms draws inspiration from art, which in turn has been inspired by washing – (see, we knew we weren’t the only ones!). Maintaining great handlooms is not difficult, and it is a myth that caring for them takes time and energy. In fact, like tending to land, with great fabric, the less you interfere with it, the better.
An important part of your washing arsenal with handlooms is the right detergent – and this is a step you absolutely cannot afford to skip – most popular brand, synthetic detergents are unsuitable for the fine, carefully woven handloom fabric. They are over engineered and tend to fray and damage the joints of the weaves.
We hope you enjoy reading our handloom washing guide. If you have any questions on the process or on the rest of the series do write to us.
We would like to thank Ms. Rta Kapur Chisti for taking the time to respond to our questions on the art of sari wearing, cultural traditions and handlooms with so much wisdom and clarity. We enjoyed reading and editing your answers! Ms. Rta Kapur Chisti’s book on the Sari traditions of India is a bible for handloom and unstitched garment enthusiasts. The book is available online.
For those living in Delhi, The Sari school offers information and draping training to those wanting to master the sari. Ananda Khadi, Ms.Chisti’s brand of fine Khadi fabric and sarees can be bought in their store in Delhi and in other stores across the country. For more information please visit their website.
This is our concluding post of our series on Sustainable fabric and India’s textile traditions. The rest of our series can be read here:
- Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
- On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
- On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes
- The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
- The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
- The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
- Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
- Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
- Our post on the dangers and all pervasiveness of Bt Cotton is here .
- Our post on Onam, the Mundum neriyathum and wearing your culture is here.
- Our post on the Sustainable Fabric Workshop conducted at the Green Bazaar exploring natural dyes is here.
- Our post with notes on Kalakshetra’s Natural dyeing workshop and a guest post by Kavita Rayirath of Indian by design on inspiring Handloom appreciation is here.
- Rashmi Vittal of Little Green Kid’s guest post on why organic cotton is so essential for everyone can be found here.
- Our visit to Vivek and Juli Cariappa and our interview of this Krish pandit couple and their experiments with Khadi can be found here.
- Our post on Tula (organic, non GM Khadi) along with a video interviewing their founder, and an interview of Tara Aslam and Nature Alley Khadi can be found here.