If you do not believe me, watch a woman in the subcontinent pull out a saree to drape! The selection takes time and it is not just about giving the color or the event more thought, there is a cultural memory at play here. A saree in India is a repository of memories, sentiments, and moods. Those yards and meters can take you back to flashes of your mother wearing the piece; they can then pitch you forward to a visual of your daughter draped in the same fabric of art. For art it is… these hand-woven marvels, India’s legacy of an unbroken tradition of more than 5000 years.
The saree finds mention in the Vedas, among the oldest literature composed by mankind. Records from the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300–c. 1300 BCE) indicate usage of this unstitched single piece of cloth. Lore has it that an ancient Hindu belief held that stitching made a cloth impure. It therefore came about that four to eight meters of fabric began to be draped around the lower body, using strategic pleating to fold across the torso. Which of us does not remember Shakuntala wearing this precursor of the saree in one of the Amar Chitra Katha’s mythological comics? The saree is a banner of India’s complex history, geography, culture, and economy. And the proud bearers of this labarum are this country’s intrepid women who live their lives with grace even in the shadow of violence. Some choose to make a quiet but resonant statement with this transcendent apparel. These are the true inheritors and keepers of the nation’s handloom heritage.
One such live archive is Shalini Bhatnagar with her personal choice of wearing only the hand-loomed creations. “Hand woven sarees are one of a kind, especially in these times of online shopping and digital prints. By investing in a hand woven saree, you are investing in your country, its tradition, its culture, its people,” shares Shalini. Fortunate to share her passion for woven sarees with her mother, late mother-in-law, and daughter, Shalini voices a word of caution, “It is important that you do a little research and go to genuine sellers when looking for hand weaves, it’ll save you from fake traditional prints on low quality silks.”
Having survived as living traditional clothing, saree weaving is an example of the genuine pride that drives an individual to craft and weave as well as can be done, beyond what is required, beyond economic considerations of reward. The saree and its proud patrons such as Shalini Bhatnagar make up India’s contribution to our world’s cultural heritage and diversity. There is this charming tradition of the saree sisterhood moreover. “My pieces circulate between my mother and my daughter. I do believe they form a significant part of the heirloom I plan to pass on to my daughter and my future daughter-in-law so that they can be loved and worn with the same pride and joy that I wear them.”
The saree invariably marks milestones in womanly sagas of this hemisphere. Says Shalini, “I wore my first hand-woven saree when I was in my 2nd year of college. I remember it was a black and white Sambhalpuri cotton saree that I’d picked up from a remote weaver in a village in Orissa. The second one was from Kerala, a birthday gift from my father.”
The three hundred sarees she owns represent nearly all the states of India. From Uttar Pradesh there is Chikankari, Tapechi, Mukaish, Tanchoi, and the famous Benarasi saree from Varanasi. Her Balucharis, Taant, Kantha, and Jamdaani come from Bengal. She also owns a Pocham Palli from Andhra Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh finds representation with the Chanderi, Baagh, and Maheshwari sarees. There is the collection of Bandhanis from both Rajasthan and Gujarat; a Patsilk and Mekhla Chador from Assam; Paithani from Maharashtra and the quintessential Kanjeevaram. Bhagalpuris, Gicha, Tussars, Madhubanis, Uppadas, Kasavu, Gadhwali, and Kota Sarees are not to be left behind. “One particular one that I wish to own some day is probably an ‘affordable’ Patan Patola from Patan, Gujarat. The two others that are also yet to find their way into my collection are Ilkul sarees from Karnataka and the famous Patachitra of Orissa.”
“Maintaining these sarees takes a lot of effort, especially since we are constantly on the move owing to my husband’s job,” Bhatnagar admits. “Seasonal sunning and airing and changing the folds are extremely important. Dry clean them only if required, and pack them individually so that incase a color bleeds, it doesn’t stain the rest.”
It would be fair to assume that as the Bhartiya Nari girdles up for the twenty first century challenges; her anchor in many ways remains the saree! – Neerja Singh