The other day, while airing out and refolding my sarees, I realized I hadn’t bought a saree in many years! A few days before Deepawali and my birthday, I knew I had nowhere to go but that was no excuse – after almost a year into the pandemic, I wanted to look and feel good.
I am a bit wary when it comes to buying sarees. An experience I had a few years ago changed how I shopped for sarees. A smart and savvy salesperson at a store was pressuring me into buying a saree. Through casual conversation, she told me weavers spend 12-14 hours each day weaving the saree and dyeing it. Each saree, she said, takes 20-25 days to complete and many times weavers forgo their meals just to fulfill the suppliers’ demand, and they get paid Rs 100-150 ($1.50-2.00) a day depending on the type and design of the saree. The silk saree I had selected was priced at Rs 5,600 ($80) but the weavers had only gotten paid about Rs 2,000 ($30) for all the hard grueling work they put in. I walked out of the store feeling terribly sad for the weavers. I decided then, if ever I bought a saree from a store or online, it would be from someone who valued the hard work of the weavers and compensated them rightfully.
Many of these weavers and artisans are daily wage workers who work in extremely poor conditions and are not treated well. Their hands and body take a beating because of the long hours they put in. Added to this are the corrupt middlemen who stand to make a profit by paying these workers just a measly amount. If this is their plight in ordinary days, one cannot begin to imagine what they must be going through during these times when Covid has literally snatched their livelihood away. Also, weavers don’t get their jobs back until the existing stocks are all sold. With business affected, weddings, and festive gatherings postponed, these artisans are literally left to fend for themselves! With nowhere to turn they are forced to look for an alternate livelihood. Though tremendously skilled in their art many of them lack the technological skills to sell their weaves directly and hence are exploited by the middlemen.
Sarees are a symbol of our culture and heritage, and they are associated not only with our stories and sentiments but every saree also has the weaver’s emotions, identity, and voice woven into it. We simply cannot let their looms go silent and their voices die.
Hence, while shopping for sarees online, I look for organizations and vendors who work directly with the weavers and give them their rightful dues. That was when I stumbled upon Shobitam (meaning Grace in Sanskrit) started by two enterprising sisters Ambika and Aparna, right here in the US. What drew me to them was not just their beautiful, unique, and aesthetic sarees but their generous philanthropic work.
The sisters are not just your regular entrepreneurs on a mission “to help women look good, feel good, and do good” but also believe in giving back to their weavers and artisans. They consider the weavers their backbone “and it is their work behind the beautiful sarees.”
Shobitam “wants to be evangelists for them and give back, their goal is to make a difference and popularise lesser-known weavers.” Seldom do we come across a small business that has incorporated this philosophy in its infancy.
Shobitam launched a program Shobitam Cares at the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown in India. More than 50% of the proceeds from summer were used to provide grains and other edible essentials to 800+ families across our weaving communities in India. Shobitam Cares also empowers rural women, encourages kids in these families to go to school, and adopts ethical and sustainable environmental best practices. After the lockdown restrictions were eased, “we continued our efforts to give back to the community with our initiative called Shobitam GIVE”, which helps non-profit community organizations in the USA who are doing good work and helps with food and education for children.
Shobitam’s other mission is to popularize lesser-known weaves, art, and educate customers about handlooms and the work that happens behind the scenes. They have been promoting Madurai Sungudi cotton sarees making customers and weavers happy. Similarly, due to the penetration of synthetics and unnatural methods of production, oftentimes, customers are unaware of what goes into the making of Handloom silk or a Kalamkari art or a Vegan silk saree, so Shobitam has taken upon this to give these artisans a much-deserved boost.
Ambika and Aparna are not only making women of the Indian subcontinent look and feel good but are also crusaders to the weavers and their families they work with. And yes, I ended up buying more than one saree from them!
Anita R Mohan is a poet and a freelance contributor who loves to write on various themes. She mainly writes about women, India, Indian life, and culture.
Until recently, traveling to India meant carrying a half-empty suitcase, so it could be packed with saris to be brought back to the US. But as the Indian immigrant population began to grow, the second suitcase was no longer necessary. We have gone global and so have our methods of expression. I can find any type of sari at a local shop near me, as I would in the sari shops lining the streets of Abids in Hyderabad.
The quintessential Indian drape, 6 yards of sheer fabric or the Sari, has been a trusted sakhi for all women of all ages and personalities. The word Sakhi comes from Sanskrit, meaning girlfriend – a friend with whom you shared your innermost secrets, a friend for life. South Asian women feel connected to their roots, in a foreign land, whenever we drape ourselves in a sari, our fond sakhi. We feel her embrace and forget our inhibitions.
“Sari stores thrive in many Indian enclaves in America. Among the largest is India Sari Palace in New York, with a vast inventory from India, as well as Japan. Many in the Indian community wear mostly saris, and so there is a constant demand even in America. Just looking at the stores in ‘Little Indias’ across America indicates the sari market is thriving. In the 60s, many women were reluctant to wear saris in the US, afraid they would stand out. But in multicultural America…there seems to be a new pride in one’s roots.”, writes Lavina Melwani, “And why not? After all, there is quite as graceful as a sari.”
The sari drape got revolutionized by Garden Vareli, a brand that used women who were modern, bold, and draped the sari in novel ways.
Garden Vareli’s marketing expert, Santosh Sood, emphasized, “We had a sari ad that celebrated the sexuality of women unabashedly, but without being vulgar. A woman does not always have to be somebody’s mother, daughter, wife or sister. She is she and that is her identity.”
Thus began the sari revolution. It no longer was the attire of the homemaker or of the average middle class. It was a bold fashion statement. Navroze Dhondy of Garden Vareli, commented, “For the first time, it was a shift from the sari being perceived as boring, everyday wear without any sensuality to a smart, bold and sexy attire meant for the modern woman.”
Princess Niloufer, a Turkish princess, learnt to drape a sari when she got married to Prince Moazzam Jah, son of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1931, and was always seen in a sari even when overseas.
The sari today has become an expression of who the person is and of their style. Women are not draping them in just the traditional way but are experimenting with their drapes. Blouses are being replaced by Crop tops and fashionable blouses, t-shirts, and jackets. Belts are being worn to hold the pleats better and some saris also have a pocket for your cell phone. The sari, itself, is being draped over pants and skirts and isn’t necessarily worn with a matching blouse.
The function of the sari has expanded beyond the function of the home. Women are not only walking and exercising in a sari but also running marathons.
But more importantly, there are Sari Sakhis all over the world – friends who share their love of saris and its utility. The sari connects, empowers, and gives voice to South Asian women, regardless of how far apart they may be.
AM: Other than your love for saris, what inspired you to start this group?
VT: To encourage and make draping saris more acceptable and friendly to the younger sari wearer.
AM: Being a member of this group, I know that you not only decide the theme of each month but also encourage members to share their personal stories and stories associated with each sari. Is this why the name Saree Speak was chosen or is there another reason as well?
VT: Speak is the common name for all my groups. Another word for ‘voice’, another word for ‘share’. When you share you add to your joy or reduce your fear.
AM: How do you inspire your members?
VT: We try to promote the unconventional styles that have come up, to add interest to the sari. Give it a variety, make it the fashion-forward.
The sari has withstood the test of time, the pressures and struggles. It has fought to keep its place against the salwar kameez, trousers, jeans, capri, churidar, tights, and the palazzos, and became its own entity. And as Tandon says – every sari has a story. Just as we wear our scars, we women wear our saris, close to our hearts with pride and with joy.
So we drape ourselves in six yards of fabric, layered with our emotions, identities, and voices. We remain wrapped in the warm embrace of our sakhi, our friend, our modern armor – our sari.
Anita R Mohan is a poet and writer based in Fairfax, Virginia.
I am tradition and culture savvy and modern I am ageless neither old nor young I am emotions, memories sentiments and longings I am of all hues pastel and vibrant I am beauty and grace happiness and envy I anger and placate entice and flatter I conform to contours draped any which way I am a riddle until unfurled 6 yards of sheer wonder I am an obsession of every woman!
From the Indus, Mayan, Mauryan, and Roman civilizations to Chanel, Kate Spade, Swarowski, and Bvlgari, bangles continue to tantalize women the world over.
Perfectly rounded and ornate, glass, metal, lacquer, and agate. Unparalleled in splendor and beauty the very symbol of femininity. Seductive, tantalizing, trendy beautiful, bright, contemporary. Luminous, delicate, tinkling intricate, shiny, twinkling. Of every color and every shade satisfying any need and taste. A child’s laughter, a bride’s pride exotic, precious, worn with delight. Ancient as the ‘Dancing girl’ sculpture donned by women in modern culture.
An only child, now a wife and mother of two adult children, I am a poet at heart who involuntarily thinks and writes in verse. Emotions and memories that tug my heart slip out into my notepad as poems. Poetry which began as a hobby when I was a teenager became my catharsis after my father passed away in 2015.
To people from the West, the most familiar and paradoxical images of Indian women come from the extremes of a very broad and complicated spectrum. One is the image of Indira Gandhi, clad in a starched white sari, serving as the powerful leader of a largely patriarchal society. The other is that of an anonymous, thin, overburdened woman in a dirty sari, holding one undernourished child on her hip, while others gather round her legs. The women in these two images tread very divergent paths. Yet on closer examination, they share a powerful cultural symbol: the sari.
Throughout the world, women of most nationalities have adopted Western clothing for daily wear. But a majority of Indian women continue to wear the sari or its variants daily as well as on special occasions. More striking is the fact that it is only the women for whom traditional clothing is still a daily wear. Indian men adopted Western garments a long time ago.
Little research has gone into the tradition of the sari, and the factors that have helped to keep it in fashion for centuries. Historians trace the beginning of the sari to approximately 1500 BC and later. The manner of wearing a sari in those days varied among classes and occupations, and from region to region. Women of the higher classes wore two garments, one for the upper body, and another for the lower. Some would wear a bodice, breast-band, or shawl to cover the upper body. When worn separately, the lower garment was either wrapped as a full skirt and held at the waist with a girdle, or wrapped with pleats at the back. Women of the lower class and courtesans appear to have been bare-breasted.
Under Muslim rule (1200-1850 CE), North Indian Hindu women learned to wear clothes more akin to Persian costumes, with loose pants and a long top (known today as the salwar kameez). Onto this foreign costume, a sari-derived scarf, the dupatta, was added to serve as head covering.
The advent of British rule (1858 CE) also resulted in significant changes in the manner of wearing a sari. In the past, the finer and more diaphanous the sari, the more valuable it was. The British disapproved of this sari style: for them, the sheerness was too titillating and thus immoral. The petticoat worn under the sari carne into place to deflect the intense criticism made by “British missionaries about the “immodesty” of Indian woman’s clothing. During the same time, and apparently for the same reasons, the blouse or bodice—which had not been standardized or used throughout India— became a fixed upper garment for most Indian women.
Perhaps the single most important historical impact on the sari during British Rule in India was the British policy of non-assimilation. Indian men, who were members of the imperial bureaucracy, earned to wear Western clothes. But with no opportunity to move in Western society, there was little likelihood of the women developing a taste for foreign clothes. Therefore, custom retained its hold, and even today, despite outside influences, the sari remains a primary force.
Most women begin wearing a sari regularly when they are 16 to 18 years old. A younger girl is allowed to wear Western-style dresses, or in some parts of the country, an Indian-style long skirt tied at the waist. When she reaches puberty, this may become part of a more modest costume—a combination of a blouse, a long skirt, and a “half-sari” or a piece of cloth three yards long, tucked in the front and draped over the shoulder. In some parts of India, this continues to be the costume of most rural women throughout their adult life.
In North India, women generally wear the salwar kameez or chudidar kurta which consists of loose or tight pants, worn under a knee-length tunic, with a scarf half the length of the sari flung casually across the shoulders, or draped round the head and upper body. In most other parts of India, once a woman reaches marriageable age (18-24), the sari is her usual attire.
One aspect of wearing a sari has remained constant through time: the tucked in pleats. Sanskrit literature from the Vedic period insists that the pleats are absolutely necessary for a woman to be truly a woman. These pleats must be tucked in at the waist, front or back, so that the presiding deity, Vayu, the wind god, can whisk away any evil influence that may strike the woman in two important regions, the stomach and the reproductive organs.
The brilliant colors of the sari are also partly ruled by custom: colors are held to represent moods. Yellow, green, and red are festive and auspicious colors, which stand for fertility. Red, which also evokes passion, is a bridal color in some parts of the country and a part of rituals associated with pregnancy. Pale cream is soothing in the summer and also symbolizes bridal purity. A married Hindu woman will not wear a completely white sari, as it is only for widows: Life without a husband is a life without color. Black alone is thought to bring misfortune and must be mixed with another color. Blue evokes the thirst-quenching, life-giving force of the monsoon and visions of the beautiful boy-God, Krishna.
Indian women have always recycled their saris. Old saris are cut up and sown into pillowcases or quilts, redyed, exchanged for stainless steel pots and pans, or given to loyal servants. Sometimes gold borders are removed and used on children’s dresses. However, traditionally, the clothes of a dead woman are usually not part of her children’s inheritance; they are either burned or given to servants. Custom places a premium on new clothing as a symbol of renewal; old clothes are not valued as heirlooms.
More recently, fashion and a changing cultural climate have affected the sari and front pleats have become the norm. The sari size has decreased from seven to nine yards to five and a half to six yards. Women today also prefer blouses which match the sari; previously, blouses with contrasting patterns and colors were preferred.
Not surprisingly, economics has affected the evolution of the sari. Lengths of Japanese nylon made to the same width as the sari have been in vogue for nearly three decades. This trend began with increased travel between countries and gradual depletion in the ranks of dhobis, who traditionally washed clothes for the community. Nylon saris are easier to keep clean and need no starch or ironing. But for religious, social, and festive occasions, cotton and silk saris retain their position of importance.
Popular culture also influences sari fashions. Often an actress in a particular film may wear a distinctive blouse, sari, or a color combination which soon becomes a popular fashion. In the film Sagara Sangamam, the actress Jaya Prada wore a fuchsia pink and royal blue Kanchipuram sari that became instantly fashionable.
Custom and fashion may have shaped the sari, but cultural perceptions promote its continued use. When a woman wears a sari, she acquires honor. An episode from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata (400 BC to 400 AD) illustrates this idea.
After losing his own freedom in a rigged dice game to his Kaurava enemies, Yudhishthir, the eldest among Draupadi’s five Pandava husbands, also loses her. When the Kauravas attempt to disrobe Draupadi, she calls upon Lord Krishna for protection. Each time one fold of Draupadi’s sari unravels, Krishna graces her with another. By giving Draupadi a sari of unending length, Krishna saves her honor.
The symbolism is obvious. Rather than whisking Draupadi away or striking down her tormentor, Krishna provides her with a limitless sari both as a symbol of his grace and of his intent to protect feminine modesty.
By wearing a sari, women fulfill another cultural ideal by acquiring the related feminine characteristics of beauty and sensuality. Various poems, scenes, and images from the large store of ancient Indian literature celebrate the beauty of the sari-clad woman. “Who is she? Carefully veiled to barely reveal her body’s beauty surrounded by the ascetics like a bud among withered leaves?” wonders King Dushyant at his first glimpse of Shakuntala, in Kalidasa’s renowned play of the same name (circa 400 BC)
The imagery is frequently repeated in another form in popular romantic films of today, where the seductive heroine appears in a diaphanous sari and the excitement of the chase is enhanced both for the hero and the audience! The hero begins the chase by tugging at the end of her sari. The audience knows that the sari is the ideal garment for the pursuit of sensual love—it can be so easily unraveled—and waits for the cut to the closed door which is the visual code that suggests the woman’s surrender. In the Hindu cultural context, Western clothing is never used to suggest seduction.
The sari also compensates for any physical shortcomings. It gives fullness to the thin figure and is equally good at camouflaging extra fat when required—something Western clothes cannot aspire to.
The cultural ideal of decorum and dignity is also satisfied by the sari. In the presence of God, husband, in-laws, or strangers, the married woman is often required to cover her head. The sari readily fulfills this function.
Another important reason behind the continued usage of the sari is the recently established cultural ideal of nationalism. During India’s struggle for independence from Britain, Mahatma Gandhi carried out a campaign of civil disobedience, particularly to inflict economic pain on the colonizer. Textiles, an industry integrally related to the history of the sari, became an important symbol of this fight for independence. Since the 19th century, the British had taken up the practice of exporting inexpensive Indian cotton to England, turning it into cloth, and reselling it for enormous profit in India. Gandhi decided to combat this practice by boycotting English cloth and starting the “HomeSpun” movement. Yarn would be made by each individual for personal use. At mid-century, the patriotic symbolism attached to indigenous cloth and clothing still continued. A woman or a man who wore traditional clothing was more “Indian” than one who adopted Western attire.
For Indian women, to be Indian is to wear a sari. Indira Gandhi, with her Western education, frequently wore Western clothes in her youth. She gave them up for the sari the moment she took on a political persona. The sari has also made her Italian daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, politically more acceptable to Indians. Both these women, who were constantly in the public eye, succeeded in diminishing the significance of foreign influence from their background primarily by adhering to the traditional sari dress code.
The sari is the most visible example of Indian cultural ideals surrounding women. The sari-clad woman is both dignified and alluring, honorable and sensual. The sari forges a strong link between the lives of women across the country, be they leaders, activists, and professionals, or homemakers, mothers, students, and laborers.
Vandana Kumar has won the Asian American Hero award from the County of Santa Clara and the Leadership in Business award from the California Legislature Assembly.