A sari or saree or shari is a female garment in the Indian subcontinent. A sari is a strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine metres in length that is draped over the body in various styles. The most common style is for the sari to be wrapped around the waist, with one end then draped over the shoulder baring the midriff. The sari is usually worn over a petticoat (pavada/pavadai in the south, and shaya in eastern India), with a blouse known as a choli or ravika forming the upper garment. The choli has short sleeves and a low neck and is usually cropped, and as such is particularly well-suited for wear in the sultry South Asian summers. Cholis may be "backless" or of a halter neck style. These are usually more dressy with a lot of embellishments such as mirrors or embroidery and may be worn on special occasions. Women in the armed forces, when wearing a sari uniform, don a half-sleeve shirt tucked in at the waist.
The word 'sari' evolved from the Prakrit word 'sattika' as mentioned in earliest Buddhist Jain literature.
The history of Indian clothing trace the sari back to the Indus valley civilization, which flourished in 2800-1800 BCE in the Sindh and Punjab regions of what is now Pakistan. The earliest known depiction of the saree in the Indiain subcontinent is the statue of an Indus valley priest wearing a drape.
Ancient Tamil poetry, such as the Silappadhikaram and the Kadambari by Banabhatta, describes women in exquisite drapery or saree. In ancient Indian tradition and the Natya Shastra (an ancient Indian treatise describing ancient dance and costumes), the navel of the Supreme Being is considered to be the source of life and creativity, hence the midriff is to be left bare by the saree.
Some costume historians believe that the men's dhoti, which is the oldest Indian draped garment, is the forerunner of the sari. They say that until the 14th century, the dhoti was worn by both men and women.
Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st-6th century AD) show goddesses and dancers wearing what appears to be a dhoti wrap, in the "fishtail" version which covers the legs loosely and then flows into a long, decorative drape in front of the legs No bodices are shown.
Other sources say that everyday costume consisted of a dhoti or lungi (sarong), combined with a breast band and a veil or wrap that could be used to cover the upper body or head. The two-piece Kerala mundum neryathum (mundu, a dhoti or sarong, neryath, a shawl, in Malayalam) is a survival of ancient Indian clothing styles, the one-piece sari is a modern innovation, created by combining the two pieces of the mundum neryathum.
It is generally accepted that wrapped sari-like garments, shawls, and veils have been worn by Indian women for a long time, and that they have been worn in their current form for hundreds of years.
One point of particular controversy is the history of the choli, or sari blouse, and the petticoat. Some researchers state that these were unknown before the British arrived in India, and that they were introduced to satisfy Victorian ideas of modesty. Previously, women only wore one draped cloth and casually exposed the upper body and breasts. Other historians point to much textual and artistic evidence for various forms of breastband and upper-body shawl.
In South India, it is indeed documented that women from many communities wore only the sari and exposed the upper part of the body till the 20th century. Poetic references from works like Shilappadikaram indicate that during the sangam period in ancient South India, a single piece of clothing served as both lower garment and head covering, leaving the bosom and midriff completely uncovered. In Kerala there are many references to women being bare-breasted. including many pictures by Raja Ravi Varma. Even today, women in some rural areas do not wear cholis.
The most common style is for the sari to be wrapped around the waist, with the loose end of the drape worn over the shoulder, baring the stomach. However, the sari can be draped in several different styles, though some styles do require a sari of a particular length or form. The French cultural anthropologist and sari researcher, Chantal Boulanger, categorizes sari drapes in the following families:
The nivi style is today's most popular sari style. (Dongerkerry K. S. 1959).
The Nivi saree was popularised through the paintings of Raja Ravi Verma. by modifying the south indian saree called mundum neriyathum. In one of his painting the Indian subcontinent was shown as a mother wearing a flowing nivi saree.
In Pakistan, the wearing of saris has declined as the more traditional shalwar kameez is generally preferred for everyday wear. The sari does however remain a popular dress for formal functions such as weddings. The sari is sometimes worn as daily-wear, mostly in Karachi, by those elderly women who were used to wearing it in pre-partition India and by the some of the new generation who have re-introduced the interest of saris. The reason why the sari lost popularity in Pakistan, was due to it being viewed as a Hindu dress. Although she was seen wearing them, Fatima Jinnah, the "Mother of the Nation", called the sari "unpatriotic" and Pervez Musharraf's wife stated that she never wears them., although it is official dress code of Pakistan Army females.
Sri Lankan women wear saris in many styles. However, two ways of draping the sari are popular and tend to dominate; the Indian style (classic nivi drape) and the Kandyan style (or 'osaria' in Sinhalese). The Kandyan style is generally more popular in the hill country region of Kandy from which the style gets its name. Though local preferences play a role, most women decide on style depending on personal preference or what is perceived to be most flattering for their figure.
The traditional Kandyan (Osaria) style consists of a full blouse which covers the midriff completely, and is partially tucked in at the front as is seen in this 19th century portrait. However, modern intermingling of styles has led to most wearers baring the midriff. The final tail of the sari is neatly pleated rather than free-flowing. This is rather similar to the pleated rosette used in the 'Dravidian' style noted earlier in the article.
Saris are woven with one plain end (the end that is concealed inside the wrap), two long decorative borders running the length of the sari, and a one to three foot section at the other end which continues and elaborates the length-wise decoration. This end is called the pallu; it is the part thrown over the shoulder in the Nivi style of draping.
In past times, saris were woven of silk or cotton. The rich could afford finely-woven, diaphanous silk saris that, according to folklore, could be passed through a finger ring. The poor wore coarsely woven cotton saris. All saris were handwoven and represented a considerable investment of time or money.
Simple hand-woven villagers' saris are often decorated with checks or stripes woven into the cloth. Inexpensive saris were also decorated with block printing using carved wooden blocks and vegetable dyes, or tie-dyeing, known in India as bhandani work.
More expensive saris had elaborate geometric, floral, or figurative ornament created on the loom, as part of the fabric. Sometimes warp and weft threads were tie-dyed and then woven, creating ikat patterns. Sometimes threads of different colors were woven into the base fabric in patterns; an ornamented border, an elaborate pallu, and often, small repeated accents in the cloth itself. These accents are called buttis or bhutties (spellings vary). For fancy saris, these patterns could be woven with gold or silver thread, which is called zari work.
Sometimes the saris were further decorated, after weaving, with various sorts of embroidery. Resham work is embroidery done with colored silk thread. Zardozi embroidery uses gold and silver thread and sometimes pearls and precious stones. Cheap modern versions of zardozi use synthetic metallic thread and imitation stones, such as fake pearls and Swarovski crystals.
In modern times, saris are increasingly woven on mechanical looms and made of artificial fibers, such as polyester, nylon, or rayon, which do not require starching or ironing. They are printed by machine, or woven in simple patterns made with floats across the back of the sari. This can create an elaborate appearance on the front, while looking ugly on the back. The punchra work is imitated with inexpensive machine-made tassel trim.
Hand-woven, hand-decorated saris are naturally much more expensive than the machine imitations. While the over-all market for handweaving has plummeted (leading to much distress among Indian handweavers), hand-woven saris are still popular for weddings and other grand social occasions.
While an international image of the 'modern style' sari may have been popularised by airline stewardesses, each region in the Indian subcontinent has developed, over the centuries, its own unique sari style. Following are the well known varieties, distinct on the basis of fabric, weaving style, or motif, in South Asia: