Ode to Six Yards of Mystique

Remitha Satheesh pays tribute to feminine India’s national attire

Ursula Andress famously stepped out of the Caribbean Sea in a skimpy white bikini in Dr.No, the first James Bond movie and gave men sleepless nights. Dimple Kapadia did the same when she stepped dripping wet, out of a swimming pool, in Sagar. The difference was that while the Bond girl resorted to just a miniscule amount of fabric to scorch the screen, the Bobby girl did it wrapped in six yards of blood red chiffon.

That, ladies and gentlemen is the power of the saree, feminine India’s national attire.

While women in the western world asphyxiated themselves to look alluring, thanks to Catherine de Medici (this frustrated Queen of France banned thick waists, consequently forcing women to torture themselves with whalebones, steel cages and tyrannical corsets) for centuries, women in the Indian sub-continent bore themselves as epitomes of beauty and grace, wrapped in the comfortable drapes of a saree.

Five yards of elegance and comfort. That is what a saree is. I don’t think any other apparel can cover so well AND highlight a woman’s sensuality like a saree can.

The origin of the saree lies tangled in the hazy coils of history, akin to what the court of Dhrithrashtra must have looked like after Dushasana (in) famously tried to strip Draupadi in the royal court and got more than what he bargained for when Krishna stepped into the scene. (Krishna had to put to good use all those sarees he flicked from the bathing gopikas back at Brindavan didn’t he?).

Back to the origin of the saree. Mythology follows us again, as Greek Goddess Aphrodite and the thousand ship launcher - Helen of Troy - have been portrayed in garments similar to the saree. Just a different kind of drape. Now the question is, “Who influenced who?” At this point, it should be noted that a precursor to the saree has been found on artifacts from the Indus Valley civilization. A question worth splitting fine silk threads over.

And today, the sari is recognized the world over as India’s national attire and our national costume highlights the nation’s favorite catchphrase ‘Unity in Diversity’ like no other apparel can. Each region has its own way of draping this length of unstitched material, each one as graceful as the other.

Wear it Gujju style with the end pleats fanning out in front of your torso, displaying your exquisite pallu and neatly covering that ample middle at the same time; or the plucky Marathi style with one end pulled up between the legs and tucked behind you at the waist, adding some serious spunk; the under one shoulder, via the armpit and over the other shoulder Coorgi style; rural Tamil style, with a pin kosuvam, wagging a naughty tail at you; go for the simple and elegant Kerala cousin Mundum Neriyathum or step across the ocean to the interesting Singhalese style with the pleats not tucked in but blossoming out around the waist. Or just go for plain old regular/Nivi style where you can primly gather the pleats and pin them at your shoulder or add some oomph factor when you let it ‘float’ in a single layer under the pretext of highlighting the beauty of your pallu, provided you have a figure to flaunt. Whatever be your preference, it is a style statement, no less.

And over the years, the saree has been making its own statement, draped around some remarkable women. From the fiery Draupadi’s endless saree that played its own role in causing a war, the homespun Khadi drapes of Kasturba who lent the garment quite dignity and pride and made it a symbol of resistance, the delicate pink number worn by Indira Gandhi at her wedding, famously handspun by Jawaharlal Nehru, the saree turned cloak that only Jayalalitha could carry off, down to the popular ones made famous by screen goddesses over the years.

And there have been some stars known for their sarees or for making their sarees look beautiful – Rekha, Hema Malini, Suhasini, Shoba De, Kiron Kher, Sri Devi (she might have messed it up big time with the red one she tried to wear on Moondram Pirai, but she simply sizzled with that electric blue one she gyrated seductively in, with a certain invisible super hero in Mr. India).

Talking about screen goddesses, several directors have hit the mother lode with a sure fire recipe. Throw in a curvaceous heroine, a plain, clingy, chiffon saree, a song and Indiwood’s favorite aphrodisiac-water. The setting could be anywhere from an urban rooftop to the Swiss Alps or a secluded waterfall. And voila not only do you have the macho hero reduced to putty in her hands; you also have the sweet smell of success at the box-office!

And the best thing about the saree is that you do not need to have the figure of a film star or model to carry it off. Come to think of it, a saree shop is the only shop selling women’s apparel where a woman’s size absolutely does not matter. Small, medium or large, it literally is one size fits all.

The saree was made for the Indian woman’s body. Skirts might have you worrying about monstrous calves, jeans leave you wondering about those thunder thighs, salwars leave you bothered about that derriere and T-shirts and fancy tops make you regret that gym membership you never used. But a saree leaves you with no worries. It shows off just the right curves and conceals the wrong ones. Hide that unsightly bulge, play down that rear and let the pallu cover up your modesty. Flash a little of that midriff only if you must.

What’s more, you can go from Maaji to Mohini in ten seconds flat. All it takes is a push here and a pull there. The same piece of clothing can reflect your personality or mood by just the way it is worn - prim, dignified, stern, demure, modest, matronly, formal, dazzling, classy, elegant, flirty, seductive…

Nor does another garment hold such a range of emotions behind it. A saree defines special moments in a woman’s life. The first time a girl wears a saree, signaling her blossoming into womanhood; her bridal saree, (as for the Nair community, this garment is so important that a woman receiving the Mundum Neriyathum from a man signifies marriage itself – Pudavakoda); the simple bond of love when a grown up son wipes his hands on the ends of his mother’s pallu; and the irrational aversion that most married women have towards plain white sarees.

The relevance of this piece of garment is obvious when you see that someone came up with an iPhone App: How to Drape your Saree in Five Easy Steps. The ‘saritorial’ offers some serious sar (i) torial advice. And did you think draping five yards around you is tough? Ever seen the madisar sporting mamis? What they wear is 9 yards long. Go figure!

Recently the saree is being overlooked for the more comfortable kurtis and churidars citing reasons of comfort and ease and because the saree supposedly entices ‘wandering fingers’ especially on crowded buses. Girls, what do you carry those safety pins around for? They have more uses than merely holding up your saree’s pleats. Come on, put them to good use and keep those wandering hands away. You do not have to change your style because some people cannot curb their instincts. Learn to deal with them.

No other dress defines the Indian woman as a sari does… whether a rich Kanchipuram or a simple cotton saree. So the next time you need to make a style statement, you know what to reach for. Wear those six yards of mystique with pride!

About the Author - A home maker living the 'easy life' in the US of A, juggling her time cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring and playing maid. In between, she nurses fanciful delusions of being the next JK Rowling and tries to 'write'.

First published in www.yentha.com

courtesy and copyright www.gencept.com

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