Written on the Body

A simple rectangle of cloth when it first appeared centuries ago, the Indian sari developed into an elaborate garment, writes Veena Venugopal in Motherland Magazine. Reading the subcontinent’s history through the evolution of the sari’s borders:

In the beginning, all saris were created equal, then they weren’t. Enter the border: functional accoutrement, artisanal medium, class distinction.

It’s Wednesday, it’s early afternoon, it’s hot, and Shabnam Khan is out shopping. Only five weeks left until her son’s wedding, and the dress that the family is gifting the new daughter-in-law needs to be reworked. The silk sharara-an ankle-length skirt worn with a blouse topped with a shawl-is the traditional wedding attire for most brides in North India. This one is wine red with elaborate silver embroidery at the bottom. It’s pretty, but when the dress was delivered, it turned out to be a tad short for their tall bride. Khan’s solution was to attach a border to the hem of the skirt, which would not just add more glint but also lengthen it by three inches. For this, she’s come to Kinari Bazar in Old Delhi-‘kinari’ is the Hindi word for ‘border’-an area devoted to retailing and wholesaling uncounted varieties of lace, threadwork, embroidery, garlands, borders for saris, borders for sharara skirts, borders for whatever pieces of fabric one might deem in need of a little embellishment.

Khan makes her way through the bazar’s displays of sparkly trinkets and rolls of fabric, much of the merchandise jammed into tiny shops, or often just display cases leaned against grimy walls.

She eventually ducks into an alcove on a narrow, noisy street to find the Arihant Centre. The proprietor, Ashok Jain, inherited this shop from his father, a Partition refugee from Sialkot in Pakistan.

Much of the lustre that will catch your eye in Jain’s shop, as well as throughout the bazar, comes from garments made of zari, a shiny, metallic tinsel, not to be confused with zardozi, real gold beaten flat and extruded as thread to achieve a border’s lustrous look.

Until 20 years ago, most people “saved up and tried to buy the best of what was available in their budget. But the aspiration was always to buy silver or gold. It meant a lot that they have this one sari that was special,” says Jain. These days, however, “people buy lots and lots of borders but their value is negligible to them.”

The blame goes both ways. Contemporary producers of these borders-there was a time when they were known, deservingly, as artisans-have long been using imitation gold and cheap lame as core materials, and customers attach these decorative borders to every edge they can find, be it the neckline of a kurta, the Kerala neryathum, the Rajasthani choli, the Bengali blouse.

Fine by Ashok Jain, he doesn’t discriminate. This afternoon, it’s up to him to find a border to match Khan’s daughter-in-law’s wedding sharara, and people like Khan come to Jain because he knows borders. Jain’s been working here since he was 10 years old. To tell the story of his life is to tell the story of borders. To tell the story of the border, it is necessary to tell the story of the sari.

sari921Photo CC by Mark Robinson.

As with most Indian arts and crafts, the origins of the sari were utilitarian. Rta Kapur Chishti, author of Saris: Tradition and Beyond, dates sari-weaving back about 1,000 years. Other historians locate it much earlier, to the 3300-1300 BCE Indus Valley Civilisation, but no matter the exact period, in the beginning, all saris were created equal. The word itself derives from the Sanskrit śāṭī, or ‘strip of cloth’: five to nine metres of plain fabric, minus adornment or hems.

Given that weaving was a rudimentary and taxing craft for the greater part of human history, the first saris probably frayed at the ends. Thus, borders were created to fortify them. The added advantage was that the weight of the borders straightened the drape and gave the saris shape, as well as easing the intrinsically messy ergonomics of living inside a length of weave that responded to every little breeze.

According to Chishti, “patterning on borders and end pieces provide both the strength and the weight for the sari to drape well.”

Comfort led to thoughts of customisation, which in time led to embroidery, then applique, then zari, and then, the bane of modern saris, the border of cheap lame. Whatever material a sari border may be, one of its main functions has always been to avoid damage to the garment caused by day-to-day wear and tear. Eventually, it was decided that the protector needed a protector, so it got one. Today, the first accessory after buying a sari is a ‘fall’, a piece of material hemmed in place behind the border. The fall is there to keep a sari’s border stiff, preventing tripping; it keeps a border of coarse zari material from cutting up the wearer’s feet, and it keeps the sari-the valuable border, primarily-from getting dirty.

All this would eventually add to a sari’s deadweight. Ask any bride at her wedding two hours into the ceremony. Before the days of lighter, breathable fabrics, the layering of ceremonial saris meant the garments weren’t suitable for daylong-wear. They were okay for women of means to sit around in while pinhole cameras slowly shot them upside-down, or while artists drew impressions for impassive portraits, but it must have felt terrible to be cocooned in multilayered garments like the joda, which comprised a pajama, a kameez, a shameez and a head-covering odhni, all of them burdened with intricate zardozi.

Enter the ‘modern’ sari, the chiffon-introduced in the early 20thcentury by Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar. She had chiffons woven especially for her, in France. Not many but her could afford this, but what she gave the world of saris was a fabric whose simplicity, like Coco Chanel’s groundbreaking jersey fabric, made history. The chiffon was extremely lightweight, and its mesh weave made it airy, just the thing for an Indian climate. It could be endlessly customised with the strategic addition of simple sequins and beads. And borders.

Women of their ascribed social strata began marking economic hierarchies by the material from which their sari borders were spun. The more [well]-minted wore silk saris with gold-woven zardozi borders. For the families of traders, accountants and bureaucrats, for whom the price of gold would break a budget, silver came into play. The lower classes created borders using applique and tie-dye.

These strata remain to this day. Zardozi means old money, understated and gracious, therefore a must-have for the nouveau riche. Shiny zari means Bollywood, over-the-top and comparatively graceless, must-have for everyone else. And there’s the bustling Kinari Bazar, where a border for just about any sub-zardozi budget can be found.

sari421Bombay. Photo CC by Shreyans Bhansali.

The sari may be accepted as the quintessential garment of the South Asian woman, but in India, a continent unto itself, each state has its peculiarities. Kerala has its Kasavu saris that are unbleached, off-white cotton with golden borders, often with paisley zari work. The traditional Bengali sari, much celebrated but rarely worn today except during festivals, is blinding white with a red border.

Some border motifs are pan-national: cotton flowers, arrowheads, parrots, peacocks and elephants. More pointedly regional is temple architecture-the high-roofed, tapering Kalinga Deula of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, the miniature-towers Gadag style of Karnataka, the almost Corinthian columns and Buddhist stupas of Madhya Pradesh.

Until the advent of electricity, borders were narrow and ornate, or else an extension of the whole sari, the segueing from the one to the other barely discernible. But with powerlooms churning out in a day what a handloom weaver took a couple of months to accomplish, the thin, hand-woven borders widened to as much as 10 inches. The designs became dramatic, and stand-alone flowers and animals gave way to images of a continuous narrative. The best, most desirable borders became a run-on story without panels. Some borders told the Krishnaleela in a visual representation of Narayana Teertha’s Sanskrit opera, ‘Sri Krishna Leela Tarangini’.

Just as the gold-woven zardozi border became the marker of the very rich, everyone else used colour, motif and overall design for decoration, itself an implicit societal classification. Tradition permitted only married women the luxury of coloured saris, for example, while newlyweds were allowed the full force of all available flamboyance. Widows’ saris were restricted to the colour of the shrouds in which their husbands’ were wrapped on the funeral pyre; white, the roughest possible fabric, and no borders.

sari521Photo CC by Carol Mitchell.

It may come as a bit of a shock to hear that in one region of India, weaving saris had been banned for 200 years, even more unconscionable that this ban was still on the books until the early 20th century. But it’s true. And, despite what you’re thinking, it had nothing to do with the British.

In the centuries that the Portuguese ruled Goa, it was reasoned that if the locals were weaving their own fabrics, they weren’t buying fabrics that would profit the Portuguese. Centuries before Gandhi’s campaign for ‘homespun’, wearing a sari in Goa was a political statement.

In her book, Rta Kapur Chishti writes, “The sari in Goa tells the story of a people being cajoled, compelled and lured away not only from a way of life, religion and culture, but also from what they wore and what it stood for.”

The Kunbi tribals, the creators of Goa’s traditional weave, weren’t too particular about religion as long as they were left alone to practice their calling. Some converted to Catholicism, some remained Hindu. But the Kunbi design split, into the Catholic Kunbi sari and the Hindu Kunbi sari. The differences were minor-they draped differently, a bit-but variations in the popli and palo, or checks and stripes, were enough to send purists into a fit.

As for saris other than the Kunbi, by the time the ban was lifted, the religious divisions were stark and worn on the sleeve. The saris that Hindus wore had jasmine and other flowers on their borders, while the motifs on the borders of saris worn by Christians had variations of the cross (however many variations a cross can have).

The British Empire and its hungry inter-colony deals did play havoc with homegrown craft. Starting in the 19th century, the highly Anglicised Parsi community did precisely what the Brits were better known for: they co-opted China.

The gaaj, six metres of Chinese silk, the art perfected over 400 years during the Ming and Qing dynasties, came to India in exchange for copious quantities of opium, with the Parsi-led ‘Malwa opium attack’ resulting in roughly 10 percent of China’s population being addicts by the end of the 19th century. Before the Anglo-Chinese Wars were dubbed The Opium Wars, the Parsi’s reams of silk that returned to India flaunted unmistakably Chinese embroidery on the borders, fascinatingly exotic, even alien: pagodas, pavilions, peonies, bridges, phoenixes, often embroidered in white on silk solids that shimmered.

The Parsi legacy of this dubious chapter is the gara-from the Gujarati word garo, a length of cloth-and the gara sari is notable for two things. First, it is a rare cultural miscegenation that worked. The things are gorgeous. Second, as the decades passed, values of these garas shot up like ardent poppies in growing season. Some garas today, zealously guarded as family heirlooms, are worth 10 of any other top-drawer Indian sari. (Except, likely, the fine-as-mist cotton Malmal Daccai muslins that cost their weavers their thumbs, which-in a perverse one-up of the previous Portuguese ban on sari-weaving-the British severed en masse to keep their craft from interrupting the Industrial Revolution.)

The frailty of most great, antique textiles has ensured that few garas still exist in pristine or even wearable shape. The cost of those that do can reportedly pay for an urban villa on Malabar Hill in Mumbai. What you can track down, though, if you hunt antiques well and know influential Parsis by their first names, are kors, the precious borders, that, by retaining their colour, texture and form for roughly two centuries, have become monuments to the art of Chinese weaving. Some of these kors, as and when the saris fell apart, were detached and tacked on to newer saris, ones never to be seen anywhere near Kinari Bazar.

In a recent write-up for the German Embassy in Delhi, Dr Jutta Jain-Neubauer, a historian of Indian Art and Indology, says that when China’s trade with India ebbed, Germany stepped in and started producing and delivering sari borders. In truth, it wasn’t China’s trade that fell through, but that of the Parsis. Their sailing ships could no longer compete with European steamships, and so they turned their attention to other goods.

Jain-Neubauer’s recent report details evidence of Europe’s role in the evolution of the sari border in the early 20th-century by writing: “A decade ago, a large number of folders with swatches of such borders surfaced in the Indian art market. The folders are invariably marked by a prominent rubber stamp inscription “MADE IN GERMANY” on the front side and contained the names of their Mumbai-based agents, such as ‘Dubash’, located in Charni Road area, a stronghold of the [Parsi] community in Mumbai. Interesting are the dates of these orders from 1932 to 1935, and the handwritten notes in German in one of the design files, which refer to the colouring of the borders; such as ‘hellgrun’ (light green), ‘rot’ (red), ‘pink’ (magenta), ‘blau’ (blue).”

Jain-Neubauer is not unequivocal. “Though the swatch folders verify that these borders were imported from Germany, the location of their manufacture has yet to be established.” She also writes that thesetrachtenborten were already part of German culture, decorating “skirts, aprons, sleeves, scarves or caps for women and children, but hats, suspenders or jackets for men as well.”

It is an interesting argument, except that ‘trachtenborten’ translates very precisely as ‘costume trims’, and while being excellent craftwork in themselves, it seems hard to imagine that Germany could carry the substantial weight of India’s hunger for flash trim for any substantial period of time. What is indisputable is that India, today the world’s 10th-largest economy, was, back then, outsourcing its border production to what are today’s second-largest and fourth-largest economies.

sari721Photo CC by Harini Calamur.

In the 1980s, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata became television serials. They entranced millions, and all the women in these serials were draped in flashy saris that suddenly became all the rage. The yearning for a time of accessible gods, melodrama, the simplicity of Manichaean good and evil and going to bed wrapped in zardozi has since taken up long-lease residence in TV-soap world.

And Ashok Jain is still reaping the benefits.

Once the two serials ended their run of stoking a certain conspicuity, India’s economic liberalisation in 1991 lit up the market, and both manufacturing and consumption of borders have since exploded.

“People come in saying ‘give me heavy borders’,” says Jain. “Fake is fine, as long as it is shiny.”

In this epidemic of ostentation, sari borders make people do extraordinary things. Aiming to find a place in Guinness World Records 2008 for the world’s most expensive sari, Chennai Silks, the largest silk trader in Tamil Nadu, encrusted a sari with gold, diamonds, rubies and corals. It took 4,760 work hours, 198 full days, to produce. The border depicted 11 paintings by Raja Ravi Varma-an artist whose paintings of sari-clad women either did wonders for the sari or massively misrepresented it, depending on how his voluptuous calendar art strikes your aesthetic sense. On January 5, 2008, the Chennai Silks sari,far too heavy and far too precious to ever be worn, was sold for almost Rs. 40 lakhs [$65,000].

Outside this competitive-grade garishness, you could say there are roughly two major sari demographics. There’s the one that patronises the likes of Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Satya Paul and Bollywood dressmaker Manish Malhotra, all of whose saris are almost always a one-off. The other pret-a-porter crowd goes to Kinari Bazar and its counterparts in other cities, buying saris woven in bulk with borders cranked out from roaring factories in Surat and Mumbai. (Mukherjee and Paul sell themselves as pret designers, too, but their creations are out of price range for most.)

Some well-known sari designers are not above trawling Kinari Bazar for off-kilter finds of borders too complex to be replicated-at least not so that anyone would know-the odd hand-worked piece, the border whose signal beauty is the imperfection that slipped through quality control.

Kinari Bazar is for these designers like a lunchtime run at a rummage sale. It might pay off, it might not, although there have been rumours about high-end sari designers who’ve lost rich customers because they sold them a one-off that turned out to be part of a batch.

sari321Bombay. Photo CC by Sheila.

No high-end designers in sight this Wednesday afternoon, Shabnam Khan sits inside Ashok Jain’s Arihant Centre, a calm oasis at the centre of a riotous pile of borders inspected and discarded, as Jain searches for a match for Khan’s future daughter-in-law’s sharara. Khan will have no less than a border with a paisley design in silver, to match the needlework on the hem of the skirt.

Jain shows her dozens of paisley borders done in silver, each very close to what she wants, but none quite match. Patience is the key, she believes, her hypothesis being that the perfect border will be the most difficult to find.

Eventually, Khan’s perseverance pays off. Jain presents a specimen and she checks it against the skirt, turning the border to the light that filters through the filigree. It’s perfect. She’ll take it. Rs 2,500 [$40].

It is a credit to the heady seductiveness of Kinari Bazar that once Khan’s quest for the perfect border comes to an end, she decides that since she’s here anyway, she might as well pick up three more borders, two in an antique brass finish, one a purple-and-green garland of embroidered flowers.

These borders have nothing on the preciousness of a zardozi or a silken gara, and yet it’s these comparatively cheap zari borders, these among countless hundreds of thousands all around the bazar, available at any time, that so often inspire stockpiling.

“I don’t have specific outfits for these,” says Khan, “but they are beautiful borders, so they will come in handy anyway.”

Their inherent value may be negligible in the long-term, but, as the woman says, they’re beautiful borders. Whether she uses them to line a sari, a sharara or a tablecloth, beautiful is all anyone ever wanted these borders to be.

Veena Venugopal