A compelling story sometimes unfolds alongside a fashion show when a designer’s sensibility is mirrored among her clients. In no other garment is this personalized language of style so easy to read than in a sari. It is almost a subculture, recognizable by the cut, fit and fabric of the blouse, the sari drape, the accessorizing.

At Anavila Sindhu Misra’s display of woven linen saris, called Mohenjo Daro, at the Lakmé Fashion Week’s Winter/Festive 2014 edition in Mumbai last month, this subculture was palpable. Besides Konkona Sen Sharma, the showstopper, in a metallic ochre linen sari with a sandalwood teeka, there were, present in the audience, singer, songwriter and art curator Geetu Hinduja, film-maker Gauri Shinde and actor Tillotama Shome, all wearing Anavila saris in the manner prescribed by the designer. Comfortable drapes with folds on one side, pleats at the back, paired with long, anti-fit blouses in colours that were in a serious relationship with the saris but didn’t really match. Think plain white with mehndi green or ash grey. “The sari is the garment of working women in rural India, so why can’t it be interpreted for modern women negotiating city life?" asks Misra.

Numerous such sari lobbies are visible today. The sari may be the lowest common denominator, yet the weave chosen and the manner of wearing it creates a divergence. Some are propelled by designer agendas, others by determinist statements in dressing, now an important aspect of self-exploration in city life. Designers don’t just brand their saris through patterns or materials any longer; they patent a complete look.

“Sari branding" is designer David Abraham’s phrase for what he analyses as “a huge shift, especially in the last two years, in the ownership and investment into the unstitched drape. It shows that a lot of people are thinking along the same lines, exploring stronger links to heritage. The sari is becoming like the classic white shirt—each global brand has its own version," says Abraham.

So a Sabyasachi sari is a woven Khadi or a Banarasi (mixed perhaps with net and sheer tissue), with his signature heavily embroidered borders. A Manish Malhotra sari is a delicately embellished sexy piece in a luxurious fabric, paired with a strappy, sensuous blouse. A Raw Mango sari by Sanjay Garg is a vibrant-hued, soft Chanderi with bird or floral motifs. A Tarun Tahiliani sari, whether a chiffon or a Maheshwari, is closely contoured to the body and often belted. It comes with a sexy, corseted blouse and is held together by a lycra petticoat.

A Rajesh Pratap Singh handloom sari styled with leather trousers, blazer and boots by Ekta Rajani of Grazia. Courtesy Grazia/ Photo by Bikramjit Bose
A Rajesh Pratap Singh handloom sari styled with leather trousers, blazer and boots by Ekta Rajani of Grazia. Courtesy Grazia/ Photo by Bikramjit Bose

A Gaurav Gupta sari is a Grecian drape with three-dimensional embellishments, a net blouse and a satin petticoat. An Abraham & Thakore sari is usually the product of a novel handloom experiment contextualized through current fashion trends. It is also paired with slim leather belts, high-necked or full-sleeved blouses, draped in a matter-of-fact way with chunky footwear, and looks very modern.

The very first garment in the very first fashion show by Abraham & Thakore in 2010 was a sari. One from that collection, with a cycle-rickshaw motif, is housed in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert museum in London, UK. Wendell Rodricks, on the other hand, upheld the banned (during Portuguese rule) Kunbi sari of Goa by reviving the weave in its authentic form.

No Indian designer who means business wants to omit the drape entirely from his work, but only a handful have noticeably branded their saris. As a parallel trend, some fashion stores are trying similar statements. Neel Sutra in Gurgaon’s Oberoi hotel, for instance, has a sari room.

The sari’s altered presence in contemporary dressing is also evident in the way fashion magazines interpret it. In August, both Elle India and Grazia ran photo stories “updating saris" by styling them in untried ways. The results are a far cry from the most common style called the Thakur Barir drape with front-centre pleats, the pallu thrown over the left shoulder and worn with a short fitted blouse and petticoat. Interestingly, both magazines used designer handloom saris as the fulcrum of their “experiments" and styled them with assorted separates, leather jackets, a tartan skirt, ankle boots, blazers or pantsuits and bold, unconventional jewellery. “As a stylist working from India, I am proud and conscious that the handloom sari is a part of our cultural DNA and also of the way modern attitudes have shifted with a resurrection of national pride," says Ekta Rajani, Grazia’s fashion director.

Rajani argues that projecting the purist glory of the sari alone is not enough for a younger clientele; the envelope must be pushed. Calling her story an “indulgent style spin", she says “the presentation is experimental, intended to trigger the idea of options among women by offering spunky choices in drapes and tailored looks that a contemporary Indian woman is lucky to have".

Exploring modernity was also the aim of the Garden Vareli sari campaigns in the 1970s. The sari then had just begun to move into newer zones, with sexier drapes, polyester fluidity and svelte models like Shyamoli Varma and Mehr Jessia showcasing it with halter-necked blouses. But because of designer disinterest and customer reluctance in what was termed regressive, it couldn’t be as effectively branded as it is today. Exceptions emanated only from social connotations. Ladies of royal households wore printed chiffon saris. In New Delhi, handloom Ikats were associated with craft revivalists and post-Nehruvian politicians. The rich women of south Bombay preferred fine chiffons. Indira Gandhi personalized her sari style, but in fashionable society actor Rekha was among the few who stamped her ornate Kanjeevarams with heavy jewellery, red lipstick and loose hair as a consistent signature. That’s branding. Actor Vidya Balan couldn’t achieve the same with her saris.

“It is because of the work of fashion designers that the attention has returned to the sari," says Tahiliani. He says it is also the only garment that can be diagonally draped to make even a very large-sized woman look structured.

Intriguingly, the sari continues to knit engrossing narratives beyond fashion. Called a “lived garment" in Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller’s book The Sari, and “our roadmap for Bharat Darshan…" by textile historian Rta Kapur Chishti in her seminal book Saris: Tradition And Beyond, its implications and uses in the Indian way of life are enormous. From history to modernity, it has cut across rituals, festivals, economic ups and downs, caste and class symbolism to become the site of textile innovation and modern drapery.

Art curator Himanshu Verma mirrors a Raja Ravi Varma oil painting. Courtesy Himanshu Verma/ Photo by Parikhit Pal
Art curator Himanshu Verma mirrors a Raja Ravi Varma oil painting. Courtesy Himanshu Verma/ Photo by Parikhit Pal

Besides its unwavering presence in the villages as a woman’s closest companion and a weaver’s livelihood, it is now also a potential tool for liberal experiments in urban India. “When I started exploring issues of urban masculinity, the sari was my device," says art curator Himanshu Verma, one of the very few men in Delhi society who wears handloom saris with traditional blouses and jewellery.

Verma, who organized a sari festival in the Capital earlier this year, confesses that he is most drawn to dhoti-like handlooms. “Dhoti-saris have the semblance of a male sari for me," says Verma, inspired by the sari’s depiction in painter Raja Ravi Varma’s work. “My romance with the sari started when I was informally studying Ravi Varma. His work is a visual canon to understand jewellery, customs, costumes and other cultural traditions of 19th century India," he says.

Personal sari branding is more than the sum total of a vast collection of saris, radical accessorizing or its 108 traditional drapes. It requires deeper thought and a trial-and-error process. Design guru Rajeev Sethi of the Asian Heritage Foundation can always be depended upon to provide the big picture: “The narrative of the sari, its structure as an unstitched garment, with the flare of the bottom that skims the ground, the pallu that accentuates the shoulder and the borders that lend it weight, is the creation of the weaver. While reinventing it, let’s pay a tribute to that anonymous genius," he says. That’s a good wrap.

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