The saree saga

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For the Indian woman draping a saree was a daily ritual till salwar kameez, a pair of jeans and other western wear took over as garments of fashion and convenience. Uma Balakrishnan tell us how the iconic saree has made a comeback with artisans, modern-day wearers and saree lovers coming together to reinvent this oldest of garments.

I tend to remember people by the clothes they wear.
The way some smells take us back to some places and memories, clothes are memory markers for me, and my earliest memories feature ‘sarees’. Worn by my mother, her sisters, their mother…soft cottons worn, starched and worn countless number of times before they were re purposed to swaddle newborns and spread on the floor or mattresses. Stiff Kanjeevaram silks, first worn to weddings and then over the years softened by wear to make them fit for temple visits and train travel.

Sarees used to be ubiquitous and every daily task could be performed in them. Convenience hadn’t quite crept up as a factor influencing the purchase, care and wearing of sarees. Blouses used to be fairly uniform with small variations in sleeves and necklines, and you learnt the art of draping a saree much like how we learnt other life skills, by watching and trying your hand at it until it became a daily ritual.

And then came washing machines and salwar kameez-es in fabrics one could wash and wear without so much as running an iron over it. In a faster paced world, urbanity and convenience crept up and time got crunched. The simplest of things like draping a saree was relegated to weddings, occasion wear. It became something that had to be taught to young girls on the morning of their school farewells. Girls still getting comfortable with their bodies, and struggling with blouse darts and flowy pallav-s. For them sarees became synonymous with fashion shows, culturals and ethnic days.

The ubiquitous saree makes a comeback
And then slowly the tide started to turn again.
When fast fashion became something we could take for granted and all the brands in the world could be summoned to our doorstep at 60% off in cardboard boxes swathed in tape , women in their perennial search for finding and wearing clothes that make them stand apart, rediscovered the garment that within its drapes and folds flattered every figure, in its plethora of weaves gave them the joy of wearing something that was handcrafted and unique, and it its myriad embellishment techniques ensured that every single one of us can find something we love. Blouses still remained a challenge, but then came what I like to call, the wear-anything-as-a-blouse movement. Peasant tops, crop tops, jackets, t shirts, bras, bustiers, corsets….virtually anything can be worn as a blouse today. And slowly the saree came back into our cupboards.

In coming back to the art of wearing a saree, we have gotten back in touch with a rasa called Shringara, that we forgot. Shringara means love and often also beauty. Narrowly defined it means to enjoy the company of the opposite sex. But broadly speaking, in Shringara the word rasa literally means good taste. It is the mood in which we concentrate on creating an atmosphere of beauty and enjoyment through company and courtesy combined with objects and ways of art ,culture and decoration. Wearing a saree is an act that quite simply puts us in touch with this state of being.

The birth of Shiuli
With so much love for the saree and an indepth knowledge of fabrics and techniques, it was only natural to start ‘Shiuli’, handcrafted sarees in 2012. An English professor with a profound love for Tagore’s poetry, and an army-man’s wife who got to visit the most remote parts of the country – the result was a discovery of new worlds for me where my love for design, and an aesthetic inclination towards the six yards resulted in Shiuli which I started five years back. I can’t remember when it started off really, because I would always enhance what I bought, with some creative design input of my own. I never liked what was readily available in stores. And in each place where my husband was posted, I would always find tailors and work with them to get things made for myself. Friends would persuade me to create something for them too.

I ventured into remote villages, saw design and traditional handwork slowly getting phased out as craftsmen started taking to menial jobs to keep their hearths burning. In 2012, I decided to launch Shiuli, “an extension of who I am. I identified with the flower in Tagore’s poem – one that is never plucked but picked after it falls to the ground and spreads its fragrance everywhere. I believe in ethically sourcing from weavers.”

The world of “fast fashion” and mall shopping has destroyed the connect with weavers and makers, and raises deep ethical questions about livelihoods. At Shiuli I do all the designing myself and I work with artisanal clusters across the country to execute them, specially in West Bengal, where I work with khadi and linen. Pure fabrics like silk and cotton are sourced from their place of origin through weavers’ societies and co-operatives. Some of the design innovations include indigo dabu and batik on Kancheepuram silk. I constantly travel and work at remote workshops within those communities, so that traditional techniques are retained but given a contemporary milieu. Right from the wooden block designs to the colour palette, placement of design and techniques, I am involved in the creation of the saree.

In our designs we have looked at how women wear a saree these days – it basically reflects how it depicts a sense of individuality and freedom, a sense of her own space. We now want a saree that is multifunctional – that is worn not just on three days of a festival, but something which can be worn throughout the year, maybe for a special work date or a birthday at home or a dinner at a friend’s place, we are looking at sarees as repeated wear, that is something which doubles up as occasion wear and festive wear. I am as comfortable going out for a drink in a saree as I am stepping out for a wedding. I love to wear sarees with crop-tops and not just be limited to traditional blouses. I pair it with jackets, a bandh gala, or a Nehru jacket too.

At its heart, Shiuli is a minimalist, design-centric, limited edition label that is completely handcrafted. This means that every saree we make starts out as a pure white or cream fabric. Onto this canvas, we render shapes, patterns and colours. Being design-centric means that we design and make a limited number of sarees each season and every year, focussing on working with the purest fabric and unique combinations of techniques.
What we love most about creating sarees from scratch, is in pushing the boundaries of what is possible. This has led to some amazing discoveries, some of which have found their way into our line. Hand done batik on pure Kancheepuram silk for instance, or dabu on handwoven Kancheepuram silk, every Shiuli saree is unique in that it carries our trademark – minimalist aesthetics and a deep commitment to creating something that is timeless and enduring. Design for us is an immersive experience.

An effort to preserve traditions
We travel wherever craft takes us, living in villages and spending our days amongst looms and printing tables. Everyday we learn and learn and learn. We create our own blocks, hand stitch our shibori sarees and have developed the design for every single kalamkaari and batik saree in our line. We ask our artisans and weavers why some things are possible and some are not. And we hope that we are helping them expand the scope of their skills while we absorb from them the deep rooted traditions of weave and embellishment. Every saree we create is a unique synergy of their knowledge and our desire to create something never seen before.

And so the versatility of the saree and the innovativeness of its modern day wearers, has come together, to reinvent the oldest of garments. Despite its many modern adaptations, the saree wearer of today possibly loves it for the very same reasons as their mothers and grandmothers before them. The forgiving folds of its drape, the feminine grace it lends to your gait, the relief cotton sarees offer from tropical summers, the nip in the air you can enjoy when you have a Kanjeevaram draped around your shoulders…the air of being taken seriously when in a saree and knowing that it can pretty much be worn to every place and occasion.

It can be styled edgily or worn classically. Prints, checks, solids…anything works on a saree. Throw a warm enough trench over it and you can wear it in Chicago (I know of someone who does, everyday) wear it with a white shirt and a row of pearls and you are mehendi and sangeet ready, with heels, with brogues and a backpack…no matter how you wear it, it is a garment which will be seen and noticed. And with it, so will you. And maybe that explains our perennial love affair with it.

Uma Balakrishnan is a teacher, a yoga exponent and a designer who lives, breathes her passion for everything handcrafted. Her long stints in remote locations in her early years as the wife of an army officer, gave her first hand insights into the trades and crafts that pulsate through India’s villages. Now settled in Bangalore, she enthralls her niche audiences with her sarees, her repertoire of stories, her culinary skills, and her commitment to good health through judicious food habits.


Uma Balakrishnan

Uma Balakrishnan is a teacher, a yoga exponent and a designer who lives, breathes her passion for everything handcrafted. Her long stints in remote locations in her early years as the wife of an army officer, gave her first hand insights into the trades and crafts that pulsate through India’s villages. Now settled in Bangalore, she enthralls her niche audiences with her sarees, her repertoire of stories, her culinary skills, and her commitment to good health through judicious food habits.

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