South Asia must preserve the stories its saris tell
Every sari tells a story. Sometimes personal and sentimental, often historical, and usually cultural. Increasingly though, saris are a story about globalization, for both good and bad.
Every sari tells a story. Sometimes personal and sentimental, often historical, and usually cultural. Increasingly though, saris are a story about globalization, for both good and bad. For centuries, South Asia grew cotton and made silk threads. Individuals or entire families of weavers created, by hand and with painstaking patience, one sari after another. Even if the weaver had a particular style—different regions of South Asia are known for different kinds of warp and weft, designs, or colors—this meant that every length of fabric, every sari, was unique. But in recent decades, handloom weaving in India has come under threat from power looms capable of churning out 10 saris a day versus the 8-15 days needed to make a single sari on a wooden handloom. This makes saris that are much cheaper than they would otherwise be. Roads and railways, coupled with trade agreements, falling import tariffs and global commodities markets, have brought cheaper cloth and saris from elsewhere. Increasing imports of cheaper Chinese silk yarn, suitable for the power loom, is also thus slowly eroding the handloom cottage industry, particularly in historical silk weaving centers such as Varanasi in India’s Uttar Pradesh state. Man-made fibers are also making inroads. It's hard to argue against an off-the-peg sari when you have limited rupees or taka in your pocket, but it’s still tough on traditional weavers, many of whom are finding it harder and harder to find buyers. Many in remote areas feel their livelihoods slipping away, while others fear the loss of weaving skills and, with it, regional cultures and histories. And, of course, tastes are changing. Where once saris were ubiquitious across South Asia and in South Asian communities around the world, girls and women are more and more wearing the jeans and summer dresses they see in Western and even Bollywood films and on television. It's not that the sari is difficult to wear, or that you ever grow out of them. The 6 or so yards of fabric in the sari are wrapped and pleated so women can stride purposefully. The multiple layers of cloth are good for any weather. Nor need the sari be conservative. With flashes of belly and back, and with glass-bangled bare arms, the sari fits Sophia Loren’s dictum that a woman’s dress should be like barbed wire: "Serving its purpose, without obstructing the view”. It’s just that a globalization of women’s wear seems to be taking hold.
Not that the sari is going to disappear. It is too beautiful for that. Moreover, there are the stories, personal and cultural.
At a lively sari gathering recently, for example, Manju told me about her pine-green sari, typical of Mysore, now Mysuru in Southern India, where weavers in factories dating from the early 1900s use pure silk with gold zari—gold-colored thread made of fine gold and silver—woven into the fabric to make intricate patterns. The sari was gift from a dear family friend back in the 1980s.
Then there was Sujata, wearing her mother's black embroidered saree from the Dhaka area, and Savita whose blue sari with a gold embroidered pallu, and the one she wore to her wedding reception. Meanwhile Shanti has a sari made of so-called “non-violent silk,” whereby the silk worms are allowed to leave their cocoons before the cocoons are plunged in boiling water to soften the thread. Buying it from an NGO in the centuries-old weaving area of Bhagalpur, Bihar in Eastern India reflects her desire to support rural industries. Ramola’s Kosa silk sari was printed with geometric art from the Warli Tribe of Maharashtra, typically used to decorate walls of village homes in western India. There are the everyday tales of saris given and received, wedding saris dipped in turmeric and daily cotton saris starched with used rice water, or chilled in the refrigerator to make them more pliable. And there are the dramatic stories. Newspapers last year reported with both pride and some embarrassment about the Rs4 million ($60,800), 8-kilogram sari worn by Nita Ambani, the wife of Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani. Adorned with 11 traditional paintings, gold thread, and precious stones, the sari is purportedly registered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive ever. None of these things can be made in a factory.