When Rina Das, 53, arrived at a family dinner party in Kolkata last June, her sari gave her just the dramatic entrance she had wanted.
Sunglasses in bright shades of red and crimson were splashed all over the six-yard garment, designed by Kolkata-based duo Dev R Nil.
“Everyone was dazzled,” she says, laughing. “It was nothing too outrageous, but it was not your usual paisleys or block prints, so everyone wanted a closer look.” Das says she loved the attention, and the fact that her choice of sari had reflected her individuality.
In a nation where the sari has been an enduring symbol of womanhood, each variation of the unofficial national garment has reflected yet another stage of social transformation.
“This is a garment that came into existence during the Indus Valley Civilisation,” says Sanya Dhir, a fashion retail graduate from Nottingham Trent University and brand director of the Karol Bagh Saree House, a New Delhi-based store established in 1947. “It started out as the angavastram, a cloth draped over the torso.”
Historically, the last major transformation was under the missionary influence of colonialism, which made the blouse and petticoat mandatory.
Now, as the role of the woman in modern India is transformed — from mother and wife to corporate executive, businesswoman, professional, individual — the sari is changing shape too.
“The new-age Indian woman is confident, expressive and projects her persona through her style,” says designer Nishka Lulla.
“She no longer wants tame paisleys and perfect pleats. She wants to burst into a room wearing a sari paired with a shirt or a jacket, draped over a dhoti or emblazoned in pop art prints.
Some days, she wants a graceful sari stitched in ready pleats, so she can just slip it on and go to work or party in comfort.”
Over the past two years, Dev R Nil, for instance, has had printed saris in each collection and is seeing more takers for quirky, rebellious prints.
“The most popular among these are the saris featuring [Argentine revolutionary] Che Guevara, black-and-yellow taxis, sunglasses, honeycombs or large roses, along with some very interesting checks, stripes and blocks of colour,” says Dev of designer duo Dev R Nil.
Also available are newspaper prints and other graphic patterns.
Designer Aartivijay Gupta, for instance, showed a ‘doodle collection’ at the Lakme India Fashion Week 2012 that included saris smattered with pantone colour charts and colour wheels, face doodles and croqui illustrations.
The following year, the theme of Gupta’s collection was India and the sari prints included maps of India and images of postage stamps.
These saris have found favour with retailers and business houses too. “The younger clientele is becoming increasingly adventurous,” says Sanya Dhir of Karol Bagh Saree House. “Digital prints, especially those featuring graphic artwork or pop-art images and phrases such as ‘Shudh Desi’ [Hindi for Purely National] are very popular.”
The manner in which the sari is worn is changing too.
This is a garment that was conventionally worn out of a sense of tradition, with the manner of the draping used to reflect your station in life and your respect for your husband, family and elders, says Kalpana Shah, author of The Whole Nine Yards, a book on the art of sari draping and styling in India. “Today, it is a style statement for women who want to exude confidence.”
The sari is now also being deconstructed, says designer Nishka Lulla. “There are endless variations to experiment with. It is, after all, a very versatile garment.”
Functionality and convenience have played a large part in the evolution of the sari, adds designer Farah Sanjana, whose most popular variant is the ‘starfish sari’, a Western gown-inspired garment featuring fluid shapes over solid-coloured bases. “Today’s women are multitaskers. Most want to look stylish but are low on time, so they need fuss-free garments that are elegant but functional,” she says.
The new drapes also allow women to create their own look, with quirky prints draped over leggings or short saris with a colour-blocked petticoat beneath.
It is this freedom to alter that strikes a chord with the modern Indian woman, say designers and wearers.
“In the morning rush of seeing my son off to school and getting ready for work, I don’t have the time to pleat a sari, so I just slip on a pre-pleated one,” says Samiya Mehta, a 27-year-old architect. “And yet I want to wear a sari, not something else, because to me it is the ideal formal wear — smart and flattering.”
Urvashi Butalia, feminist and founder of non-profit publishing house Zubaan says: “What is important to understand here is that women can choose what they want to wear; it is that freedom that counts. Earlier, women were bound by many more social constraints and norms, which reflected in the conservativeness of their dress. That is changing today.”
And for women who have had the choice but not many options, the two are finally coming together.
“I used to wear traditional weaves because they were the only ones freely available,” says Das of the crimson sunglasses sari. “But now that I have so many unconventional and unusual prints to choose from, why should I settle for the ordinary?”
Her favourite saris now have black-and-yellow taxis and large big roses splashed across them.
“I enjoy surprising friends and family with my choices,” she says. “I like to keep them guessing about what I will wear next.”