Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Prof Shilpa Das with the publication, 'Indian Saris: Traditions - Perspectives - Design'

The poetry of the Indian sari is matchless and paeans celebrating it abound in the rich corpus of Indian literature. The sweep of globalization, however, has seen India struggle to preserve the glory of this traditional and cultural artifact while at the same time assimilating new influences from other cultures. This is reminiscent of India’s post-independence years, when numerous attempts were made to preserve the fledgling handloom sector. The humble charkha had to make way for the technologically superior power looms; the aim being, India’s swift economic progress. What continues to ail the Indian handloom industry and typifies the struggle for survival of the ubiquitous sari is the attitude that the traditional and indigenous are to be dismissed as banal. It is in this context that a well-researched book on saris becomes highly relevant. Indian Saris: Traditions, Perspectives, Design by Vijai Singh Katiyar seeks to and succeeds in demystifying the Indian sari, while still maintaining that the magic hidden in the rustle and drapes of a sari will continue to remain inexplicable.

The book confirms the sari’s deep entrenchment in the Indian cultural fabric and affirms that attempts to trace the chronological authenticity of sari weaving in India are reductive. It culls out insights such as how in Indian society, weaving was traditionally looked upon as a noble art form that enriched spiritual thinking and contemporary material culture. Towards this end, it undertakes an intrepid historical journey beginning with ancient India the Indus Valley Civilisation, the confluence of Aryan and Dravidian cultures, through the Magadhan, Mauryan and Satvahana empires, the Pallava and Chola dynasties to give ample proof of the practice of handloom weaving, cotton farming, the art of dyeing and the tradition of weaving unstitched garments in India. An interesting feature of the book is the reference to temple architecture of the south; photographs show how human forms carved out on the walls present unique styles of draping the unstitched garment, a predecessor of the modern day sari. While the book concedes the patronage to the garment lent by the local royals, it generally refers to the arrival of the British Raj as portending the decline and degradation of the Indian textile tradition.

The chapter, ‘Sari: The Traditions’ traverses a wide range and describes nineteen different saris worn in various parts of India: from Andhra cotton saris to, Asavali, Patola, Baluchari, Chanderi, Maheshwari, Ilkal, Paithani, Orissa silks, to saris worn by women from tribal communities. The chapter is a treat to the reader with not only vivid pictures of saris and the designs and motifs typical to each but also sketches of the looms used. In this regard, the book, with a designer’s eye, does a good job of bringing out the finer nuances of each type of sari: historical background, colour palettes, recurrent motifs and patterns, variations, draping style, weaving techniques and looms used. It is in the variety it covers that the book scores over many of its competitors in the market.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book is the one on sari draping. It discusses the various cultural influences that led to the evolution of draping styles of the sari. The best aspect of this section is the inclusion of coloured sketches that capture in minute detail the various styles in which the sari can be draped. The book draws one’s attention to the fact that religious beliefs and rulers of a region influenced the lifestyle of the people living in a particular region. The attire was a strong determinant of the wearer’s personal, occupational and social status.

The book observes how designs on woven saris have undergone a complete transformation in contemporary times in keeping with ‘societal needs, intercultural exchanges, environmental factors and the pressing need to keep pace with the ever changing perception of perfection and utility’. It also gives details of various exhibitions that were held to spread awareness about the repertoire of handloom woven fabrics in India, while at the same time endeavouring to improve the condition of the weavers and craftspersons involved.

In pointing out timely design intervention as potentially capable of understanding people’s needs and aspirations, the author evokes his many years of experience in the sector. He urges that competition to the sari from other forms of attire, makes it imperative to connect with contemporary users of the sari. It is the ‘aspirational value’ and ‘functional reliability’ of a product that characterises its design components. The book cautions that the design interventions suggested must be objective and application-oriented, or else they will defeat the very purpose for which they have been created. The book enlists eight major issues that have hampered the introduction of appropriate design intervention endeavours. An important distinction is made between how a ‘customer’ and ‘user’ relate to a product. The book says a customer derives satisfaction by purchasing a product as he/she has the power of affordability. The user, on the other hand ‘seeks performance driven functional products that provide a completely new experience’.

The book draws attention to the creation of cooperatives which would focus on ‘liberating the weaver from the perennial problems and exploitation involved in seeking regular work from the middlemen and selling their produce’. In this context, the author notes with sadness that many handloom weavers produce commodities that are dictated by the demands of the intermediaries and not of the market or consumers.

The book gives prominence to design research and discusses how such research can help our complex textile traditions to survive. Katiyar affirms that modern textile design practice is research-oriented, thus enabling the handloom sector to come up with a comprehensive product range to meet consumer demands. Emphasising the need for design communication in the sari sector, he points out that ‘design must communicate its intention clearly at the very outset in the most sensitive manner.’ Sari traditions must be in tandem with the demands of the contemporary markets. Katiyar’s contention that the need to introduce innovations in design is limited due to the ‘structured approach of traditional Indian aesthetics’ which contrasts with the ‘unrestrained contradictions of modern creative expressions’ is debatable. However, it raises some important and sensitive questions about the dismal condition of handloom saris. Katiyar’s underscoring of the role of design communication is worth noting because the communication material currently used by the handloom sector is good enough neither to spread awareness on the value of the products nor to appeal to the emotions of the consumers. Indian Saris: Traditions, Perspectives, Design, does not restrict itself to being a mere documentation on the aesthetic details about saris in India. A distinguishing feature of this book is its emphasis on the current practice of textile design in India and the repercussions of various policies on the textile sector. It succeeds in establishing that no other attire, but the sari, is versatile enough to capture the diverse traditions, styles and the immense cultural melting pot of India. For the richness of its visuals, for the perspectives on design, the book is definitely worth a buy. (Shilpa Das with Helga Govindan)
Prof. Shilpa Das, a critical theorist, is faculty at NID in the Interdisciplinary Design Studies department. She teaches in and heads the Science & Liberal Arts programmes. Currently she is also Head of NID publications.

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