When we regard the magic of the six yard drape that is the quintessential attire of most Indian women, we are filled with pride and wonder at the journey of this unique untailored garment. We admire the grace of the Indian Saree, praise its elegance, marvel at the varieties and take pride in its uniqueness.
And though we do give equal attention when picking its ever faithful companion, the designer saree blouses, little do we know of how this inseparable raiment came to acquire its place of pride and present form as today.
Let us take you on this interesting journey.
How The Ancient's Wore It
If we look at the history of clothing in what is regarded as the Indian subcontinent, the earliest form of the saree that archaeologists have recorded is from the Indus valley Civilization. Based on sculptures, and figurines available from that period, they deduce that there was a very little difference between the clothing of men and women, and it primarily consisted of two pieces of unstitched cloth. The lower portion of the body was wrapped in a rectangular piece of cloth by both men and women and another rectangular piece of cloth was used to cover the upper body as well.
The Beginnings of The Blouse
From descriptions found in Sanskrit and Pali texts from the 6th century B.C. we know that the earliest precursor to the present day saree and blouse ensemble was the a three-piece ensemble comprising the Antriya, the lower garment; the Uttariya; a veil worn over the shoulder or the head; and the Stanapatta, a chest-band. This was known as Poshak, meaning attire or ensemble.
Different Regions - Different Customs
Even though women thus came to use a knotted fabric to cover the chest it was not a standard practice. They could still choose to use or forego the Stanapatta depending on the regional custom, class or even climate.
Another factor that determined the usage of a Stanapatta was the varying influences from the visitors and invading cultures coming in from the north.
Historians have deduced from sculptures and paintings that tight stitched bodices or cholis evolved between 2nd century B.C to 6th century A.D in various regional styles.
By this time the two separate upper and lower garments evolved to join into one single garment in what was perhaps the origin of the saree as we know it today.
Medieval Influences on Indian Clothing
It is believed that with the influence of the Mughal culture in the 15th century divided garments like the salwar became a part of women's wear giving way to the tradition of Salwar Kameez as a popular garb. Simultaneously, Kangra and Rajput style paintings depict women wearing stitched blouses or cholis with wide skirts or Ghaghara's during this period. At this time there were hundreds of different styles of wearing the saree and naturally not all of them required women to wear a blouse, since many of these drapes were demure enough and covered the wearer fully, such as in Bengal.
With the arrival of the Portuguese in India around the same time the European and Christian cultures had also begun to interact with local customs and practices.
However by the time the British began to rule in the Victorian era, there was a growing exposure to both Victorian standards of propriety and morality. This was expedited by the growing exposure of Indian women of middle and upper classes to public life and opportunities for education and socializing.
Consequently, there were instances of conflict between notions of what was considered a proper dress code for women in public life.
The Origin of The Modern Saree Blouse
One such point of fracture is often considered to be the single source genesis of the modern saree blouse. As the legend goes, Gyananadini devi, the sister in law to Rabindra Nath Tagore is understood to have come up with the then most modern form of the blouse.
It was customary in Bengal to drape a saree covering the wearer well enough not to require a blouse. However when Gyanandini devi attempted to enter an English club wearing a Bengali saree she was denied entry on the ground of improper attire.
You can imagine her chagrin at the incident when you realize that this motivated her to craft the traditional Bengali saree into a modern ensemble, complete with a modified European style blouse.
Gradually, the style became popular in more parts of the country and many women began to adopt the blouse in its different form.
The "blouse" and the "petticoat" - both English garments- entered Indian vocabulary thanks to her and these British style garments became so inseparable from the saree that we now consider them to be our traditional garments.
Cinema The First and Still The Foremost Indian Fashion Influence
By the 1940's Indian cinema began to thrive. And soon enough it produced silver screen stars such as Vaijyanti Mala, Nutan,Nargis and Meena Kumari who wore long sleeved blouses, were also style influencers of their age. Their style of dress further popularized the modern saree blouse.
Needless to say that nothing has really changed. We still go straight to our Bollywood stars for style inspiration.
In fact you could say the journey of the saree blouse has indeed come a full circle. Bollywood has led the way both intentionally and by chance in leading us back to the days of yore when the saree blouse was more of a long tailored top, or simply just not worn.
Whatever may be the case, the saree blouse - whichever way it is styled and cut; whether it is worn with panache or skipped for a racy photo shoot, you cannot remove it from the idea of a saree any more than you can remove a saree from the idea of an Indian woman, whether she dresses in a saree or in something else.
Article By : Bhavna R
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