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Of Silks and Saris and Craft


Laila Tyabji

THE SARI
By Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller
Roli Books , Oxford & Lustre Press, Delhi, 2003, pp. 274, price not stated.

SILK BROCADES
By Yashodhara Agrawal
Roli Books , Lustre Press, Delhi, 2003, pp. 141, price not stated.

UNCERTAIN IDENTITIES: CRAFTWORK, WOMEN & PATRIARCHY IN A VILLAGE OF EASTERN UTTAR PRADESH
By Sayantani Jafa
Progressive Publishers, Calcutta, 2003, pp. 135, Rs. 200.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 2 February 2004

What fun to be reviewing a major new book on The Sari, along with two others on silk brocades and craft. I work with craftspeople, and saris and books are two things I love. Sadly, all three books under review look better than they read, and promise more than they deliver.      The sari, India’s magical and unique wearing style, is a 5 ½ metre long strip of cloth that wraps itself into a flowing, versatile and becoming garb. Conversely, The Sari, Mukulika Banerjee & Daniel Miller’s hefty 274 page sociological study reveals itself, unravelled, to be little more than an extended, rather superficial, magazine piece – albeit with pretty pictures.       A pity, as the theme of the book is wonderful – raising great expectations. This is not a documentation of the sari’s different weaves, designs, and draping styles (done so well by Rita Chishti Kapur and Amba Sanyal in ‘Saris of India’ in the Amar Vastra Kosh Saris of India Series). Nor it is a historical account of the development of the sari and its (comparatively recent) emergence as the primary formal costume of most Indian women. As the authors write in their introduction, The Sari is intended as “a different book on clothing, focusing on the sari not as an object of clothing, but as a lived garment” (authors’ italics). Fascinating, given the spread of regions, castes, classes, communities, cultures, ages, social backgrounds, and functions the sari encompasses in its folds. As the authors remind us, it can be veil, cradle, towel, portmanteau, sunshade, handkerchief, duster, keychain… There is a lovely story of the South Indian politician, Jayalalitha. Her actress mother, late for an engagement, quietly removed her sari and wrapped it round her sister, not wanting to disturb her baby daughter - who lay asleep, clutching the sari pallav. That the sleeping child became an ogress, extorting saris and other gifts in crores from her followers, adds a special poignancy to the tale.      One of the sari’s extraordinary strengths - contributing to its survival as a wearing style with mass Indian appeal, even in an age of globalized culture – is that each sari becomes, uniquely and irreplicably, the person who wears it - lending itself to the shape, style and persona of the wearer. It is the fashion industry’s worst nightmare; a garment that never becomes dated, and therefore never needs be re-invented and “marketed”. Nevertheless, it is constantly ...


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