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Sari Story

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    Sari Story

    1999/10 - Feature
    Sari Story
    Weaving is the symbol of India's collective identity, and silk, in the form of exquisite saris, is the weaver's finest product. But as the country's youth turns to jeans and T-shirts, the question nags: How long will sari culture last?

    By Smita Madan Paul and Kiran Desai
    Photograph by Dayanita Singh

    An opaque, humid fog blankets New Delhi, making the streets seem particularly grimy. Our driver navigates the motorized rickshaw through a crowd of exhaust-spewing cars, trucks, and other auto-rickshaws, conceding right-of-way to the roaming cows that view us and the surrounding scene with an enviable moony detachment.

    Finally, we reach the marketplace of South Extension, where jean and T- shirt shops are interspersed with stores selling traditional saris and gold jewelry. Even before we mount the dingy marble steps to Nalli's Saree Shop, our hearts are racing. The uniformed doormen open the glass doors with a flourish. At the threshold, a cacophonous opera of voices inside replaces the sounds of the Delhi street behind us. The doormen nod their turbaned heads -- the last civilized gesture before we enter.

    Inside, women are lined up three-deep along the counter; overhead, shop clerks unfurl yards of one of India's most ancient treasures: silk. With a satisfying whack, men snap out the cloth, releasing a scent of rice starch as the fabric wafts onto the counter. Before there is a chance to admire one sari, another is revealed the same way.

    Sari buying is a contact sport -- if you're not careful, you'll be elbowed hopelessly out of reach of the counters. You grab one beautiful sari only to reel in a competing buyer. And be wary of the brides-to-be, identified by the henna patterns on their hands: Out to buy their wedding trousseaus, they are the most aggressive. We throw ourselves into the fray and a few hours later emerge victorious, if a little bruised, woven treasures in tow.

    The sari, the mainstay of India's weaving tradition, is an evolutionary triumph. This most simple of garments is the oldest continuously worn dress in history, dating back to the second century B.C. Invasions have come and gone, empires have risen and crumbled, yet nothing has changed the popularity of the sari. And, while factories have expedited much of the process, many handlooms are still used, weaving the same patterns and employing the same dye processes developed centuries ago. Saris are now made of cotton, silk, rayon, or polyester, but they are still six- to nine-yard lengths of uncut cloth, folded and tied around the body. India's textile industry has survived to the present day because of its willingness to adopt new influences while holding onto the old.

    Now, however, there is a new kind of threat: the changing aesthetic sense of the new generation, formed in the global economy. Ironies abound in that economy at a time when Indian silk is fodder for couture-show runways and elite boutiques, when New York socialites and British sensualists have come to fetishize the fabric, when high-end designers make personal pilgrimages to India in search of material for purses, skirts, and shirts. China and Italy continue to outrank India in silk exports to the United States, but while China's and Italy's numbers dropped last year by 6 percent, India's figure ballooned by 22 percent. In the urban centers of India, however, it is blue jeans, T-shirts, and baseball caps that mark a glamorous wardrobe.

    The sari is a good reminder that there has always been a global economy. The world has always coveted Indian fabrics, from the Pharaohs and ancient Greeks to Anna Sui and Goldie Hawn. In the 13th century, Marco Polo said, "embroidery is here [in India] produced with more delicacy than anywhere in the world." In India's handloom-woven-silk industry alone, there are more than ten million embroiderers, weavers, spinners, and dyers -- more than the entire population of many countries. During the Raj, however, the British tried to crush the handloom-weaving tradition, making the subcontinent dependent on cheaply made English cloth. Mahatma Gandhi turned this against the British, using the spinning wheel as an icon of independence: From 1941 to 1947, the spinning wheel graced India's flag.

    We journeyed across India to visit some of the people responsible for producing this homespun beauty. The tropical countryside of Orissa, about 800 miles east of Delhi, possesses a meditative calm, a relief from the nervy capital city. The landscape is a patchwork of red scrub, rice fields, lush lotus ponds, and palm tree jungles. We passed little villages and the wide Mahanandi River as it winds its way to the Bay of Bengal. The white-sand strip along the coast matches the white spires of Puri's 12th-century Jagannath Temple and is punctuated by the dark ruins of the ninth-century Surya Temple in Konarak. For centuries, when ships from the Far East arrived to pick up Orissan silk for the royal families of Indonesia and Thailand, crews used the temple spires as landmarks. While Jagannath's prominence in the Hindu faith -- and its large temple complex -- attracts crowds of pilgrims, the Surya Temple, no longer sacred and set in a quiet forest, is known for its sculptures. Some of the 13th-century carvings -- depicting everything from love to war -- are so risqué that visitors rear back and fall off the temple steps. The government has recently considered putting up railings.

    Coastal Orissa is one of the centers of ikat fabric. Ikat refers to a technique that involves resist-dyeing the thread: Warp and weft threads are divided into bundles and tied with dye-resistant material -- cotton yarn or strips of leaf or plastic. Once the resist material is removed from the dyed threads, the pieces are then aligned according to a pattern. The patterns, involving complex calculations, are often retained in the minds of the weaving masters until they are taught to their children. In Nuapatna, designs have trickled down eight generations.

    In a cluster of tiny tea-colored mud houses grouped around a stone temple, the entire population of Nuapatna seems to be involved in the production of ikat saris. Little children run between the mud houses clasping bundles of raw silk. Women hang freshly dyed yarn between the temple arches, and dyers can be spotted by their permanently colored hands. From every dark interior, bits of bright silk gleam. Weavers work on ramshackle wooden looms with only a bald light bulb for light, while objects we might consider refuse are used as weights to produce just the right amount of tension for the yarn. Yet the work is executed with incredible precision.

    Long after the smell of boiled worms and the din of bustling streets have left one's memory of India, the colors remain. Color is so infused in every aspect of life that the word raga is used for both color and mood. Red connotes love and passion; saffron represents worldly detachment; indigo reflects sorrow or mourning. Combinations can be startling: tangerine and fuchsia, purple and parrot green, chartreuse and crimson. Other shades are so subtle that they seem to correspond to an emotion with no verbal equivalent.

    Paid only about 400 rupees (about ten dollars) for a sari that may take two weeks to complete, many of these weavers cannot afford to buy the saris they spend their days making. Nor can they afford the raw materials, which are given to them by a government cooperative, which in turn gets the silk from the lush tropical state of Kanartaka, about 1,200 miles south of New Delhi.

    After flying into Kanartaka's bustling commercial capital, Bangalore, we drove the road to Mysore, where carts, trucks, and bicycles -- bearing everything from coconuts to kerosene -- dodge each other going to market.

    As we approached the outskirts of Mysore, renowned for sandalwood and jasmine as well as for silk, we saw farmers cycling to the Government Cocoon Market in Ramnagar, balancing giant sacks of cocoons on their heads. At the marketplace, the cocoons are tossed in the air and sorted by size, fluffiness, elongation, and shade of yellow, and then argued and bartered over. Proprietors of reeling factories turn them into thread, which is then sold to weavers.

    According to K. Ravindranath, India's assistant director of sericulture, the real threat to Indian silk comes not from The Gap, but from China. The demand for silk has outstripped domestic supply -- about 5,000 metric tons were imported from China last year, where the thread is cheaper and thinner. But there is an audible, as well as visible, difference between Indian and Chinese silks, he says: "Suppose two Chinese women dressed in silk come rushing through a doorway. It doesn't make any sound at all. But when two Indian women come crashing together, it gives that fantastic sound of silk." That sound, he explains, comes from the thicker threads and higher starch content in Indian silk.

    In Ramnagar's reeling factories, the cocoons are boiled, killing the worms and softening the silk, which is then spun into one long thread. The end of the thread is then attached to a reeling machine that winds it onto a spool. On another machine, thread from ten spools is twisted into a diamond shape to produce a skein of thread bought by weavers. The clatter of machinery and the rotting smell of boiled worms fill the streets of this suburb, which is predominantly Muslim and poorer than most Hindi areas.

    A little further down the road in Mysore, the silk manufacturers are known for a high-thread-count georgette, inspired by 1940s French chiffon. But there are many kinds of silk: There is coarse tussar silk, made from wild, uncultivated cocoons. There is heavy, rustling silk, and silk so fine it is called "woven water." And, because the Jain community is opposed to harming any other creature, "freedom" silk is woven from cocoons after the worms have escaped.

    At the Central Silk Technological Research Institute in the northern city of Varanasi, scientists are out to improve Indian silk in every way possible. Om Karnath at the Eco-Testing Research Institute proudly shows off his gadgets for testing stiffness, absorption, crimping, drapery, cohesion, rubbing-fastness, air permeability, tearing strength, and crease recovery. All of this elaborate technology lies idle, however, rendered useless by another of India's anachronistic ironies: The electricity has gone out again.

    Sitting on the holy Ganges River, Varanasi, a sacred city for Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jains, is also a center for classical dance, music, and, of course, weaving -- a tradition here since the first century A.D. We arrived just after the Muslim festival of Id; leftover streamers and tinsel decorations crisscrossed the ceiling of the home workshop of Ansar Ahmed, a textile designer we visited. He explains that the depiction of animals and people was forbidden during the Mughal period (from the early-16th to the mid-18th centuries), inspiring floral brocades that made the city famous. During the 1890s, some weavers brought back wallpaper samples from England to create new designs.

    These days, Muslim weavers also make the maroon cloth used for Tibetan robes and the rich brocades that frame Buddhist religious paintings. Perhaps the most famous Varanasi saris are the kincabs, or "little dreams." These wedding brocades, embroidered with gold, are prized among Hindu brides, who often make pilgrimages to buy one. Should a family fall on hard times, the sari is burned and the gold recovered.

    Ahmed shows us his designs, worked out on graph paper. They will be transferred to punch cards and fed into semimechanized Jacquard looms. His skills are a "gift by nature, learnt through God," he says. But sometimes the designs come from less-than-divine inspiration. When disco fever hit India, irregular saris were labeled "disco" saris -- the jagged foul-ups resembled the dance craze -- and put on the market. Nowadays, weavers are inspired by the latest blockbusters in Bollywood, as the Bombay film industry is known.

    But even in Bollywood, films feature women wearing baseball caps and playing basketball -- fashion cues picked up since the advent of satellite television about six years ago. With a population of close to one billion, it will take more than a little black box to alter the most fundamental wardrobe item for the majority of India's women. Jeans and a T-shirt may be India's latest trend, but shopping for Levi's hardly compares with the parade of sounds, smells, characters, and scenery that accompany the pursuit of a sari.