Friday, 25 April 2014

A brief introduction to Indian Garb

I taught my first ever A&S class at Rowany Festival this year (off the cuff ones at the college don't count! (for those Americans playing at home - Lochac has 'College of St whoever' which is the local University group sponsored by a host Barony)). It was a rather simplistic class and aimed to introduce more people to the saree. It involved some talkie talkie but was mostly a hands-on, here's a couple of ways to drape a saree class. I actually taught the class twice and a bit as some people missed it and asked for some private lessons. Hopefully I'll be seeing more sarees around the place and perhaps an Indian persona or two. Perhaps next year I'll do a class on choli tops - I am getting rather sick of creepy men telling me it's not period.

Anyway, I digress, my notes:

A Brief Introduction to Indian Garb

Antoinette Travaillie, Kingdom of Lochac.

Figure 1 Gujari Ragini from a Ragamala series ca. 1600 Color on paper
H: 19.6 W: 14.5 cm  Malwa, India F1937.36. Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art

The Sari
The sari is simple a piece of folded and draped cloth. Typically the cloth ranges from 3 to 9 meters long depending on the drape style and intent of the wearer. While many cultures have developed their own styles, India is unique in the widespread retention of the unsewn garment. One scholar suggested this is due to the pieced (sewn) fabric being unclean and thus unable to be worn by Hindu priests. There are many ways of draping a sari. The styles change by time period, region, occupation, class and wealth.

Figure 2: Ajanta - cave 1, listening to the sage. Shows some lovely ikat fabric, and extremely variably clad individuals.

Most people are familiar with the sari as depicted in paintings after the Mughul Empire was established (Figure 1) however there has been a huge variety of styles and forms through out the medieval period. The image above comes from the Ajanta / Ellora cave complex which is a sequence of Buddhist caves painted from 1-6th CE. The images depict men and women wearing a variety of draped and sewn fabrics.
During this class we will be practicing three styles of draping derived from cave paintings, statues and assisted by ‘Saris: An illustrated guide to the Indian Art of Draping’. The first is termed the flower sellers drape, the second is the fishtail drape which can be altered to create a variety of styles and the final is the veshti-mundu which I find to be a comfortable drape that can easily be altered to suit whatever activities I’m undertaking.

Figure 3 Jain Art - Queen Trisala's joy at the confirmation of her conception, Gujarat. 1400-1500 Metropolitan Museum of Art

Due to humidity and a tradition of burning the dead, there are no extant examples of period saris that I am aware of. Gujurat (on the west coast) was a major trading port and did export fabric around the Indian Ocean. Some samples of block printed fabric have been recovered from Fustat, Egypt. Due to these factors most of what we know about saris comes from cave paintings, statues and later, manuscripts. There are a number of period patterns (see below) that can still be found in Sari shops today such as simple geometric block printing, Ikat fabrics (patterns dyed into threads and then woven together) and embroidered designs. Period saris can be made out of silk, wool, linen or cotton. Purchase the type of fabric that fits your desired drape, cotton is good at holding pleats, art silk is more slippery and will conform to your shape better heavy brocades fall beautifully and are especially good for fishtails but can be challenging to keep draped over the shoulder.  

Figure 4 Block printed cotton, mordant dyed Gujarat India 1470-1550 The ‘hamsa (goose)’ is an ancient motif in Indian art. It occurs in early sculptural reliefs and in mural paintings of the Gupta period (320-about 540 AD), as seen at Ajanta cave complex It is an auspicious motif and was favoured for dress design from the Gupta period. The attribution date for this object is around 1510 (+ or - 40 years) by radiocarbon-14 dating.

Figure 5 Women, Virupaksha Temple, Vijayangara, 16th century. South Indian Painting, pg. 96.

Some basic language I've found useful when shopping:

Pallau – this is the decorative edge on your sari. This may be a meter of highly embroidered fabric or a simple trim to match the hem of your garment.

Fall – often online advertisements will mention a pre-sewn fall. A fall is a strip of fabric sewn to the bottom of the sari. The fall protects delicate embroidery from your feet and provides added weight allowing the pleats to fall pleasingly. Pre-sewn falls are usually sewn for a left to right drape.

Pre-sewn – Pre sewn sari’s come with folds presewn into them. This takes the guess work out of draping the sari. These are hard to purchase off the rack in medieval prints / fabrics

Art Silk – This often means artificial silk. It’s much smoother, much hotter and takes dyes much better. Some shops use this to mean artistic silk. These saris are usually painted in non-traditional designs and may also be made out of artificial fabrics.

Figure 6 Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati Chola dynasty, 10th century India Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Useful books:

Saris: An illustrated guide to the Indian Art of Draping, 1997, Chantal Boulanger, Shakti Press International. ISBN: 0966149610

A multitude of variations of 1800-2000 era draping styles with step by step instructions. VERY useful and highly recomended for drape variety and language

Indian Court Painting, 1984, Andrew Topsfield, Victoria and Albert museum ISBN 0112903835

16th – 19th C paintings of the Muslim and Hindu schools in Northern Indian and the Deccan

The Ajanta Caves, Ancient Paintings of Buddhist India, Benoy K Behl, Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0500285012

189 colour images of Buddhist caves painted between 1st-6th C CE. I cannot recomend this enough, hundreds of references for a huge range of things.

Indian Painting, 1993, Pratapaditya Pal, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, ISBN 0510934655

1000-1700, divided by region/artistic style. Not as much in early period as I'd like but there never will be.

South Indian Paintings, 1968 C Sivaramamurti, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, ISBN 8123000529

Divided by culture with line drawing interpretations of poorer images

Textiles & Dress of Gujarat, Eiluned Edwards, V&A publishing ISBN 9781851776450

Modern but contains good historical overview of textiles, including dying and embroidery.

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