Indian Saris Traditions - Perspectives - Design

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Item Code: IHF078
Author: Vijai Singh Katiyar
Publisher: Shaiva Bharati Shodha Pratishthanam
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788183281225
Pages: 210 (Illustrated Throughout In Full Color)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 13.8.” X 9.8”
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Book Description

From the Jacket

Indian Saries Traditions - Perspectives - Design

This book lends a new dimension to the way the traditional Indian sari is looked at, and upholds it as an epitome of holistic design with a unique creative expression. In the backdrop of Indian socio-cultural and economic ethos, the pages inside unfold the mesmerizing woven yards of the sari, the quintessential piece of garment that has draped the Indian women since time immemorial.

The sari has been subjected to innumerable cross-cultural influences brought in by the rise and fall of empires that marked the history of India. Perhaps no other textile product reflects the resilience of the Indian handloom sector as the sari, a true example of fine Indian sensibilities.

The volume, with over 892 visuals, aims to delight and enrich the aesthetic experience of the reader with information on a wide range of saris from both the pat and the present ad ultimately introduces the contemporary design initiatives taking place in the sector. It enumerates the fascinating accounts of the sari’s traditional significance, the diverse styles of weaving, design vocabuliary, and even the myriad styles of draping found across the subcontinent. It is indeed a glowing tribute to the magic flowing out of the deft hands of the Indian weaver and to the undeterred artistic spirit of the sari.

The book will be of interest to designers, students, policy makers, technocrats, marketers and businesspersons besides all those who are interested in Indian art, culture, design and fashion.

About the Author

Vijai Singh Katiyar is an accomplished designer and a senior faculty member at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, India. He graduated as a textile designer from NID, before which he trained as a textile technologist at the Government Central Textile Institute (GCTI), Kanpur. His ongoing doctoral research is in the area of crafts and design education. He is also a member of the Policy & Planning Committee of NID.

In his career spanning two decades, Vijai has undertaken considerable amount of work in many aspects of design and design education. He has led and given impetus to a number of activities at the NID including outreach, education and international programmes. He has been responsible for the development and execution of the System of Educational Excellence in Design (SEED) there. He is also a founder member of the ‘International Center for Indian Crafts’ set up at NID in 2005.

As part of his professional practice, he has helped a number of business enterprises for domestic as well as export sectors by contributing strategic design, product development and diversification and implementation in the areas of Yarn Design, Apparel Fabrics, Jacquard Fabrics, Saris, Carpets & Rugs, Home Textiles, Made-ups & Accessories and Crafts. His interests include photography, graphics and visual merchandising.

Vijai has also organized and anchored four national seminars and an international conference on design education, DETM 2005. He has authored several papers on design and other related topics and served on the jury panels of design competitions. His recent publication is Design Education: Tradition & Modernity. He is also a member, governing council, Kumarappa National Handmade Paper Institute, Jaipur, and actively contributes to several other professional and administrative bodies.


In recent times, there has been more than ample evidence of the supremacy of science and technology. While there is no debate about the seminal importance of advancement in technology, it would be a grave fallacy to presume that discarding past traditions to lap up latest technological innovations would work pretty much like a magic wand, to redress all the woes of the Indian masses and help build a new India. The traditional Indian textile sector has unfortunately borne the brunt of such a fallacious approach wherein overemphasis on production efficiency, cost minimization and profitability has brought age-old hand weaving skills to near annihilation.

Post-Independence, as economic policies by and large, struggled to unleash the potential of a gigantic country, the aspirations of the masses quickly metamorphosed into prolonged dejection and despair. Having suffered economic exploitation and cultural upheavals, the masses in independent India were somewhat reluctant about having to fall back upon time-tested traditions. Instead, they found promise of freedom and liberation in the newer symbols of prosperity. The textile mill sector and powerloom production reinforced the belief that production efficiency and cost minimization were the only ways of generating profitability in business. In this fast-paced and almost fanatical process of discovering contemporary synonyms of modernity, philosophies of larger-than-life figures like Gandhi were completely sidelined in the process of acquiring business acumen. After all, these technology-driven endeavours, particularly in the textile industry, were churning out handsome profits through bulk production. The large textile mills offered relatively better opportunities both in terms of revenue and employment than any other industry in India did till the late 1980s. in the wake of such apparent economic gains, the potential of Indian handlooms and their relevance in the Indian context was clearly lost not only on the educated class, but also on those who were assigned the responsibility of its preservation and growth.

Post-Independence, the national social development agenda did create a policy and support system for the handloom industry. This policy and organizational support to the cause of the handloom sector continues till date. However, instead of unveiling the potential of Indian textiles, these initiatives have unwittingly created an environment that is hardly conducive to robust growth.

The passionate involvement of many revivalists in the traditional handloom sector was seen with curious interest, though the relevance of their efforts was neither truly understood nor treated with the response it deserved. It many sari traditions are surviving today, much credit goes to these people who rediscovered the rich resources of design aesthetics to revitalize many streams of textile products. It is another matter that much of this effort proved meaningless in the face of the mighty but insensitive textile mills and the vicious grip they exercised over the supply and distribution of fabric to the country’s populace. This regime, in independent India, could perhaps be a major factor responsible for the further degeneration of the aesthetic sensibilities of Indian consumers.

Since the late 1970s, the urban population has exhibited a marked change in lifestyles. Though men have become reasonably well adapted to tailored garments, some women still wear saris but with a different style popularized by mainstream cinema. Many women, particularly in villages and smaller towns, still largely wear saris that are not necessarily handwoven-a fine distinction that people are either ignorant of or consider handwoven fabric insignificant.

However subconsciously so, for the Indian masses, handloom traditions have prevailed in all their meaning and value down the ages, partly fostered by religion and rituals. Even today in the twenty-first century, the most prized gift to an Indian women continues to be a richly brocaded handwoven sari. Social and religious customs still patronize the wearing of saris on significant occasions like weddings and festivals. A vast majority of the Indian population continues to live in villages where traditions still define vestments. But most urban women today prefer to use the sari as a special occasion wear only.

Conceptual relevance of the handloom sector was drawn back to occupy centre stage when the once mighty textile mills started to wilt. There was serious rethinking about the larger role handlooms could play in the context of economic development at the macro and micro levels. As composite mills in Mumbai, Kanpur, Ahmedabad and other places started to turn ‘sick’ and many mills actually shut shop, a large number of textile workers were rendered unemployed. Parallel to this development, export houses, dealing with textiles and using traditional craft resources, registered impressive growth. Some of them, including handloom clusters like Karur, Panipat, Bhadohi, Varanasi and Kanchipuram, boasted of self-propelled models of growth and progressive entrepreneurship. Close on its heels came the era of proactive globalization and liberalization of the Indian economy. This further strengthened the exports-driven handloom industry and brought a few selected varieties of handloom textiles to the forefront. Other articles of use, like saris, still faced issues of survival and sustenance. There was a delayed realisation of the potential of the large domestic market and its fast-emerging enlightened consumers.

My initiation into handlooms began in 1987. The first projection I worked on was to design handloom saris in Kerala. Thereafter I was associated with sari weavers to design handloom saris in Varanasi, Bundi, Vidharbha, Thiruvananthapuram, Surendranagar, Kanchipuram, Arni, Coimbatore, Salem, Trichy (Tiruchirapalli), Thirubhuvanam, Vilandai Devangar, Rasipuram, Mannarkudi and Paramakudi. These and many other design projects for handlooms and crafts across India proved to be a humbling experience but one which provided me with ample insight. Over the years, working for Indian weavers has helped me realize the immense possibilities of design that exist for the development of a crafts-based rural economy and link it with fast-paced urban paradigms of progress. Saris, in my opinion, are the embodiment of creative energy one often wonders why new business models have not been adopted to energise this sector through the development of contemporary Indian brands.

From the year 2000 onwards, thanks to the various outreach programmes of the National Institute of Design, I began to explore such possibilities through design projects in the area of handloom saris. Initial success prompted me to take much larger initiatives. The economic rewards and the rising levels of confidence brought back to the weavers and their cooperatives in the sari clusters in Tamil Nadu, have deeply strengthened my conviction in the creative superiority of the sari as a product. Sari weavers, even in a changed operational climate, have the skills that are relevant and satisfying to both users and designers, not to speak of its advantage to the idea of constructing a national identity, in general.

Many lesions have been learnt over the years. Two aspects are worth mentioning even at the cost of repetition. First, the design diversity of Indian textiles and the extremely sophisticated skills of weaving communities have the potential to drive the development of textiles to the cutting edge. Second, comprehensive design intervention can turn the handloom sector into a self-sustainable and economically viable proposition. It is all the more critical to work towards a design-led strategic approach since handlooms and crafts continue to be the second largest employment generating sector in rural India after agriculture.

I hope this work will be a source of enjoyment and inspiration, and will help usher in new fashion trends and make traditional handloom saris of India re-emerge in their full splendour and glory. With optimistic anticipation I dedicate this book to the generations of weavers whose creative masterpieces will continue to do India proud.


The sari - a garment worn by women - has a glorious tradition that dates as far back ion the annals of history of the Indian subcontinent as the Indus Valley Civilisation. Historical research amply establishes the practice of weaving and the use of unstitched fabrics by the people in Harappa and Mohen-jo-daro. The evolution of the sari finds links with vestimentary practices in the early civilizations of the region. Even before the Christian era, textiles from India were exported, admired and valued across continents on account of their richness and sophistication. Though the sari was never exported, its visual aesthetics and other characteristics inspired and influenced the evolution of many forms of fabrics and costumes. Down the ages, the sari has survived socio-cultural and economic changes in this part of the world. In fact, numerous cross-cultural influences and interactions across communities have only enriched the sari. The richness of colour, the exquisite weaving skills of diverse communities and the truly amazing diversity in styles of draping has made this nine-yard piece of cloth the epitome of womanhood in India.

The fate of the sari, in present times, is however, somewhat disconcerting. Current trends reveal that the handwoven sari is being worn less and less by the younger generation of women. This trend could have serious implications for the socio-cultural identity of the Indian woman, not to speak of the uncertain economic prospects it signals for a large number of handloom weavers in rural India. As an unstitched garment, the techniques of sari weaving have been handed down to the Indian weavers through the passage of time. It reflects the vast aesthetic and technical investments made to suit a woman’s need for adornment and cultural identity. Its loss will severely impede a major source of the creative energy to develop innovative textiles in the future. If this trend persists, forthcoming generations will be oblivious to the sari and the sophisticated skills required in its designing, weaving and draping. It is in fact difficult to imagine the survival of some of the sari traditions present today without encouraging the accumulation of and specialization in hereditary skills.

It is often suggested that, as a product, the design and development for the sari should be governed purely by market forces. This view conveniently ignores many historical aspects involved in the evolution of the cultural identity of a society. If the sari as a product is to evolve and enter the future with a sense of pride and achievement, then its historical relevance to such factors cannot simply be overlooked.

Sari weavers today are in a state of constant flux because most initiatives to support them have, by and large, failed to consider contextual design support as a priority. It’s truly remarkable that the sari has survived all adversities on the strength of its own traditional design elements and their value propositions. The traditional sari weavers have, however, been less fortunate. For individual weavers and handloom cooperative societies across the country, sustaining business with traditional values is by no means an easy task. Many weavers and their communities have not been able to keep pace with the new demands imposed on their products. This, along with diminishing sales, has brought some of the old saris on the verge of extinction. Others that survive today and which once were renowned names, have just about somehow managed to stay afloat with government aid, subsidies, elite patronage and cost-cutting strategies. Individual weavers, in remote rura locations and small cooperatives, have been particularly badly hit by the stiff competition posed by extensively globalizing markets and the ever-changing lifestyles of the masses in India.

Many handloom weavers, dismayed with the prospect of an uncertain future, have taken recourse to social welfare schemes and government subsidies. These well-meaning support systems, as we do acknowledge them to be, have also had an extremely detrimental impact upon the entrepreneurial instinct of the handloom industry. Handwoven saris are now confronted with completely new challenges. With the growth of a decentralized powerloom industry and the increased availability of handloom saris in regional markets from other weaving clusters, most traditional sari weavers are now faced with the necessity to work with specific competitive advantages in mind for the sake of their survival. The runaway commercial success of the powerloom sector has brought the once prosperous handloom sector to its knees. Inadvertently perhaps, it has also taken the sheen off the glorious handwoven Indian sari. It is no wonder that after the introduction of machine-made fabrics in India, Dr E. B. Havell observed in 1886, “Women of Kumbhakonam did not look so well dressed in their saris as they did before the introduction of mill-made textiles and clothes dyed with chemical colours.”

Sari and design are inseparable in many ways. It is only now that we have begun to recognize this mutual interdependence. In an arduous journey which spans over a long period of time, Indian design, as a discipline, has gained rich experience and insight. Through collaborative interaction for new design development and diversification, the discipline has devised successful methodologies to leverage a hopeful future for saris.

For most handloom weavers in the country, the first priority is survival and getting respectable work round the year. In the absence of true appreciation and livelihood opportunities, handloom weavers tend to tread the path to nowhere, probably in the fond hope that the government would bail them out of disaster. In the handloom industry, there is no dearth of skills and technical expertise; there is a visible scarcity of creative leadership, courage and commitment. An approach to develop new strategies based on design must clearly guide the weavers to a path that will ensure security and stability. Experience has proven time and again that, more than anything else, it is doubtlessly design, coupled with good policy support that could help weavers revive their confidence and competitive energy. Today, design is an important business took in areas where leveraging qualitative values is vital. The sari has not one but many such value propositions. With sustained hand-holding of design, many of these sari weaving clusters can still chart their own roadmap to success. A strategy, which places design at the centre of entrepreneurial activity, is a more promising proposition. Ample evidence of this can be seen in the history of the Indian handloom industry.

The core objective of design is to enhance the quality of life through creative solutions. Systems-thinking and a user-centric approach in design recognize the social and cultural dimensions needed to arrive at sustainable solutions. To recognize and bring together multidisciplinary issues, concerns and solutions is the forte of design. It prescribes the concept of co-creation for realizing the true value of a woven sari for the long-term benefit of its weaver.

Due to the scale of activity and the number of people involved - both producers as well as users - the sari is unlikely to completely fade away in the time to come. The need is to explore new paradigms for its use. For example, contemporary design development and sensuous drapes can entice the younger generation to discover a unique identity and expression to match with their sensibilities and lifestyle.

The content of this publication is addressed to those who wish to delve into the diversity of the unique design language of the Indian sari. It is an earnest attempt to shed light on the challenges faced by textile designers and many others who deal with one of the toughest and most sensitive aspects of the Indian economy and culture. Conviction, in the power of design, is the foundation of this work. one must acknowledge that there are no quick-fix formulae for change; but there is a certain scope for design-led intervention to identify new opportunities for the beleaguered sari weaving sector.

This book also revisits the endurable qualities of the sari and takes a comprehensive look at the incredible array of its varieties, in the fond hope that a journey back in time will ignite a fresh perspective for its sustenance and catalyse its growth towards a promising future. The insight may prove to be inspiring to those who wish to contribute towards enhancing the quality of handloom products through design interventions in the years to come. The visuals and explanations presented will provide a thorough introduction to the various aspects of the sari weaving industry scattered across India at the grass roots level. This book aims to be enjoyable and motivate the reader to take the first step into the intriguing world of woven saris. With this work, I also aim to inspire a new critical mass of professionals and consumers to join hands in laying the foundation of a fresh and sustainable approach towards the weaving and wearing of saris.




Preface 11
Introduction 15
The handloom sari sector in India has been a thriving cauldron of creativity. It is a matter of grave concern that the sector which reached the pinnacle of glory purely on the strength of its creativity should today find itself at a crossroads, affronted by the modern penchant for cost-cutting and mass production.  
Sari: The History 19
The history of the Indian handwoven sari is a saga of amazing creative skills that evolved from the pre-historic era into glorious traditions, each tradition with its unique flavour. It is a testimony of their innate strength that many sari traditions have remained intact till this day, in spite of the social, cultural and economic upheavals.  
Sari: An Overview 33
The chapter introduces the regions and their sari traditions across India. If the mystique of the sari has held sway over Indian women for well over five thousand years, it is largely on account of the gifted weaving communities who are responsible for the evolution of a product that enhances the beauty of the Indian woman.  
Sari: The Traditions 59
Some of the exclusive and renowned sari traditions can be visually experienced in these pages. The regional ethos in these traditions is subtly yet effectively reflected in the weaving techniques, patters, style, the colour palette and above all, in the myriad motifs.  
Sari: Draping 103
The matchless aesthetic superiority of the sari is enhanced by the diversity of the draping styles that can be observed among various communities across the length and breadth of India. The art of draping and the skilful transformation of a two-dimensional object into a three-dimensional visual composition is as interesting as the art of weaving itself.  
Sari: Textile Design in India 115
The gifted master weavers laid the very foundation of textile design in India through an innovative culture marked by a profound understanding of materials, methods, visual composition and user aspirations. The chapter presents a chronological overview of the textile design practices in India.  
Sari: Design Perspectives 125
The potential of handwoven sari in the modern market has not been fully realized. The chapter brings forth some fresh perspectives on how design must address issues ranging from traditional skills and appropriate technology, to brand building and marketing strategies for the contemporary market.  
Sari: Design Intervention 139
There were a few design interventions in the handwoven sari sector that comprehensively dealt with its wide range of issues and problems. The chapter derives from such firsthand experiences and their insights. The learning calls for equilibrating the needs and aspired priorities of weavers, designers and the users in a well considered design process. An approach that not only creates the products that will sell but also nurtures the indigenous practices and identities to flourish.  
Sari: The Future 197
As a product deeply rooted in socio-cultural traditions of the country, the sari must survive, or rather thrive. Broad-based, wide-ranging design and marketing functions coupled with strategic innovation processes will play a key role in shaping its future.  
Credits 201
Bibliography 202
Index 205


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