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Six yards of cloth. That is all there is to the saree. Yet, this dress worn by millions of Indian women is, by far, the most elegant. It is not merely an outfit but an ornament, lending both grace and glamour to the wearer. More important, the saree epitomizes the continuity of an age-old tradition that has withstood the onslaught of many different cultures, to emerge today as a visible symbol of the resiliency, continuity and timelessness of the Indian way of life.

The saree speaks for itself of so many things. Every rustle of this unique garment has a story to tell – stories both of happiness and of sorrow. For the saree has seen it all. It has shared, with the wearer, every nuance of human experience – the joy and happiness of marriage, as well as the sorrow of parting, the pleasures and satisfaction of motherhood, the happy times when the life dealt kindly, the trying times when adversity was met with typical Indian stoicism.

The mood, the occasion, the event can all be conveyed through the saree. The colour reflects the occasion. The way it is draped signals the community. Brocades speak of happy times, an event of celebration – the birth of a baby, the marriage of a dear one. Festivals life Diwali or Durga Puja , are occasion to bring out colourful dreams in gold woven in-between vibrant rainbow-hued skeins of silk. Solemn white speaks of death, of the parting of a loved one. For those in the immediate family it indicates a state of mourning and for those who come to offer condolences it is a sign of their empathy with the bereaved. For the bride it is always, in almost all communities, a bright red.

So interwoven is the saree with the life and traditions of the people that each region of the country has developed a weave of its own. Each is a unique expression of the skills of the weavers and dyers, which have been handed down the generations. The exquisite patola weave, and the bandhini style of dyeing comes from the west. Weaving silks in vibrant colours, some weighing as much as 10 kilograms is a speciality of south India. Silk sarees embroidered with the kantha stitch, a speciality of the Bengal region in the east, is a typical example of the perseverence of the Indian craftsman. He puts in as much as six months of labour to create a single saree. The paithani silk saree from Maharashtra and the brocades from Benaras are equally representative of the continuation of the age-old crafts.

Then again, each region displays a different style of draping the saree. This is shaped by the lifestyle and the religious inclination.

The urban Indian style is by far the one most common seen. Stiff tangails, flowing silks, elegant chiffons and heavy brocades – all of them can be easily manoeuvred into this style. Tied around the waist, the saree forms a skirt with the pleats positioned in front thus allowing for free movement. The pallav or the part draped over the left shoulder is either pleated and pinned up the convenience, or is left flowing loose for glamour.

Tucked away in the mountains, in the south is Coorg, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful spots in India. Here, beauty stares at you in many forms – vast acres in myriad shades of green, little houses with red roofs enjoying the mountain air, orange blossoms lining the streets. It is the land of cardamom and coffee, of oranges and cashew, of brave generals and happy people.

The women here wear the saree in a style so unique, that its very elegance is intriguing. The pleats of the saree are not in front but at the back forming a fan. The pallav covering the chest is brought over the right shoulder. This is held in place with a broach or a pin. And as they walk, the pleats behind gently swing giving the impression of the long train, lending grace and elegance to the already exceedingly beautiful women of this land.

The Bengalis of eastern India are tradition bound. Their lifestyle is simple, their intellect volatile yet deeply rooted in their culture. Every facet of their way of life reflects a seasoned refinement. This state boasts of, among other things, very independent women.

They are exceedingly active, yet fiercely traditional. This is perhaps best reflected in the fact that at festival time, come what may, all Bengali women make it a point to drape their saree in the Bengali way. Here there are no pleats. The saree is wrapped around the waist and tucked in at the left. This is then brought back to the right side and draped over the left shoulder. The portion left over is brought up under the right arm and draped once again over the left shoulder. The bunch of keys usually tied to the end of the pallav, jingle merrily as they walk, giving the women a traditional air.

Deep in the south is the style of Tamil Nadu, a repository of India’s ancient fine arts, dance and music. Protected by the hills, this region enjoyed long years of peace which not only nurtured the arts, but also developed a religious fervour that can still be seen among its people. The followers of the Hindu religion were divided into two distinct groups. Those who worshipped Lord Shiva came to be known as lyers and the worshippers of Lord Vishnu were as lyengars. So distinct were these two groups that they differed even in the way the women draped the tradition saree.

In both communities it was the extra long saree that was worn. This measured nine yards instead of the ordinary six yards. The draping of the saree in this style is rather complicated and perhaps needs to be explained step by step. After the first wrapping around the waist, the saree is brought back and pleated with the pleats positioned along the left leg. The rest of the saree is draped over the left shoulder, wrapped once again round the waist and tucked on the left side.

However the lyer style includes a few pleats at the back which is not there in the lyengar style. It is not very often that one sees women dressed in such sarees today. The style is by far, too cumbersome for the modern women. But at weddings this is a must, and so it is perhaps only once in a life time that the Brahmin women of Tamil Nadu wear the saree in this style. What is more, the enterprising clothiers have now introduced ready-to-wear nine yard sarees, all complete with hooks and buttons, offering a welcome alternative to trendy young girls!

In maharashtra, in the west, one finds a somewhat similar style. Here again the traditional saree nine long. It is worn in a similar fashion as found in Tamil Nadu. Tied around the waist it forms a loose trouser giving greater freedom of movement. The pleats are in front with the pallav falling over the right shoulder, giving full scope to exhibit the beautifully woven borders of the traditional Maharasthra saree.

To the north of the state of Maharastthra is the state of Gujrat, which has given India greater men, none less than the stature of Mahatma Gandhi. The typical patola weave in vibrant silks and earthy cottons are worn by the women of Gujrat in a style quite similar to the urban Indian one. The only difference is that the pallav is brought over the right shoulder and tucked across in front on the left side.

Bihar in the east is the home of the Santhal tribals, perhaps best known for their inherent sense of music. The saree as worn by these tribal women is quite different. Tied around the waist, the saree reaches upto the kness. The pallav is draped in the normal way around the left shoulder and then tucked in at the waist making for easy movement through the forests.

Thus the saree has survived along the length and breadth of the subcontinent. Perhaps this is because of the variety it offers. This seemingly cumbersome garment is in reality an extremely versatile, meaningful and adaptable one. It suits every possible occasion, every possible activity. Washing and cleaning, carrying firewood back from the forest in the anchal (pallav) or walking long distances, can all be easily executed in a saree.

That is not all, the advantage of the saree are many more. The most important, the fact that it never goes out of fashion. At the most there may be phases when women prefer particular colours or when narrow borders are more in vogue than broad ones. But that is as far as it goes. It does not necessitate in any way the discarding of the saree.

Besides, the saree is universal. Grandmother and grand daughter can both carry off the same saree with equal grace. It moulds itself easily to every circumstance. No matter, how convenient, other Indian costumes may be, it is extremely unlikely that Indian women will give up wearing saree.