No garment evokes images of India more indubitably than the saree, and certainly, no other culture’s clothing has remained in style longer. Worn by women in the Indian subcontinent for centuries, the saree has carved a niche for itself through its aesthetic appeal and adaptability. Produced in various textures and patterns, this single stretch of fabric, ranging from 3.5 to 9 yards, has the exceptional quality of being open to creative inspirations.
There are more than a hundred different ways to drape a saree. The most common style worn by most women today is known as the ‘Nivi’ drape - where the saree is wrapped around the waist, with the loose end of the drape to be worn over the left shoulder, partly baring the midriff.
The evolution of this modern drape is an interesting one. The saree was essentially worn only as a functional garment in ancient India, where tribal women wore it tied up to their knees for easy movement and fisherwomen in coastal regions wore it like a pair of shorts to allow free movement in the water. Poetic references from works like Shilappadikaram indicate that during the Sangam period (300 BCE - 300 CE), a single piece of cloth served as the lower garment and head covering. Blouses were rarely worn with the earliest Nivi drape sarees.
There is no absolute indication as to how the term ‘Nivi’ was coined, however, this style of draping was first noticed as inherent in the culture of the Deccan region, specifically Andhra Pradesh.
The person credited with the creation of the Nivi drape as we know it today is Jnanadanandini Devi Tagore, a social leader and influencer of her time. She was the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, and sister-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore. During the colonial era of Indian history, many Victorian morals were being imposed on Indian society. One such moral was to be modestly dressed. The saree was considered “immodest" as the upper body was left bare, and therefore, Indian dressing changed to adapt to these new moral sensibilities. Parallely, The Independence movement was gaining traction and marked a change for Indian attire, especially the saree. Political leaders wore the garment to distinguish themselves from the British and give the people and the movement a national identity. To create a style that would conform to the new sensibilities, Jnanadanandini Devi adapted the nivi drape that incorporated theblouse and petticoat. The point of this style was to fit in while maintaining a distinct Indian identity.
She was greatly influenced by the Parsi gara and learnt the Parsi way of draping the saree. She then changed her style of draping from the Gujarati pallu on the right shoulder to the straight pallu over the left shoulder. She also published advertisements in the Bamabodhini Patrika (a women’s magazine) to teach other women to wear the saree in her style, and it quickly caught on.
Another illustrious figure known to have popularised this draping style is Raja Ravi Varma. The renowned Indian painter had chosen the saree as the ideal female garb. The Nivi drape was depicted through his paintings by modifying a South Indian saree known as mundum neriyathum. One of his paintings also portrayed the Indian subcontinent as a mother wearing a saree in the Nivi style drape. More than a century later, his portrayal of the Indian woman continues to influence the arts, entertainment and popular culture to this day.
A Galaxy of Musicians by Raja Ravi Varma
(Source: Google Arts & Culture)
This modern drape is now worn by most women. Perhaps a key factor in its popularity is that it adapts the saree to the wearer. Arguably, no other attire can beat the saree in its sheer versatility: from corporate boardrooms to family gatherings; festivals and ceremonies; this remains the ubiquitous style for Indian women across the globe.
From societal and political changes to new developments in arts and culture, the Nivi drape has emerged with a history and story of its own. In a journey that is both fascinating and eventful, the modern saree as we know it reflects the challenges faced and progress made by Indian society at different points in time.
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