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Unravelling The Whole Nine Yards

19 June 2013
Unravelling The Whole Nine Yards
Unravelling The Whole Nine Yards

In her 100-year-old stone home, Paati, our friend’s nonagenarian grandma washed her saris on a granite slab. No army of servants or washing machine for her. A strict practitioner of her Iyengar traditions, she adhered to the old way - alternating, turning and beating her saris with a stick and rinsing them with enviable strength. Using a ten-foot bamboo stick, she would singlehandedly balance each nine-yard sari, cleverly spreading it out on a high rod near the ceiling to dry. Sadly, both Paati and her heritage home no longer exist, but the image of her walking around draped in a madisar, the 9-yard wonder, was refreshed when we visited old weaving towns in Tamil Nadu.

From the temple towns of Kanchi, Kumbakonam, Darasuram and Madurai to Ilkal (Karnataka), Dharmavaram (Andhra), Sambalpur (Odisha), Paithan (Maharashtra), the kosa weavers of Janjgir Champa (Chhattisgarh) or muga silk weavers of Sualkuchi (Assam), India’s corners still resound with the clatter of looms.

Varying in length, weave, style, fabric and drape, different regions have interpreted this ‘unstitched length of cloth’ for  over 5000 years. As a symbol of elegance and grace, the simple sari has been adopted as traditional attire for women in India and its neighbouring countries.

In the early days, needles made of bone were used in stitching. Since saris were woven and not tailored, they were considered sacred apparel for worship, marriage, religious ceremonies and festivals. Draped diversely depending on the region or community, the regular 5.6 yard nivi sari is usually worn with pleats in front, pallu wrapped under the right arm and thrown elegantly over the left shoulder. In North India and Gujarat, women wear the nivi with a long pallu drawn over the right shoulder across the abdomen and tucked at the back. The unusual Coorg style tucks the pleats behind, wraps the pallu across the bodice and clasps it with a brooch or toga-knot over the right shoulder. Legend has it that the pleats were pushed to the back by the gushing Cauvery River flowing through the land.

The more complicated nine-yard sari is traditionally worn in South India and the Konkan region. Called madisar in Tamil Nadu, kaccha nivi in Andhra or kaccha in Maharashtra and Karnataka, this dhoti-style drape is versatile with a series of pleats, tucks and wraps. With one fold passed between the legs and tucked behind (over an optional belt or string) and reams of cloth wrapped around, the design was both graceful and functional. Being trouser-like, the madisar was comfortable to work, walk or ride in. For centuries it was worn by commoners, fisherfolk and royalty. Warrior queens like Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Rani Chennamma of Kittur and Ahalyabai Holkar of Malwa didn’t let their gender or costumes deter them from going to war. Often statues and pictures depict them as sword-wielding women donned in nine-yard saris astride horses.

Madisars come in various materials like silk, cotton and synthetic blends. As an integral part of Tamil culture they are included in every bride’s trousseau and are worn on all major events – from kalyanam (marriage) to seemantham (baby shower), pujas and death ceremonies. From the streets of Kalpathy to the old bylanes of Mysore, when it comes to tradition, people still love to go the whole nine yards.


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