A video still from the Sari Series.

Considering that it is a garment worn by an estimated near-100 million women in India alone and many more around South and Central Asia, the sari has gone relatively undocumented.

Realizing there was a knowledge gap and that increasing urbanization was eroding some of the sari’s daily wear in favor of western dress, Malika Kashyap decided to begin The Sari Series. The non-profit project comprises an anthology, documenting how to drape over 80 sari styles through short films, along with three videos exploring the garment’s past, present and future.

The project’s aim is multipronged. First, it acts as a record preserving regional variations, which are myriad. What most people picture when they think of a sari is in fact a single style of draping, known as the Nivi. Secondly, the series also asks viewers to ponder the garment’s role going forward, and it’s Kashyap’s hope that it will serve as inspiration for people to continue innovating with the sari.

Kashyap spoke exclusively to WWD about the project, a $175,000 undertaking backed by luxury Indian sustainable retailer Good Earth and Kickstarter:

WWD: How was this project conceived?
Malika Kashyap: The idea behind this project is two-fold. First, to develop an accessible cultural documentation of the sari though film and with free digital access. The second was to address a much needed perception shift of the sari. The sari is widely considered to have a “correct way” to drape it, when there are in fact many drapes. Many women who wear the sari, and many people in India, are unaware of its drape versatility. More importantly, they don’t feel free to experiment with it. It was a garment born from adaptation — it must continue to adapt, or else it will be seen as staid and traditional, which is the current perception. With this project we are looking at the past to inform a way forward, the irony being that we have dozens of drapes to choose from.

WWD: Do you have an estimate of how many people wear the sari on a daily basis? Are those numbers growing or shrinking?
M.K.: It is very hard to know. However, even if 25 percent of the 325 million women [in India] over 25 years of age wear the sari, we are still at 80 million. This is entirely plausible, and likely still conservative. It is important to remember the conversation about the sari’s relevance is largely restricted to urban India, where it is indeed shrinking as dailywear. As more people migrate to urban areas, and as more cities urbanize, it’s not unreasonable to think that this trend may continue.

How do you define a sari?
M.K.: The definition of a sari has changed over the years, in ways that are almost unnoticed by the general public. During the Victorian era, the blouse and the petticoat were introduced. This changed the definition to include two additional garments, and the majority of women today still can’t conceive of wearing a sari without either.

Secondly, a sari used to be handwoven with variable densities in its parts — the bottom “fall” and its borders were heavier, allowing for a correct drape. As saris began to be mass-produced, they were done so on mill-made textiles of one density, and therefore needed a backing, akin to a hem (called a “fall”) to ensure it draped correctly. To purists such as Rta Kapur Chishti, a textile scholar and our sari advisor on this project, the latter is not technically considered a sari. To the general public, they would not think twice to call it one.

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WWD: How did the Nivi drape come to be the one dominant style?
M.K.: It is thought that [the influential author and poet] Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law, Gyanadanandini Devi, adopted the Parsi drape while in Mumbai, as the regional style was not considered appropriate enough. She then introduced the drape with variations [that became the Nivi] once back in Calcutta.

WWD: What are some drapes you find most interesting?
M.K.: The Boggli Possi Kattukodam from Andhra Pradesh; the Yakshagana Parvati Kase Drape and Yakshagana Kase Drape from Karnataka, and the Kotapad Drape from Orissa are my favorites. The sari is familiar to me, I wear one often and was still in awe seeing these drapes come to life in the films. So many of them are truly special and transformative in nature.

WWD: Are there more styles that have yet to be documented? What is the future of this project?
M.K.: These drapes were documented by Rta Kapur Chishti, our sari advisor to the project, who spent years researching them. No doubt, there are others that are undocumented, either because they are no longer worn and have no reference, or because they are worn by so few people.

The sari is also worn by women in other countries, including Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. As much as we would have loved to, their draping styles are not documented in this project. As for the future of this project, we are fortunate there has been much support, including opportunities to integrate this into academic programming, exhibit the series and create a book. For now, we are focused on the launch of the project in the fall, but happy to explore all opportunities.

WWD: How have brands have collaborated with you on this?
M.K.: We were fortunate to have designers such as Prabal Gurung and Bibhu Mohapatra loan us textiles to use in this series. They were immensely supportive of this project and personally love saris. Hermès was kind to loan us one of their archival saris, and brands such as Chanel and La Perla, who don’t make saris but are present in India, understood the opportunity and supported it with loans from their collections.

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The sari is incredibly versatile — it’s an uncut piece of cloth that has many ways to drape. I think it’s important to recognize that most of these drapes were developed regionally through adaptation, i.e. a fisherwoman would wear hers shorter. As such, adaptation is key to keeping it relevant. What does a sari look like on a woman today? That is the crux of this project: to address a needed perception shift of the garment. We are looking at the past to find a way forward.

WWD: Which modern brands are interpreting it smartly?
M.K.: We are fortunate to have worked on this project with two designers who are, in very different ways. Through his brand Raw Mango, textile designer Sanjay Garg, an advisor to this project, works with craft communities at the yarn and loom stage, questioning traditional textile ideals and creating a new visual language that resonates with many women in a powerful way. Designer Rashmi Varma, one of the associate creative directors of this project, has developed a “sari dress” that can be slipped on, and has a silhouette of its own that is coveted both in, and outside of, India.

WWD: What is the right approach a designer should take if they do want to innovate with the piece? What are the questions they should be asking? 
M.K.: A right approach is impossible to define with such a powerful garment. Jean Paul Gaultier’s recent couture show saw many sari-inspired garments that were beautiful. The drape has influenced design around the world for decades. I think the only thing that merits asking is with regards to respect: it is not a costume, it is a garment from India with a rich history and many meanings. That doesn’t mean it can’t be cut up, shredded or made unrecognizable: innovation needs freedom, but respect is important.

Jean-Paul Gaultier Couture Fall 2017

Jean-Paul Gaultier Couture Fall 2017  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

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WWD: What would the future of the sari look like ideally for you?
M.K.: Ideally it would be worn without apprehension, with individuals feeling free to drape and wear it as they please. It would be worn without worry of “cultural appropriation,” without regard for “correctness”…and without dozens of those (unnecessary) safety pins!


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