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Marrying Tradition with Modernity: Sarees and Posture

August, 2019


Aarani silk from Tamil Nadu, Southern India. Aarani, a small town, weaves only silk sarees in 3-plied or 2-plied yarns, making it a lighter silk to wear. The first national flag of independent India hoisted at the Red Fort is rumored to have been woven in Aarani. Stacksitting helps showcase the saree in its full glory.

People who know me well have come to associate me with my posture work, my love for sarees — the traditional Indian unstitched garment — and my frequent travel owing to my management consulting work. This is an accurate perception: I love all these things.
 


Bhujodi cotton from Gujarat, Western India. Made in a small town near Bhuj, this Khadi fabric is fully made of organic cotton grown in the region. Originally a weaving technique for shawls, it has been adapted to sarees in recent decades. Once you know to tallstand, you can shift the position of your legs.



Chanderi Silkcotton from Madhya Pradesh, Central India. Woven in the town of Chanderi, these sarees were patronized by the royalty of the region. They are known for their sheer, gossamer texture. Shoulder rolls always help show off the neck.

I am proud of the work I do in posture. It is not an exaggeration when I say that learning the Gokhale Method from Esther in 2012, after suffering from back-related issues for over 16 years, has changed my life. Along with helping me regain my lost posture, it helped deepen my understanding of my body and gain better control over it, and enhanced my sense of confidence. Becoming a Gokhale Method teacher has helped me practice the method diligently in my own life and help others who want to learn it for themselves. A striking aspect of the Gokhale Method, and one which has impacted my outlook on many fronts, is the fact that one can marry tradition with modernity.

Many things in the modern world affect our posture. Poorly-designed furniture, changing movement habits, and sedentary work are often blamed for most musculoskeletal ailments. However, this is our reality, and one cannot give up everything and go back to what our ancestors did for their livelihoods. The Gokhale Method helps us adapt natural and traditional body wisdom to modern ways of life. My students are surprised when I tell them that they don’t have to give up anything at all, but rather can learn to reach into their ancestral past and bring some habits into the current. We help people transition from a paradigm of “don’t do this” to a world of “you could do it this way,” based on the learnings from our ancestors and people in cultures where this wisdom has been retained. “You could do it this way” is an empowering view.

 


Dholabedi from Odisha, Eastern India. Odisha can easily be the Burgundy of sarees, as every sub region has its own specialty. This one is known for the “dola,” the house like structures that are woven as an extra weft, representing the altar of Lord Jagannath of Puri. Pivot the neck and look tall.

 


Pochampally Ikat from Telengana, Southern India. Ikat is a technique that spans from Central America to Japan. The specialty is the patterns, which are decided while preparing the yarn and dyed accordingly with mathematical precision. The weaver then weaves the patterns on the loom with meticulous planning which always boggles my mind! A well-placed shoulder ensures the hands fall to the side.

My love for sarees comes from this same paradigm of marrying the traditional with the modern. This garment, which most women of my mother’s and previous generations wore all the time, was lost for many of my generation. Like many others, I adopted outfits from other cultures, as doing so was considered “modern.” Traditional wear was relegated to special events. My connection with my heritage was locked in a wardrobe — until I learned to look at the meaning behind these beautiful handwoven fabrics I had. As my interest grew, I discovered the uniqueness of each of these weaves and the stories they spun. One estimate says that there are over 450 varieties of hand-woven textiles in India, each telling a unique tale about the region, the terrain, and the way of living from which they arose. I know only a fraction of the tales these textiles have to tell.
 


Natural indigo linen with motifs in jamdani from West Bengal, Western India. Growing indigo changed the history of Bengal forever. It still remains a sought-after pigment for its depth and unique color. The 3x3x3 of tallstanding always helps.
 


Handpainted Kalamkari from Andhra, Southern India. Can you imagine painstakingly hand-painting every inch of 6 meters of cloth in natural colours? Mostly done by women craftsman, this is an exquisite art form. Don’t miss the stacksitting!
 


Kanjeevaram silk from Tamil Nadu, Southern India. The “Queen of silks” woven in the town of Kanjeevaram, this weave represents true commerce with mulberry silk yarn from Mysore and gold thread from Surat in Gujarat. The body and the border are woven separately and integrated with the special technique of “korvai,” requiring two people to work together simultaneously. Once you learn to stacksit, you can sit on any surface with ease.

Wearing these sarees has helped me understand my own heritage a little better. And they helped me realize I do not have to give up tradition in order to exist in the modern world. Instead, I can adapt tradition to flow in ways that feel contemporary. That means, for example, I drape the saree differently depending on context. I experiment with mixing-and-matching, bringing elements from my Western wardrobe into play with elements from my Indian wardrobe. I wear the saree short or long, depending on what the fabric feels like. I adapt different regional draping styles that suit the occasion — there are over 200 documented regional styles in India alone! I wear it at home, out at work, and overseas when I travel. It is a beautiful experience that helps me come home to myself.

 


Karvati Kinar from Maharashtra, Western India. From the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, known for its arid terrain. This saree is mostly woven in a rough silk and has unique “mountain” motifs in the border. An anteverted pelvis helps us stand restfully.

 


Pochampally silk from Telengana, Southern India. Just look at the modernity in the ikat motifs! Who would imagine that the weavers have never left their villages, yet can create such marvelous designs and such a sophisticated color palette? Once you learn tallstanding, you don’t need high heels!

Sometimes it seems that moving with the times means giving up things from the past. But if we look carefully, the present is actually interwoven with the essence of the past. They are not necessarily at odds. Uncovering the meaning of the past and blending it with the needs of the present creates gracefulness. Beauty lies in this harmony. The saree and the Gokhale Method: both are traditional, elegant tools to achieve harmonious results, blending past and present.
 


Sungudi from Tamil Nadu, Southern India. A tie-and-dye technique from Madurai, this has an interesting history of internal migration. Settlers from Gujarat in the west of India who came to this region brought this art form along with them in the 16th century. Have we said enough about tallstanding?
 


Ajrakh handblock-printed saree from Gujarat, Western India. This saree demonstrates a unique block-printing technique that involves 14 different steps and has a history spanning centuries. Even today, many motifs exhibit Persian influence. Does this have a Greco-Roman feel in the draping and the posture?
 


Jainsem from Meghalaya, North-East India. A two-piece textile that is worn as a layered outfit by the Khasi tribe in this region’s pristine, hilly terrain. Traditional clothing was and is designed for practical, everyday movements with ease.
 


Boro from Assam, North-East India. A beautiful cotton with motifs made from extra weft, and which has a unique feature: the border is woven separately and then stitched on top. Creativity has so many different expressions!
 

Sangeeta Sundaram is a qualified Gokhale Method Teacher based in Mumbai, India.

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Comments

Dear Esther, dear Sangeeta,

I read all your articles with interest, but this one has been an extra special one for me!

Beside the effect of posture I absolutely love the description of the different weaves in the saree fabrics, and I have never seen (though also not actively searched for) so many variations beside each other. 
Thank you for the effort to take all the photos!

I am originally from Bavaria in Germany, my traditional dress is also locked away in my wardrobe for "special" days that never come, the last time I wore it in public was for a Christmas celebration when our youngest child left school. He is 30 now..... The article is an incentive to look at it again- it might have shrunk in storage over the last 13 years but I know that is has a generous seam allowance and folds so that it can be easily adapted to a changed body.

Thank you so much for this contribution, it almost makes me cry because all these beautiful traditions and the connected skills of all the creators of fabrics and tools etc are not really valued and appreciated in our times.
Once these will be lost, people will feel lost and children will not know where to go! 

I think it is important to bring our old traditions (as long as we have them!) together with what we are surrounded by today, though it might need adaptation if one chooses to live in a different country. It will not be easy and needs the input of those who are still familiar with the traditions to teach the youngs ones how to go about it, and the interest of the young ones to look into what tradition can offer them.
Schools seem to be the connecting point, I wish all children would be taught handcraft skills early in their lives instead of just using two fingers tipping on electronic devices! 
Would be much better for their brains, too!

With warmest greetings from New Zealand,
Ingrid

Dear Ingrid,

Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. When Esther asked me to write about this, I wondered if this would connect with people from other cultures, she was convinced it would evoke people to look at many other things they had as traditions, and she was right. 

I totally agree that we need a way to retain the old in the new, especially the beautiful arts and crafts that each culture has, they are precious pieces of our heritage and learning about them, seeing them being crafted is the only way we can learn to appreciate them deeper. Schools starting such initiatives is so much a necessasity for a sustainable future. 

I do hope your beautiful Bavarian dress sees some sun during the upcoming NZ summer. 

Thank you. 

Sangeeta

What a marvelous article on your native ancestral clothing. You have a beautiful heritage, and hearing about the many styles and weaves of fabric from many regions, and seeing the many ways of wearing them, I would love to see you wear your sarees every day! As you say, you can work them in with your Western wardrobe pieces and make each your own through the way you combine them. They are beautiful combinations and works of art you have collected. Thank you for sharing them with us!

 

Thank you. They are indeed pieces of art. The more one learns about the unique ways in which they are made, the more one falls in love with these wearable beauties. 

Cheers,

Sangeeta

Thank you, Sangeeta for sharing your love of sarees with us: what beauty and craftsmanship and so much history!

And I love your blend of sarees and western style clothes.

Best,

Aurelia

Thank you Aurelia. The next time I am at a CE Weekend, I will bring over some for whoever wants to try :-)

What a beautiful article with lovely pictures! I wish I could incorporate my native dress into everyday life as well. Maybe I can start and see how I can marry the traditional to the modern as well. I loved this article so much!

I hope you find a way to incorporate. It takes a few trials to see what one feels comfortable in and a little bit of courage to step out, but a few times and it becomes easy and fun. 

Dear Esther and Sangeeta,

I echo Arcadia's sentiments!  I so much enjoy all your articles, but this one is especially wonderful and meaningful for me.  After a more technical career (some naysayers said an unconventional one for a woman) as an engineer/scientist, in my "retirement" I am pursuing organic farming and my long-time interest in vintage jewlry and clothing.  Yes, the "old ways" can enhance our modern lives and teach  us a lot.  I am finding this with farming and nutrition as well as personal adornment. 

 

Esther's book and tips have been very helpful  for me the last few months as well, while I recover from the cumulative effects of 3 old back injuries.  Thank you both for your wisdom, and for this wonderful article!

Dear Annie,

I am so happy this connected with you. The old ways respected nature and the context around each individual more deeply and that's a connection we need to understand. 

I am glad that Esther's book has helped you. I do hope someday you will be able to take a course with a teacher nearby, the power of learning in person is manifold.

Thank you for your lovely words.

Sangeeta

 

I love the article and the blend of old and new. I’m a Caucasian woman who never felt right in American clothes. I’ve been wearing sarees and salwar kameez for years as my everyday attire. So, it was especially gratifying to me to read about the history and descriptions of the various sarees. I would love to have you give some instructions on the different drapes! I do get a bit tired of only wearing my sarees in one way. And, I’m not sure how to wear them shorter as you had in the one beautiful photo near the end of the post. I agree that people should take a second look at enjoying and re-engaging with their traditional clothing and also try traditional clothing from other cultures as we become more and more global. Thanks for. Beautiful post!

Thank you so much for writing here. I am so pleased to know that people who are not from India and have never lived here have adopted the saree so whole heartedly. I was only aware of one or two women before this through instagram, but since this post, I have discovered a few more. 

I would love to give you instructions on wearing these differently. The first is to understand it is an unstitched fabric, so one can wear it pretty much the way one wants. There are truly no rules. If you were to visit this site http://thesariseries.com/ you will see 80 different styles from India have been documented in videos. And the best part is that one doesn't have to follow any of these to the T, you can adapt it to what feels good. Here is another one https://draping.co/blog/ that has some videos.

You can also follow @nikaytaa, @winnynarayan @seemaskt on instagram. They do some really beautiful, practical styling with the sarees. 

I hope this will give you a chance to have fun with the sarees. 

Cheers

Sangeeta

 

My absolute favourite attire! Sangeeta, you are looking stunning in the bright sarees. I am so tempted to take out mine and wear them. Unfortunately, mine only come out for weddings and special occasions.

I grew up with my mother wearing banarasi silk, tussar and cotton sarees. I would help her set the pallu on her shoulder and pleat the front for special occasions when I was old enough. 

When I started wearing sarees 25 years ago, I wanted to look elegant and graceful like the women I grew up seeing. I would look at their upper back and I couldn’t tell what looked so good. I didn’t have the vocabulary. After learning Gokhale Method I realise that I was always noticing their shoulders rolled back and tall necks!  

Thanks for this wonderful post!

Meenakshi, 

Thank you!

I can totally visualise your mom looking elegant in those lovely weaves. And I know how the back looks nice and tall in many of them peeking from the deep necks of their blouses :-). I hope you have asked to preserve her sarees for you, they are true pieces of vintage and heritage. 

You live in a multicultural city, so wearing them will not be seen an unusual, so I hope the sarees will get an outing soon and not wait for special occasions. They are so beautiful and need to be aired to preserve for long! 

Cheers

Sangeeta

Hello Sangeeta!

I was finally able to read your incredible article and it blew me away... Of course, seeing you looking so elegant in those gorgeous saris was such a treat - I had never seen many of those saris, though I have spent quite a bit of time in India - and I loved the message of finding ways of incorporating the traditions of the past in the present.  It's true that much of modern life seems unhealthy in so many ways, and it's hard for me to feel positive about the changes that are often thrust upon us without giving us any say.  (Technology, the increasingly fast pace of life, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, furniture, etc.) So I really liked the idea of focusing on what we can incorporate from the past in a seemless way. 

I will mull this article over for a long time.  Thank you, Sangeeta!

Lang

Hi Lang,

Thank you for taking time to read the blog and post your views. I am really touched by your thoughts. Can you believe what I have shared here is just a handful of weaves and there are hundreds more all over the country? Having born and lived here, I didn't about many of these, till I started getting interested, it was like opening a beautiful treasure box. I can say without any hesitation that India has the richest tradition of textiles, sadly the hundreds of years of colonisation had a huge negative impact on the textile tradition. The fact it has survived despite that goes to show the resilience of the artisans and the deep faith they had in these traditions. I think that is the only way we can retain many of the things from the past, by deeply believing what we see is valuable and bringing it into our modern lives. 

I hope you get to wear a saree the next time you are in India. 

Cheers

Sangeeta

Thank you so much Sangeeta for sharing your story and magnificent sarees.  As a weaver and spinner, I've had a love affair with the silk and cotton fabrics from India and have many scarves from there.   This article has inspired me to wear them in different ways; incorporated into the attire instead of only an accessory.  Of course, the Gokhale inspired posture is always a plus.

Hugs, Robin