Sumair [a relative] wanted to present me with a divine sari of pure gold that was her wedding present and she doesn’t want to wear for she claims to wear only French materials. Poor Indian women of queer tastes, they don’t realise how much more beautiful the Indian clothes are than the Western ones. But I couldn’t accept it because its value is Rs. 600/- and I can’t afford to give an adequate return, alas! Amrita Shergil, A Life, Yashodhara Dalmia.
Amrita Shergil’s portrait of her cousin, Sumair, was one of my more popular posts. It’s appeal is immediate and understandable. And Chang’s lines seem written for it’s fresh green, also picked up by the large drop earrings. The sari was probably a French chiffon and is almost like a haute couture sari of the time, I am fairly sure the Maharani of Nabha wore something similar in 1932. In the movies you see similar sarees (Pics 3 and 4 on actresses Madhuri and Khurshid), either French material or knock-offs.
Subsequently, while in South India, ASG went a step further in her disdain for the aesthetics that new textiles introduced in India and that of authentic Indian textiles.
Most of the south is curiously devoid of Europeans, which is aesthetically, and in many other ways too, a blessing. In the trail of their tawdry civilisation come the hideous printed materials, ugly shoes etc. etc., that replace the hand-woven cloth that is innately beautiful in texture and colour, and the sandals that the people,when they are unadulterated, make and wear. [X]
Dalmia’s book states that once the artist was in India and in search of a new Indian idiom for her paintings she switched to saris in rich, deep colours which were also inexpensive. Her scorn for French materials notwithstanding, ASG’s personal style as seen in photographs suggests an overlap between the Europeanised sari (for lack of a better term) and the handlooms she encountered down South.
Both positions in reality speak of Indian identity. Regardless of material, the wearing of a sari was a marker of Indianness. For others, especially those in the freedom movement, handlooms alone were the soul of India. As for South India itself, handlooms had a long tradition and were worn extensively in the 1930s. Nevertheless foreign materials were a marker of social status, even around the time ASG was painting in India. For the maid who could only afford handlooms, a Japan sari was probably a little sexy, fun and modern.
In the 1970s and definitely by the 1980s the situation had reversed. There remain pockets in India where hand-woven cloth is worn by people in an “unadulterated” way but for the most part printed synthetics are the norm and handlooms are an urban style. In part this is due to the cost of hndloom saris. This urban style itself has a long history, worn by elite women from the Swadeshi movement and then the freedom movement, followed by a 1980s revival that still persists.