I had an anon question on tumblr as an earlier question on wordpress that I will answer here together as they are kind of related.
I think some sort of blouse (and possibly a kind of petticoat given ghaghra cholis and related outfits) was always around. Even Ajanta paintings have a few examples. This early 19th century painting is an example of it too:
But I think a formal kind of blouse, often influenced by prevailing Victorian fashion, and the petticoat worn with a sari did come in with the 1870s both in Western India and in Bengal. A few books of the time and later refer to shops selling “jackets”, which term seems distinct from the choli.
The early 20th century Dhurandhar painting right on top shows differing blouse styles, from the indigenous choli to the modified choli with puff sleeves as well as more elaborate versions which are obviously Victorian in origin suggesting a variety of styles after the 1870s.
In summary I think the sari blouse was around but not essential. Especially in the hotter areas of India where a sari sufficed. From the 1870s onwards, however, it became an essential part of attire for educated women and then all women.
2. Several months back I had a query regarding Jnandanandini Devi’s introduction of the Brahmika (Brahmo woman) drape from Sari Sisters. The query was on the difference between the Brahmika drape and Classical Bengal drape and whether the only difference was in the pleats on the shoulders.
At the time I assumed that there wasn’t much difference between earlier sari drapes in Bengal and the Brahmika saree. But the question stayed in my mind and I had some time this weekend to poke around a bit. Not much came up. Though everyone agrees that the Brahmika drape was novel and inspired by the Parsi/Gujarati drape that Jnanadanandini saw in then Bombay, the exact nature of the earlier drape is not clear. Instead there is more emphasis on the introduction of accessories like the blouse, petticoat, hair net etc, which assisted in making the saree a dress for a bhadra (respectable) woman. Nevertheless there was some change since there are many remarks both on the untidiness of draping as well as the immodesty of previous drapes.
The only clear reference I got was in Rochona Majumdar’s book (Marriage and Modernity) where she mentions that the traditional style is the pallu (end of the sari) wrapped around the waist or hanging in front rather than the pleats of the Brahmika saree. As it happens there aren’t too many pre 1870 pics that I could find except these.
Rabindranatha Tagore’s mother on the left (presumably an older style, though it isn’t clear to me if the pallu is tucked around the waist and also on the shoulder). On the right a milkmaid of the 1840s, this drape has some resemblance to the Brahmika style but has no pleats and is simply wound around.
The Parsi/Gujarati style is seen above which is the seedha (straight) pallu style with the sari being secured on the right shoulder.
The Brahmika/Bengal styles are above. The style arranges the saree border in a way that mimics the seedha pallu (more evident in the left pic of girls in 1904*) but the pallu is eventually thrown over and secured at the left shoulder. So it does appear that the sari sisters were right in that process of pleating and arranging the sari in the upper part was probably different for the Brahmika saree (though some of the modern Bengal saree drape tutorials have a bit of a pleat arrangement in the bottom part too. Further the loose end can be thrown over the right shoulder).
As always feel free to comment/inbox and do let me know if Bengal has more draping styles or if there are differences I missed.
*1904, courtesy Geraldine Forbes.