National and Regional Identity in Design: Part I

Part I- The Question of a Culture of Design


      I had heard stories from Snehanshu of his spirited paternal grandmother. She came to Birnagar near Kolkata, from Kanpur in the early decades of the 20th century as a young bride. The intricate purple, pink and gold Benarasi silk sari that was bought for her wedding, was given to me by my mother-in-law. As a 25 year old, new to Bengali customs and completely unused to wearing saris, I draped on the beautiful heirloom with some trepidation at my wedding reception.



Some of my mother’s saris, including the red Benarasi silk worked in silver thread that she chose as part of the wedding gifts my father’s family bought for her, have also come down to me. My mother was born in the mountains, much removed in space and time from the Kanpur of my grandmother-in-law’s childhood. She spent her girlhood in and around the Garhwal Himalayas in the 1950s and 60s, largely in a place described by a British officer in the 19th century as ‘the beautiful valley of Deyra, luxuriant with many-tinted forests, and refreshed by the rippling little rivers, which, with as many arms as Briareus, run in a meandering course through the wide length of the vale, from the Ganges to the Jumna’.[1] Many of the Benarasis that formed part of my mother’s wedding trousseau, despite frequently jostling cheek-by-jowl in iron trunks with my father’s treasured whisky bottles across army cantonments all over the country, still retain their lustre and delicacy. Though it is only infrequently that I wear saris, I took the red Benarasi out recently to wear at our friends’ wedding reception.


 What has all this got to do with design and regional and national identity? First, that in my subjective opinion, the design of the sari ensures that it is flattering to most women in the Indian sub-continent. It was the overwhelming mode of dress for Indian women, whether a Bengali brought up in North India, or a Pahari travelling all over the country. Secondly, the fact that the sari, even with its dwindling popularity, is an identifiable symbol of India. Which is why, so many of us, who may not wear saris on a regular basis, still fish them out on formal, celebratory occasions. Or why, professions or people who are involved with presenting India to the outside world, whether in the hotel industry or in the political arena, also often opt for the sari as a formal mode of wear. Thirdly, that different regions in India have different and recognisable patterns, weaves and motifs and even ways of tying the sari. The Benarasi, the Chanderi, the Sambalpuri, the Baluchari, the Dhakai – saris from different cities and regions of India, carry the names and ethos of their cities or regions with them, and conjure up specific variations on the theme.

So, the Benarasi sari, though evidently associated indelibly with a specific place in India, was a cherished possession in the plains of many parts of north and east India, – as was the Patola or the Paithani sari in Western India, and the Kanjeevaram in Southern India – wherever the sari was the preferred mode of garment. And even in some of its mountainous regions, where the flared skirt or the lehnga was more practical and was also the traditional choice for wedding apparel, the Benarasi sari was still a significant part of special wear for many women.

The sari then is as much representative of a regional as it is of a national culture. This is not to disregard the fact that the sari is not worn all over India, even traditionally. The lehngas of Rajasthan, Kumaon and Kutch and the woven shifts of the Nagas are just some spectacular exceptions. Neither is the sari worn in the same way over different regions of India. What it does show is the preference in the Indian tradition, for an unstitched, woven, multi-purpose garment – despite the technology and the knowledge of stitching and sewing from very ancient times, evidenced by the archaeological finds of needles in many sites of the Harappan civilization.

Even most traditional stitched garments in India, such as my personal favourite, the lehnga, offer this feature of flexibility and multiple use, though naturally not as much as the sari. My own wedding lehnga has been reused sufficiently, not just by me at festivals or marriages of friends, but also by a much taller cousin. One of the lehngas I treasure the most, is the one made in the early decades of the 20th century for the marriage ceremony of my grandmother, who is of partly Kumaoni extraction. It has come to me via my mother, the only one of my Nani’s daughters to marry into a Kumaoni family. And I use my odhnis, duppattas and shawls – other unstitched garments – which the lehnga is conventionally teamed with, to protect my head, chest, ears and arms in the dry summers, the sudden monsoon squalls, and the blustery winters of Delhi. Like the sari, the lehnga can suit both casual and formal occasions; the waist can be drawn in or let out depending on how much you have eaten in the recent or distant past; it can be lent or handed down successfully without any alterations to people of different dimensions. In fact, as Rta Kapur Chisti, who has researched and written extensively on the saris of India, also demonstrates, some of the many ways in which the sari is worn, includes a form of draping and pleating which makes it function and appear like a lehnga!

Thus, most traditional saris, while being a perfect compound of not just obvious hallmarks of our regional and national identity, also reflect an individual identity that owes as much to each of their makers as to their users. Even in the same region, there is variation depending on the material of the sari, different guilds and so on. In Banaras itself, the two main weaving traditions that still exist, have distinct and characteristic motifs. Yet, saris woven by different craftspeople in the same area, or even by the same craftsperson, even when they bear similar sorts of patterns, are never identical. How does this happen? Design, in its conventional meanings today, is limited to dictionary definitions, such as ‘to indicate, to draw, to contrive, to form a plan of, to set apart a plan or scheme formed in the mind’.[2] But, evidently the sari is a designed garment, and equally evidently, rarely is it made through elaborate drawings.


Definitions by themselves, then, will not take us far, especially in the context of India. Chaturvedi Badrinath notes in a discussion on the Mahabharata: ‘One characteristic of Indian thought has been that in the place of definitions of things, it asks for their attributes or lakshanas. That is because all definitions are arbitrary, whereas the lakshanas or the attributes, are what show a thing, through which a thing becomes manifest. Thus, not the ‘definition’ of truth, or of love, but the attributes of truth and love by which they are known is what is central.’[3] It may be worth our while then, to look for the lakshanas of Indian designs, in the context of their regional and national identity. Are there any obvious characteristics in form, or external treatment or any intangible features about designs made in India that render them recognizable as Indian?

One attribute of design historically and over a fairly wide area of the globe, and certainly in India, was a shared knowledge and appreciation of aesthetics informing the practitioner and the patron alike. N.J. Habraken in his writings on Thematic Design records and analyses experiences in different parts of the world, to explain how design practiced within a shared image and language allows the creation of cohesive yet varied and well-suited forms and details.[4] The presence of a shared image, and the engagement of the craftsperson as well as local resources in the production and development of artefacts, was a factor in most societies in the world – not merely in Indian society – before the onset of large-scale mechanisation. That also seems to make the sari a metaphor of universally and historically valued attributes.

However, notwithstanding such similarities in localization and customisation before industrialization, historical examples of Indian design, across various fields, show some elements that seem to be quite different from other traditions. One of these distinguishing elements of design in the Indian tradition seems to be the preference for attributes that offer flexibility and versatility, for multiple purposes and occasions. As well as of the strong streak of individual creativity that eschewed replication even while following conventions.

The sari perhaps best represents this. It is also practically the only living example of this tradition. In most traditional saris, the decoration is part of the structure of the garment. The overall dimensions of the sari are more or less fixed, and the variations happen within a certain range of a fixed length and breadth. The design effort knits together and goes into spinning the material, composing the patterns and directly weaving them on the fabric. And once it is done, the same sari can fit different women of different sizes at different ages and different times of their lives. It can be bequeathed from generation to generation, and yet look different on each person, transforming itself by taking on the silhouette and the volume of the form it drapes. It is not tailored and sewn to fit one individual at one point of time in their life. The weavers and spinner’s skill and craft can be conserved and presented and displayed and worn for generations.

It is in this context that the sari can also be used as a distinguished example of the qualities that marked out much of Indian design in the past, which we can learn from and apply over a wide field. As Rta Kapur Chisti clarifies: ‘The sari allows us to go back at least a thousand years in design terms with variations in pattern, weave and structure between its inner and outer end-pieces and its two borders which provide drape, strength and weight while the body enhances the form of the sari or dhoti when it is worn.’[5]

Does formal Indian design in the hands of professionally designated designers exhibit these values of efficiency, multiple purposes, and customization exemplified in the sari? Do we still have a culture of design?

[1] Journal of  A Tour in India. Captain Mundy, Ch.IV, pp.174-5, ‘The Valley of Deyra’.

[2] The Chambers English Dictionary. The dictionary has more words under Indian, including Indian berry, Indian hemp, India rubber, Indian fig, Indian ink, India shawl, Indian gift, etc. There is nothing that is listed or distinguished as ‘Indian design’.

[3] The Enduring Epic, Seminar April 2010, ‘Living with the Mahabharata’, p. 69

[4] ‘Sharing’, The Appearance of the Form, N.J. Habraken, Awater Press, Cambridge, USA, p. 13-17, pp. 23-34

[5]The Unstitched Garment’, Rta Kapur Chishti, http://www.india-


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