The Occasional 3 Extra Yards
Long read ahead: A cultural piece on the traditional nine yard sarees, delving into the its history, politics and its relevance in today’s times and cinema
I was watching my mother. The festival of Kartigai was upon us. She had prepared appams, vadais and a little feast. She had over twenty diyas filled with oil, each guided by a cotton wick. As she went over her mental checklist, I got the feeling that a celebration underway. But all wasn’t complete and good to go. Not just yet.
Wrapping herself in nine exquisite yards of silk, my mother told me, how no weddings or festivities are complete without a Madisar. Lo and behold, we were now truly ready!
Clothing and customs have always been two sides of the same coin, intricately interwoven with a particular penchant and pride for tradition. Such are the ceremonial origins of the nine yard saree also called ‘Madisar’ by the Tamil Brahmin community. Almost a historical piece of garment, the Madisar dates back to an era between 2nd century BC to 1st century AD when the supposedly antariya and the uttariya garments were merged to make a single garment.
However today, the women’s fashion industry, even down south where this cultural attire is still draped, has evolved. While the usual, six yard sarees remain forever, an Indian classic accepted by all “modern” consumers, Madisar survives chiefly off its traditional and historical significance. It is called upon only on days of festivities and garners the general consensus that it is rather difficult to drape.
The commerce and business of this saree too is left in the dark. To an online shopper it would seem that online catalogues of popular brands don’t provide a lot of choices. However, visiting any clothing megastore like a Pothys, Nalli or a Saravana Stores in person will spin a different narrative. Amid the clamour of women looking at a plethora of sarees, you will spot a separate section for Madisar, equipped (sometimes) with an old salesman. The range of patterns, colours and prices of Madisar are plenty in number.
My mother tells me, “It really depends on the material you’re looking for. Cotton Madisars start from 700–900 rupees while an authentic nine yard silk saree can be 10,000 rupees or more”
There are also a slew of small retailers available online like the one above who specifically sell madisars and Panchagajam (the traditional Brahminical attire of men).
The Politics of the Madisar
An important fact of the Madisar remains that it is largely worn by women of the Tamil Brahmin community, namely Iyers and Iyengars. Iyer and Iyengar are two different castes of Hindu Brahmins of Tamil origin. One of the differences between them lies in the way each of the communities drape the Pallu of the nine yard long saree. The Iyengar women drape the pallu over their left shoulder and the Iyer women drape it over their right shoulder.
It must be remembered that today, the lasting legacy of the Madisar is carried forth only by this particular ethno religious sect of Brahmins. Although not explicitly uttered, there remains a certain cultural hegemony reserved only for a Hindu Brahmins to drape the Madisar. On the contrary, it can also be argued that it is simply in the way the tradition has survived. One community accepted it before others and have passed it on as a lineage. It is no farther than a matter of geographical and cultural practice.
The Maratha Nauvari
Nine yard sarees have their own cultural counterparts which only makes one wonder if any cultural exclusivity even exists. Known as ‘Nauvari’ sarees, nine yards sarees are also adorned by Marathi women but are draped much differently and encased within it, is a distinctive ancestry.
Also known as the Nav-Vari, Kasta Sari, Kacha, Sakachcha or Lugade, the style of drape for Nauvari has evolved drastically from the traditional style to the modern-age format, which is tucked at the back, giving a trouser-dress like an appearance. Nauvari sarees usually come in cotton and is worn without a Petticoat much like the Madisar and is majorly worn by women of the Maharashtrian Brahmin community.
The historical significance of the Nauvari dates back to the time of the Maratha empire where women much like their male warrior counterparts excelled in the battlefield. The Nauvari was born to assist movement and maintain comfort during a battle. Some sources believe that the famed warrior queen Rani Laxmi Bhai also wore this drape while fighting.
Alternatively there also exists a Koli drape which is more geographically accessible. The nine yards of the saree are cut in two pieces and worn differently. It is worn by women who migrated to Maharashtra from Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
While Madisar and Nauvari retain a certain brahminical origin, the Koli drape doesn’t appear to be restricted to the upper castes. It derives its name from the Koli tribe of Maharashtra.
Nine yard sarees are also known to be worn by a few Kannada and Telugu speaking communities too.
A Modern Comeback
Nine yard sarees have found a cultural revival in the second decade of the 21st century. Women have embraced the saree for the freedom of movement it provides and the cultural exclusivity it breeds.
There now exists a separate Guinness World Book of Records marathon category for ‘the fastest time dressed in a sari’. A 45 year old Hyderabad based runner, Jayanthi Sampathkumar, put a spin on the usual gym clothes and running tracks when she took part in the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon dressed in a Madisar back in 2017. Speaking to the Hindu she said, “I came across the story of a 61-year-old woman who ran a three-km race at the Baramati Marathon in a nauvari (nine-yard) sari; of 76-year-old Usha Soman, mother of model Milind Soman, who joined her son in the last leg of the Great India Run, wearing a sari.”
Fusing her passion for running and her interest in handloom sarees she styled her own version of tying the Madisar and participates in marathons. She among many others, inspires the revival of the nine yard trend.
Saree and cinema
The nine yard trend as I call it, isn’t limited to marathon runners. Bollywood is doing its fair share in propagating the style too. It is surprising to note that one of the first widely-popular depictions of the nine yard saree style is from the sleazy item song “Chikni Chameli” where actress Katrina Kaif wears a stylised nine yard kastha drape.
Movies that delve into matters of historical fiction too bring out novel and beautiful nauvari drapes like the song ‘Pinga’ from the 2014 hit Bhansali production ‘Bajirao Mastani.’
Costume designer Anju Modi of Bajirao Mastani talking about this deliberate costume choice stated, “I do hope that after this movie, the nauvari saree makes a comeback”. Even actress Vidya Balan notably promoted the Nauvari for her 2012 ‘Ferrari ki Sawaari.’
Call it Madisar or Nauvari or Koli drape, this particular nine yards of tradition has found a way. It continues to be revived at the turn of every decade be it among common folk in homes and marathon tracks or in fast paced Bollywood movie songs. Save the horror of the using the loo in it, nine yard sarees are quite free to move in. They are a blend of bygone customs and modern culture revivalism and they are here to stay tucked away in the corners of traditions amid the traditional six yard sarees and Kurtis as ‘the occasional three extra yards’.
I do not own rights to any of the pictures displayed. They were taken off the Internet to support the text of this write-up.
Originally published at http://yarnsofideas.wordpress.com on May 10, 2020.