Nov 2015 - Sarees of India by Suparna

Thanks to Suparna, many members of the Malaysian Culture Group know a lot more about sarees. We had no idea that many different colours and styles indicated the State the sarees were from, or that sarees of different colours are worn on different occasions. Thank you Suparna for a fascinating talk and power point presentation into which I know you must have put many hours of work.


So we learned much. For example, that Karsuti is a traditional form of embroidery practiced in the State of Karnataka in India. Kasuti work, which is very intricate, sometimes involves pulling up 5,000 stitches by hand. The name Kasuti is derived from the words Kai (meaning hand) and Suti (meaning cotton). 

The women courtiers in the Mysore Kingdom of the 17th century were expected to be adept in 64 arts with Kasuti being one of them. Sarees embroidered with Kasuti were expected to be part of the bride’s trousseau of which one saree made of black silk with Kasuti embroidery was of premier importance.


Kanchipuram sarees are made by weavers from Tamil Nadu. They are woven naturally and distinguished by their wide contrast borders. Temple borders, checks, stripes and floral are their traditional designs. 

They vary widely in cost depending on the intricacy of work, colours, pattern, materials used like zari, which is gold thread. The silk is also known for its quality and craftsmanship, which has helped earn its name.


An area not covered by my education was the different natural substances, used for dyes. I had no idea that the garment I was wearing could have been dyed in urine or dung. I was hardly surprised therefore when Suparna recommended dry cleaning sarees not washing them by hand as the colour of vegetable dyes are never 100% guaranteed. Eek, what could come out of them?

I was somewhat surprised when Suparna mentioned: chicken. I could not imagine chicken ever wore sarees nor how they could fit into the embroidery Suparna was inviting us to picture.

Then I learned it was Chikan and it was a type of embroidery in Uttar Pradesh.


However, chicken did loom large again when Suparna described a local legend about Raffoogar (a darner) named Alibaba who lived in the valley of Kashmir. He was proficient in his job of stitching and mending torn clothes and spent his days doing countless stitches and bringing dead clothes to life.


One day a fowl stepped on a white cloth lying on the ground, drying on his porch. The imprints of the fowl’s feet caught Alibaba’s attention and he wanted to preserve this ‘true to nature’ print. He picked up a needle with a coloured thread and stitched around the print, preserving it for a lifetime. 

An all-new technique of ornamenting the fabric, which was later known by the name of ‘Kashida kaam’ was thus invented. 


We were surprised to hear that in some States although women prepare the yarn, it is men who work mostly on embroidery. In those States it was done in the winter when farming is not possible. Another surprise was that Kashmiri craftsmen use only their right hand.


A part of the talk to give us a chuckle was when Suparna showed us a saree with an enormous fish swimming in the middle and hundreds of little fish swimming around it. They were at a wedding reception (yes, fish do get married).

Anyway, the enormous fish was so cross, because he was not invited to the wedding, that he ate the bride.

Several of the Group were wearing sarees of different designs and different colours – and very elegant they looked.

Patricia was not wearing a sari, but was wearing a gorgeous white on white blouse embroidered completely over the front and even embroidered partially on the back. We admired it and she told us she’d bought it in Bangsar (not India).

Finally, Suparna showed us how to wear a saree and, most importantly, how to put it on. It is not easy and it would be a long time before many of us would be proficient enough – and have enough time – to dress up to go out in one.  Households where husbands call out “Are you ready yet?” could receive an answer  “I’ll only be another half hour”.



Judyth Gregory-Smith