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Once Upon a Saree....


Before “majä- a new story” was churning out exciting new clothes and accessories made from pre loved sarees, its founder; Draupadie "Drau" Weerapperuma was unknowingly staging the narrative for her brand with experiments on her own sarees at home. Sarees hold a special place in the heart and culture of South Asia. Each saree has a unique story, whether it’s scouring shops and bargaining, scrolling through Pinterest for jacket designs or the memories that run deep in carefully stored material that is lovingly passed down.



Six Yards of History

"Priest King", in a trefoil drape- Mohenjo daro image| Harappa.com
Above: "Priest King", in a trefoil drape- Mohenjo daro image| Harappa.com

But the history of the saree is much older than we think. The modern saree has its roots in India but is worn in most South Asian countries with their own style and culture surrounding it. Mentions of a saree type garment can be traced back to the Indus valley civilization, which flourished from 2800-1800 B.C.E[1]. The Rig Veda, a Hindu book of hymns is the first known source that mentions saree and dates back to 3,000 B.C.[2] Descriptions of women in exquisite drapery are described in ancient Tamil poetry, such as the Silappadhikaram and the Kadambari by Banabhatta[3]. The word “sari” itself means “strip of cloth” in Sanskrit[4].


1928 Illustration of different styles of sari, gagra choli & shalwar kameez worn by women in the Indian subcontinent
1928 Illustration of different styles of sari, gagra choli & shalwar kameez worn by women in the Indian subcontinent. | en.wikipedia.org

Before varieties of saree materials were available , the cultivation of cotton in the 5th century B.C was the base for the earliest garments and versions of the early saree.



What's in a Name?


Historically, the saree remains close to its ancestor- 6 to 9 yards of material draped around the body. Its evolution however, is hidden in its name. It developed from the word 'sattika' from early Jain and Buddhist scripts which means women's attire. A three-piece ensemble, it comprised of the Antriya - the lower garment resembling a dhoti, the Uttariya - a veil worn over the shoulder or the head and the Stanapatta which is a chest band. The three-piece set was known as Poshak, which is the Hindu term for costume. The Antriya would evolve into the Bhairnivasani skirt, which we know today as the lehenga. The Uttariya evolved into dupatta and the Stanapatta is now called the choli.[5]

A close look at today’s saree is a revelation not only of more than 5,000 years of history but is also an insight into the culture of the community that wears it. All this is observable in every stitch, silhouette and style of draping.



Sri Lanka and the Saree


For most saree wearers, the Indian style of draping is the most popular, while 11 different sub styles exist within the country alone.

A multi ethnic country like Sri Lanka too has its own styles and unique material. The osariya or Kandyan saree– is a unique style of saree draping which was influenced by the Kandyan Kingdom and it is often considered to be the national dress of the Sinhalese women.

A Sinhalese woman in an Osariya (Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright, 1907)
A Sinhalese woman in an Osariya (Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright, 1907)
the osariya is also the uniform for cabin crew for the national airline| https://www.srilankan.com
The osariya is also the uniform for cabin crew for the national airline| https://www.srilankan.com

Like most young Sri Lankans, Drau’s relationship with sarees is a natural one. With a mother who was a banker and a grandmother who was the principal of a school, Drau and her sister were the audience to the endlessly vibrant treasure trove that were their mother’s ‘saree cupboard’ as the saree remains the standard work attire for most State offices, schools and banks.



More than just an Outfit

Mirror worked pink chiffon saree, 2012
Draupadie, Founder of majä a new story

For Sri Lanka and its neighboring countries, the saree is a landmark not just of our cultural fingerprint but of maturity and the coming of age. As a traditional dancer, Drau was already familiar with sarees, but she fondly remembers her very first saree made from light salmon pink chiffon material.


But the significance of a saree isn’t purchasing it alone. Joined by her mother they scoured the Pettah Market; Colombo’s busiest and most historic bazar and host to some of Colombo’s oldest and diverse saree vendors.


Hand loom sarees  by Selyn Fair Trade
Handlooms by Selyn Fair Trade ,Sri Lanka



In recent times, the revival and re-imagination of batik and handloom sarees has been embraced by both local and foreign markets with burgeoning interest and enthusiasm towards sustainable sarees and formal wear.


Batik saree, in contemporary style
Batik Saree by Buddhi Batiks, Sri Lanka





Even before majä emerged as a brand, its founder was restyling her personal saree collection partly in a conscious effort to be more sustainable, partly because one’s first salmon pink saree is always difficult to part with. But today it’s an elegantly flowy maxi skirt, echoing the collection of skirts that appeared as one of the brand’s earliest ideas.

A majä' creation: Handmade wooden clutch with saree fabric

One of the many reasons behind majä' s reinvention and celebration of pre loved sarees is answered in the saree itself. Perhaps it’s the history of the garment – carved on parchment, in stone and through the exchange and passing down of shared memories. Or maybe it’s in the six yards of endless possibility and creation. Regardless, it is and will always be a story in itself, one that is eternally timeless.

[1] https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/sari [2] Nat geo [3] Ibid. [4] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/the-story-of-the-sari-in-india [5] https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/sari

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