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Wrapped in History and Beauty : The colorful and sensuous sari remains the preferred attire of many Indian women. An exhibit of the garments will open at CSUN.

October 16, 1992|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times

Their gorgeous colors inspire sudden sensations of joy and awe. The textures and designs of their handwoven, pure silk or cotton material, often trimmed in gold brocade, intensify their sensuous nature.

They are the saris of India--the traditional dress of Indian women--which historians believe existed in some form as far back as 1500 to 500 BC. Today, while most Indian men have donned Western-style clothes for everyday use, most Indian women continue to wear saris daily. Gracefully pleated and wrapped around a woman's figure, the sari envelops her in beauty, and in Indian history and custom, and Hindu ideals of feminine beauty.

"I love wearing a sari because for me it's the most sensual, luxurious feeling. I love the quality and the energy that goes into making it," said Annapurna Weber, 26. She has organized "Saris of India," an exhibit of 25 saris on view beginning Monday at Cal State Northridge's Art Galleries that spotlights the beauty of this garment.

A CSUN graduate with a degree in art history, Weber is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University in New York. Born in India, she came to the United States with her mother in 1975 at the age of 8. They joined her father, an engineer, who had located in New Jersey the year before. When she was 15, she returned to India to study for three years.

There, she was also aware of how traditional dress was used as "a way for some of my family members to control me, by putting me back into a context in which they could deal with me," she said. "If I wore jeans or pants, I would be stepping into the aspect of the Western 'other,' and into male territory, and it's easier to deal with me if I'm not in that territory. I clearly saw that, but on the other hand, it didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the sari."

Her most vivid childhood memory is of her mother taking off her sari after they would come home from an occasion. She remembers the sari "laying on the floor in a pile, and me just dropping on it and luxuriating in it," she said. "Even now, my mom tells me I frequently fell asleep on the sari that way. I definitely think that had a lot to do with my interest in it.

"I have always been interested in fashion, how fashion defines gender and how people who are not Indian read Indian women in their native clothing," she said. "There is a real tendency to put them into those roles of the agreeable, pleasant, subservient woman. And that's not true. I don't think that the costume necessarily speaks to that."

"The sari is part of a whole spectrum of Indian art," said Louise Lewis, CSUN's gallery director. "I knew a sari show would be exquisite, and the whole idea of the fluid quality of a sari would make for a very different show."

The eclectic group on display comes from a collection of about 90 saris gathered by Weber's mother, Vijayalaxmi Garimella. She lives in Ventura and works for the county as a computer graphics specialist. Most of these saris date from the 1980s, with a few from the '60s and '70s.

"She is a collector in the truest sense of the word because she used to have a lot more, and then she weeded out marginal pieces by giving them away, and really consolidating," Weber said. "She's not buying as much, but the few pieces that she buys are very, very nice."

And she continues to wear them.

"When I have Indians around me, if I wear Western clothes, I feel odd," Garimella, 43, said. "I feel that I am not wearing the proper clothes. When we get together, all the Indians, we only wear saris."

A majestic yellow-gold and maroon silk sari from Kanchipuram, which is in the show, was worn by her to Annapurna's wedding to Mark Weber.

"We in India use really bright colors--red, green, yellow, maroon," she said. "When you wear a particular color, you get the auspicious mood. If I wear red and yellow, I feel I'm about to do something really special, go to a celebration or something."

Red and white is one of her favorite color combinations. However, she called the vibrant, rich green silk sari with red dots from Arani her favorite.

"When I wear this sari, I feel pretty, I feel happy," she said.

Weber said she can determine which area of India a sari comes from by the type of material, the weaving technique, the dying, the type of design on it, and sometimes by the color.

"You can be pretty sure if you see mirror work, it's going to come from Rajasthan," she said. "Or if you see a bandhini print which is tie-dyed, that it also comes from Rajasthan or is Sindhi-influenced tie-dyeing. The body and the border always contrast in saris from Kanchipuram."

One aspect of a sari that remains almost universal is its size. Today, most of them are 5 1/2 to 6 yards long and 45 inches high, although some are 7 yards long. Tucked pleats at the waist are imperative to wearing the sari properly. In the past, women usually tucked them in the back, which requires the longer cloth. Today, front tuck pleats are the norm. Otherwise, there is almost no variation among women in the way they wrap their saris.

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