Sari (Shadi) the term derives from the sanskrit shati. Extensive references to the use of cloth by all categories of people in the epic mahabharata, ramayana andpanishads provide credible evidence that fabrics were used in various forms and drapes as far back as 3500 BC. The Rigveda (2500-950 BC) has descriptions of pieces of cloth presented as gifts or vastravabhadra sukrita. Both men and women were known to have worn two pieces of dress, one for lower part of body and the other for the upper.

The sari in its earliest form is seen in Terracotta figures and sculptures of the Maurya, Kushan and Sunga periods (250 BC to 800 AD). Documentation in the Arthashastra mentions vanga as one of the best regions producing vasas, cloth pieces for priests, brides and royalty.

The evolution of the sari from a two-piece garment, antariya (lower) and uttariya (upper), in North India to a one-piece body drape may be attributed to convenience and political change. The establishment of Muslim rule in the country must have influenced the dress pattern of the people. One sculpture, Kambojika of the Mathura Museum of India, displays a sari almost in the style we see it today, reflecting that the sari was draped in many styles even in ancient time.

All over India, the length of sari varies in length from 5 to 7 yards. Its standard length in urban areas is 6 yards with a half-yard piece woven at the cloth end for the blouse. Blouses evolved over time from the bodice-like shape tied at the back with strings, to the long-sleeved blouse buttoned in front. The 20th century brought fashion into vogue and both sari and blouse changed in notable ways.

In Bengal, sari in rural and urban areas was initially worn without a blouse or petticoat. The drape was knotted at the waist on the left side, folded back to the right to form an apron, then encircled around the back to emerge below the right arm. This end of the cloth was then thrown on the left shoulder, and when needed, would be used to cover the head as a sign of propriety in front of elders or when attending religious ceremonies. This style was adopted by all classes and came to be known as the Bengali style of sari wearing. The pleated sari or kuchi drape which has become standard dress for Bengali women possibly acquired social acceptability by the 19th century as drawings and photographs of that period reveal.

The Bengal style involved tucking of the sari into a skirt-like petticoat, commencing on the right side, passing the cloth around the back and returning it to form pleats in front. The pleats are formed by a span created between the index finger and thumb, which are folded in at the waist. The remaining cloth is again passed round the back, then brought up under the right arm, and throwing it over the breast and left shoulder. This long shoulder drape varying between 36 to 45 is the anchol which is used in several ways, as a head veil, or as a shawl covering the right shoulder, or is pleated and pinned up on the left shoulder to provide greater freedom of both arms.

The kuchi style or pleated sari was not immediately popular among all classes of people. It was considered non-traditional, the style of modernity and was therefore, disapproved initially. Its continued use by the elitist classes, together with the overriding grace of the drape, gave the sari its grace.

Till the 1950s the sari anchol was pulled over to the right shoulder from the left, mostly as a sign of modesty, even if the head remained uncovered. By the 1960s the anchol was left hanging over the left arm, and blouse fashions began to change as necklines became higher or lower and sleeves longer and shorter.

The textural fabric of saris has also continued to change over time. The handloom cotton saris of village women have been replaced in noticeable quantities by the colourful machine made prints. Fine cotton loom mulmul saris with designed borders are superceded by voils and fine synthetics. Silk and brocade saris, fine muslin and exotic jamdani continue to hold sway for ceremonial occasions and festivities. Heritage handloom saris recognisable by the weave and border patterns from pabna. tangail and Dhakai bheeti saris continue to be the choice of connoisseurs.

The Katan silk and Benarashi saris produced by immigrant weavers from Uttar Pradesh of India in the 1940s became a part of the Bengali women's evening wardrobe. These were followed by the new fabric styles introduced through tie-and-dye techniques, brush paint, block print, batik and hand embroidered materials.

The nakshi kantha sari, which developed in the early 1980s using traditional quilting stitches first on silk and later on cotton fabric, became a popular wear with the fashionables. Georgettes, Chiffons, lace and satin provide variety as trends change, but the form of wearing saris has stabilised in its present form in the 20th century. [Shawal Khan]