There’s so much to the simple six yards of unsewn cloth. Rta Kapur Chishti will narrate the story of the sari, the cultural contexts of its diverse drapes and its journey through time, at an event in the city tomorrow.

In five simple steps, she converts a deep blue woven cotton sari into a structured gown that’s cinched at the waist. Before you count 10, she transforms a two-toned sari into a palazzo pant-like silhouette that looks as if it was diligently cut and sewn for extra volume. You blink and you miss the way she creates a floor-skimming skirt, giving a vivid maroon sari an instant make-over.

To Rta Kapur Chishti, the unassuming six yards of cloth offers limitless possibilities. Forget needles, threads, scissors, pins and measurement tape. She can drape the sari in 108 different ways to suit diverse occasions and lifestyles. An exponent of India’s unstitched tradition, Chishti has demonstrated the versatility of the sari in her book Saris: Tradition and Beyond. At an event put together by Kalakshetra and Shilpi, she will speak about the country’s iconic garment, its journey through time and evolution through varied cultural contexts.

“There’s no one type of sari,” is her refrain. “Weaves, patterns, drapes, aesthetics and expressions… this one garment succinctly captures India’s incredible diversity. When you travel across the length and breadth of the country, you will spot the humble sari being woven and worn in myriad ways, each reflective of the region, its culture and textile heritage.”

Chishti, who runs The Sari School in New Delhi, believes there’s so much inventiveness that goes into the making of our heritage drapes. “No two weaving communities reflect the same aesthetics. While the saris of Kerala are famous for their light weaves and subtle tones, those created in neighbouring Tamil Nadu are sturdy and come in a burst of colours.” Surprisingly, it’s “not nostalgia” that drives Chishti’s sari saga. “It’s the garment’s climate-friendliness, functionality and mobility. Do you know the women of Jhansi rode horses in saris draped like shorts? They swam across rivers too in a drape that allowed them unbelievable mobility. To me, it’s the perfect cross-over garment — in it you can seamlessly move from workplace to evening hangouts.”

Musing over the fact that it’s fast becoming special occasion wear, this author and co-author of a series of books on saris says, “I’m not against globalisation. But, at the same time, I’m concerned about our dwindling skilled hand-spinning and weaving resources. If there’s no patronage, our traditional textile communities will be pushed to the brink.” In an effort to reach out to weavers, she also runs Taanbaan that works with artisans across different states and creates saris that strike a balance between traditional skill and contemporary appeal. “This way, I can sustain the sari and the weavers,” smiles Chishti, who enjoys documenting textile traditions (she has covered Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, so far) through her books and visiting cities and enriching the story of the sari through her audio-video presentations. “There’s so much to this unstitched length of cloth. It unfolds histories, cultural sentiments, weaving traditions and much more. It’s about thousands of Indians who still love it and live in it.”

(Kalakshetra and Shilpi present Rta Chishti Kapur’s AV presentation on the drama of drapes at Rukmini Arangam, Kalakshetra, at 4. 30 p.m. on February 2)

What distinguishes the sari from another piece of fabric? It’s usually woven in different densities for the body, pallu and border.

The weaves, draping styles and colours of saris reflect the socio-economic-cultural dynamics of geographic regions rather than communities.

When the Portuguese banned the weaving of saris in Goa, the weavers continued with their work in hideouts.

The wearing styles are aplenty — from pant-like drapes to skirts and shorts.

Some fine count saris are deliberately given an opaque finish to help older women drape them without petticoats.

The modern urban drape was first adapted by the Parsis. It was popularised by Gyanodanandini, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law.