Today, having one’s saree blouse stitched is an entire process of selecting the pattern, adding embellishments or threadwork, and then choosing the final look.

But only a few decades ago, this ritual did not exist.

In ancient India, it wasn’t uncommon to see women comfortable with having the upper part of their torso bare — sometimes as a way of combating rising temperatures.

Turns out, we have Jnanadanandini Debi from the Tagore family to thank for the sari blouse.

An advocate of women’s rights and a believer in liberalism, Jnanadanandini Debi has gone down in history as the woman who made the modern-day saree popular.

Born into a middle-class family, Jnanadanandini Debi was married at the age of seven into the prestigious Tagore family.

She became the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, the brother of the famous Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Marrying into the Tagore family meant abiding by the stringent rules that women in Bengal then had to follow.

She wasn’t allowed to step out of the home much, lived confined to the room under the purdah system, and saw to the duties of the household.

In ‘Women of the Tagore Household’, Calcutta University’s late Dr Chitra Deb explained that no man, neither family member nor servant, was allowed into the inner rooms at will.

Unmarried men were not allowed at all.

Though Satyendranath was supportive of his wife and advocated for women’s rights, familial rules made it impossible for Jnanadanandini to get her freedom. But she persisted.

Due to the many clashes with her father-in-law Debendranath Tagore, Jnanadanandini moved into a separate house with her husband and children.

This set the precedent for nuclear families in Calcutta.

Through these incidents, Jnanadanandini began to step out of the house more often and would encourage the women of Bengal to do so and lead a social life.

When Satyendranath was appointed as the assistant collector of Bombay, Jnanadanandini Debi began associating with high circles.

She would travel to Bombay and broaden her ways of thinking. It was during this time that an incident shaped the future of the saree blouse.

During one of her social events, Jnanadanandini was trying to get entry into a club under the Raj (British rule) but was refused entry.

The reason was her attire — the Bengali zenana, which had the saree fabric lying over her bare breasts.

Being denied entry because of her attire provoked Jnanadanandini, who then came up with a way of covering the upper torso, and draping the saree elegantly.

From then on, the style trended and was soon used not only as traditional attire but also to make a fashion statement.

The story goes that once she returned to Calcutta, she invited women to learn this new way of draping the saree.