Fashion | Solid Classics

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Solid Classics
Text by Sohiny Das and Mamta Badkar
Published: Volume 17, Issue 8, August, 2009

Ancient. Traditional. Preserved. Fashionable. The desi style icons in an Indian woman’s wardrobe are all this and much more. Some have charmingly transcended national boundaries to become staples on and off the global runway. Sohiny Das and Mamta Badkar pick 4 of the country’s most cherished treasures

The general rule is this. Depending on her region of origin, every Indian woman possesses a few exquisite samples of the local craft or textile that she proudly holds on to. Items which are either heirlooms, or have been collected over time. Observe that every Naga woman possesses at least one exquisite Naga shawl. Ladies from Orissa or Andhra Pradesh will undoubtedly have an enviable selection of ikats. No Punjaban’s trousseau is complete without a customised phulkari. The trend reflects in jewellery too. From polkis to pearls, sitahaars to mangalsutras – designs, materials and craftsmanship vary from one part of the country to the other, just like customs, languages and mannerisms.

But some crafts are so desired that they travel beyond state boundaries and find a prominent place in wardrobes all across the country. Not just those who are avid collectors, but the average Indian woman will own at least a couple of examples of these national treasures. (So popular are they that stores across the country stock and sell them more than the local favourites.) These are either traditional fashion aces, to be flaunted at ‘special occasions’, social gatherings, or are a part of daily attire. These become solid, classic investments that surpass the mundane trend cycles that the world slaves to. And they work every time.

Then there are crafts which, after acquiring superstar status here, have taken on the international fashion scene. Some have appeared occasionally on runways and high streets across continents, while others have established themselves as perennial style statements. Even though they retain their status in the ‘crafts’ hierarchy, they are also part of mainstream fashion, instantly recognisable, instantly India.

Walk the earth – The Kolhapuri
Kabir Bedi has been reported saying that the things he misses most about India are mangoes and Kolhapuri chappals. The one thing Bollywood newbie, Kalki Koechlin rues about her new-fangled celebrity? She can’t roam around freely buying Kolhapuri chappals. When quizzed about her penchant for brands onscreen, Kareena Kapoor reminded the media about her equal ease in Kolhapuris in Omkara as her Manolos in Kambakht Ishq. Some find this traditional form of footwear too run-of-the-mill to be worn in uptown clubs, while it helps others wear their left wing politics on their feet. To still others they’re the greatest of levellers – adored by people across the cultural and class spectrum. Kolhapuris even became a runway hit on international ramps with some of the biggest export demands coming from Japan and Germany. Yet these most versatile chappals, had their humble beginnings in Kolhapur, Maharashtra.

Also called pietaan, these purely functional sandals are crafted from processed leather – usually the hide of cows, buffaloes and goats. The sole is created first and stuck together. The design usually follows a template and the leather is grazed to make it durable. Often, the sandals are soaked in water to soften them for everyday wear. As a rule, Kolhapuris were initially tacked together with leather twines and nails were noticeably absent. Conventional sandals were usually made of tan or deep brown leather with wide thong-like straps and a toe-hold. Kachkadi, bakkalnali and pukari are some long-established designs. Kapsis have teardrop-shaped toes, while bantus have closed toes. The traditional process of crafting pietaans used to be a communal exercise, with a family taking up the trade and dividing the labour, each member with their own specialisation. With a premium placed on quantity over quality and a host of opportunities in an industrialised, globalised world, the trade is losing its craftsmen.

Kolhapuris came into the limelight again a few years ago when Marathi actors were denied entry into a club for wearing the sandals, which caused a furore that questioned dress codes and brought to the forefront Mumbai’s class prejudices. Yet, ToeHold Artisans Collaborative, thought a designer pair of Kolhapuris (one of their biggest exports at the time) were fitting wedding gifts for Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. And ‘evolved’ avatars continue to make the rounds at red carpets and premieres. The addition of heels (platform or wedge), use of nails and dyed leather are all recent modifications. The more modish versions include gota work, Swarovski crystals and toe-curls. Tory Burch is famous globally for her creative tweaks of this classic. The Indian runway and high-end stores have seen haute avatars by Kiran Uttam Ghosh, Kokommo and Joy Shoes. What was the common man’s (or woman’s) necessity is now a covetable foot-mate. Kolhapuris, it seems, have treaded a long path to their current iconic status.

Bell of the ball – The Jhumka
In Mera Saaya (1966), Asha Bhosle sang the classic Jhumka gira re to gypsy-like Sadhana’s twirls in a courtyard full of men. The doppelganger’s ballad, traced the development of the lovers’ relationship to the fall of her earring. Set as a flashback in picturesque Udaipur, the song took us to the birthplace of jhumkas and made the earpiece so iconic, that its popularity has never truly waned since. Today, jhumkas accessorise traditional Indian clothes and western garb. Teamed with a dress or jeans, oxidised jhumkas give an ethnic touch, a quick fix if you’re going for the Bohemian look. Embellished with precious stones, they can glam up the most muted saris or accentuate intricately embroidered ones.

With their elaborate filigree work, jhumkas claim Persian roots and have passed through many Indian languages till they came to signify a cluster of flowers in Punjabi. Its grammatical variants suggest ‘lustre’ and ‘jingle’, traits we have since come to identify with the bijou. Beaten and moulded from a metal sheet into its dome-like shape, the bell is then usually adorned with emeralds, rubies, garnets or pearls. Suspended from an ornate stud or karnphul, the dome sashays and tinkles with every head turn depending on the globules attached. This earring is all about the drama. These can even be identified in Mughal paintings and miniatures which documented the opulence of court life. The Mughals, influenced by Hindu beliefs, started choosing precious stones for luck which often determined how their jhumkas would be adorned. Begum Noor Jehan, wife of Emperor Jehangir, is widely credited for having teamed the karnphul with the Persian jhumka, to give us the earring as we know it today.

This type of jewellery is believed to have spread across India with the Banjara tribe that served as carriers for warring Mughals. It is also believed that the Banjaras’ preference for the dome shaped jhumkas could be traced to the jingling bells that ornament their bulls which often serve as temple offerings. In Rajasthan, where women pierce their ears multiple times, the placement of these earrings marks their martial status and signifies their rank in society. Jhumkas have also been popularised by Gadia Lohar of Madhya Pradesh who migrated from Rajasthan. A variant is the jhumki; reminiscent of the jhumka, this pre-dates the latter and can be traced back to the amphora shaped earpieces of the Greek Empire. They were brought to India by Arab traders. More pedestrian versions of these trinkets have found their way to street markets from Colaba Causeway in Mumbai to Janpath in Delhi, the swank lot can still cost a fortune but be well worth the investment.

Silk bijou – The Kanjeevaram
Ah, Rekha. Divine grace, an ever-enigmatic aura, a timeless face, long wavy hair and the gold Kanjeevaram sari. The diva’s uniform; she is rarely seen sans it. Regal resplendence has become her signature, visually synonymous with her name.

Rekha’s love affair with this Southern textile siren is legendary. But she is not the only one. Every, we repeat, every ‘respectable’ Indian lady possesses at least one of these silken beauties in her wardrobe. Wrapped in tissue. Reserved for ‘special occasion’ flaunting. Causer of heartburn.

The Tamil temple town of Kanchipuram, with over 150 years of weaving tradition, is the birthplace of what is arguably the ‘queen of saris’. Deriving its name from its place of origin, the Kanjeevaram is not just the favoured trousseau of brides in the region, but also a prized heirloom. It is the attire of Bharatnatyam dancers, worn in the dhoti style, with perfect pleats forming a fan at the centre front. (Who can forget Dream Girl Hema Malini’s performances on celluloid and stage?) This luxurious brocade has only one glorious competitor in popularity – the Benarasi, and debates have raged over which is more refined and which has the greater value. Hard to say; both are equally mesmerising.

While the present market is flooded with creations in Chinese and Korean silk, the ‘real’ Kanjeevarams are woven only with yarn from silkworms in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka’s mulberry plantations. The silk obtained from the cocoons is much thicker and so durable, that it can be washed with water at home. The saris are distinguished by their bright colours. Body and border combinations often comprise vibrant turmeric with red, parrot green with fuchsia, orange with purple and so on. The pure silk body is relatively plain (sometimes with miniature bootis), compared to the fabulously intricate and heavy pallu and border, which are woven with gold zari. Religious and mythological scenes, gods and goddesses, floral patterns, tribal and temple designs and birds like peacocks and parrots are popular motifs. It takes 10-12 days to create an average sari. The more embellished ones with finer detailing can take 20 or more days to complete. The three parts (body, border, pallu) are woven separately, then interlocked miraculously, so that the joint is invisible to the naked eye.

A reputed sari store will take pride in stocking a large variety of designs in a wide range of prices. From a few thousands, to a few lakhs – what needs to be shelled out depends on the intricacy and uniqueness of the design. Almost like purchasing and investing in jewellery. Recently, the whole nation was talking about a particular piece which took one whole year to make, utilising the skills of multiple craftsmen! So inimitable was the piece that its photograph was published in almost all the national and regional newspapers. Famous portraits painted by Raja Ravi Varma were woven across the body, pallu and border to create a stunning piece of art. Breathtakingly beautiful, but dare we ask the price!

East India companion – The Bengal blouse
Devdas. Parineeta. Charulata. Iconic movies based on iconic Bengali novels. In our minds flash scenes and faces of the poster girls – graceful, beautiful women with red bindis, bangles, saris with pretty borders and a puff sleeved blouse. The bindi, the bangles, the sari are feminine staples anywhere in India. But the puff sleeved blouse? Essentially Bengal.

Born off the British Raj, when Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the country’s capital, this Indian garment with English influences, was the desi lady’s adaptation of what the Memsahib wore. During the 19th century, the women of elite Bengali households (wives of zamindars, mainly) started to take a leaf out of the English gentlewoman’s stylebook. Until the Nawab rule, blouses were uncommon in Bengal. Women from all social strata draped the sari in different ways (all equally artfully) so that a stitched choli was not required. Mughal influences slowly brought muslin bodices into wardrobes of upper classes and during the British Raj, things got fancier, albeit frillier.

The leg-o-mutton, bell and puff are intrinsic parts of European historic costume. Gathered, pleated, rounded, exaggerated but essentially feminine, the Victorian sleeves were also flamboyantly detailed, with lace trims, scalloped edges, ribbons and bows. Their pretty and pristine allure drew desi damsels, who wanted to emulate English fashions, and also create more prominent social distinctions through personal attire. In these pre-swadesi, pre-khadi times, to be English was considered to be superior. Therefore, the genteel society femmes of Bengal spared no frills. Local tailors were given the task of copying the Memsahibs’ bodice and sleeve patterns and create Indian blouses that could be worn with the sari, sometimes with lace and ruffles around the neckline. These tailors were already familiar with the process of stitching clothes for British families, and the women of Calcutta grew increasingly competitive in sourcing the best people who could replicate the fashions. Of course, traditional elements like drawstrings, tassels and embroidery were added to Indianise the garment. These became such a rage that more modest versions started trickling down to the more common households, and barring the break during the khadi movement, remained a popular style till the mid 20th century, after which, the more streamlined shape dominated, and the Victorian version made special appearances.

Apart from cinema, mainstream Indian fashion has time and again romanced with the ruffles, and the Bengal blouse had been put on the national runway by stalwarts such as Ritu Kumar, Sabyasachi, Anamika Khanna and others. Women across the country have been charmed by its romantic, nostalgic aura. And many a Calcutta lady, to this day, continues to hold on to the remnants of the Raj.

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