In Empire of Medieval and Mughal Period

The 1910 saree

Details of a studio portrait of the youngest daughter of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, Princess Sudhira. Taken in 1910.

Though Gayatri Devi is the most well known, Cooch Behar royalty that preceded her had a distinctive style and you often see a lot in play in their attire that later became the norm.

For example, the saree here is draped much like the present 6 yard saree, even though around 1910 the Bengal drape was quite common in the state. The saree itself is a light fabric, I am inclined to think a fine muslin but I might be wrong. Around this period you often see sarees (of the very expensive sort) that are beaded/embroidered. I don‟t know the exact term but chiffon gowns in this period often feature beading. As was common in the early part of the 20th century, the pallu is pinned at the shoulder and draped over the head in some of the portraits, though at least one showcases the Princess‟ fashionably short hair.

The blouse has Edwardian details like the lapel-like feature as well as the sleeve detail (though the border suggests Indian fabric). Jewelry is fairly minimal, though the ear danglers are very shall we say “statement”.

The Brahmika drape

I had an anon question on tumblr as an earlier question on wordpress that I will answer here together as they are kind of related.

1.  I saw an early 19th century painting which showed women in a blouse and sari. I always thought blouses was introduced by Jnanadanandini Devi?

I think some sort of blouse (and possibly a kind of petticoat given ghaghra cholis and related outfits) was always around. Even Ajanta paintings have a few examples. This early 19th century painting is an example of it too:

But I think a formal kind of blouse, often influenced by prevailing Victorian fashion, and the petticoat worn with a sari did come in with the 1870s both in Western India and in Bengal. A few books of the time and later refer to shops selling “jackets”, which term seems distinct from the choli.

The early 20th century Dhurandhar painting right on top shows differing blouse styles, from the indigenous choli to the modified choli with puff sleeves as well as more elaborate versions which are obviously Victorian in origin suggesting a variety of styles after the 1870s.

In summary I think the sari blouse was around but not essential. Especially in the hotter areas of India where a sari sufficed. From the 1870s onwards, however, it became an essential part of attire for educated women and then all women.

1.  Several months back I had a query regarding Jnandanandini Devi’s introduction of the Brahmika (Brahmo woman) drape from Sari Sisters. The query was on the difference between the Brahmika drape and Classical Bengal drape and whether the only difference was in the pleats on the shoulders.

At the time I assumed that there wasn‟t much difference between earlier sari drapes in Bengal and the Brahmika saree. But the question stayed in my mind and I had some time this weekend to poke around a bit. Not much came up. Though everyone agrees that the Brahmika drape was novel and inspired by the

Parsi/Gujarati drape that Jnanadanandini saw in then Bombay, the exact nature of the earlier drape is not clear. Instead there is more emphasis on the introduction of accessories like the blouse, petticoat, hair net etc, which assisted in making the saree a dress for a bhadra (respectable) woman. Nevertheless there was some change since there are many remarks both on the untidiness of draping as well as the immodesty of previous drapes.

The only clear reference I got was in Rochona Majumdar‟s book (Marriage and Modernity) where she mentions that the traditional style is the pallu (end of the sari) wrapped around the waist or hanging in front rather than the pleats of the Brahmika saree. As it happens there aren‟t too many pre 1870 pics that I could find except these.

Rabindranatha Tagore‟s mother on the left (presumably an older style, though it isn‟t clear to me if the pallu is tucked around the waist and also on the shoulder). On the right a milkmaid of the 1840s, this drape has some resemblance to the Brahmika style but has no pleats and is simply wound around.

The Parsi/Gujarati style is seen above which is the seedha (straight) pallu style with the sari being secured on the right shoulder.

The Brahmika/Bengal styles are above. The style arranges the saree border in a way that mimics the seedha pallu (more evident in the left pic of girls in 1904*) but the pallu is eventually thrown over and secured at the left shoulder. So it does appear that the sari sisters were right in that process of pleating and arranging the sari in the upper part was probably different for the Brahmika saree (though some of

the modern Bengal saree drape tutorials have a bit of a pleat arrangement in the bottom part too. Further the loose end can be thrown over the right shoulder).

All About the Bindi

The bindi/pottu/sindoor/tikli – whatever name it be known by – is probably the most emblematic of Indian elements of attire and also has a long history. It is symbolic (as a signifier of marital status or of caste), part of the daily ritual as well as decorative. While several terms exist, I will use the term bindi in this post.

 The bindi as a symbol of marital status in women (Kumkum/Sindoor) is familiar to most Indians. This can vary from region to region and does not always involve the hair parting, but in almost all parts of the country it is a part of Hindu marriage, festive and temple rituals. Its origin is obscure but it possibly was a blood mark of sorts to mark the bride‟s entry into a new family, this later being replaced by kumkuma which was a mix of turmeric and slaked lime. Not as commonly worn as a few decades back it remains a part of rituals and is often applied in conjunction with decorative bindis

Her friends apply coolants: fresh lotus leaves, bracelets of lotus fiber, sandalwood paste; they fan her with palm leaves.

 Decorative designs for the face and body are found in plenty in Sanskrit texts, some seem to have been very elaborate given they start at the breasts and literally bloom on the face. The practice was more

common in spring and summer and the ingredients used were cooling in nature, with the coming of winter the paste was minimally applied, if at all. Designs were usually made from a paste of sandalwood, musk and/or saffron and were commonly known as पत्रावली/patravali (a garland of leaves/foliage).

Sandal paste patterns in conjunction with kumkuma and ash were also indicative of castes and sects, the latter persists now and then among men. For women the practice of using sandal paste on the forehead is now reduced to a spot or dash often worn with a bindi or as bridal decoration.

While sandal paste is used to make designs and applied as lines/a band, turmeric was used on the forehead as a band. Like sandal it has decorative and cultural aspects and is used for skin care.

Pic 1: Veena in Samrat Ashok (1946), Pic 2: Portrait of a Lady, 18th cent., Pic 3: Untitled B.Prabha (1960).

A spot of chalk and another of vermilion shone upon her forehead, like the sun and moon risen at once over a lotus leaf. On

Radha as a bride, Harkh‟nath.

The designs referred to

earlier persist in some ways, e.g. bridal designs for the forehead are seen in several parts of India and especially in Bengal where sandal paste is often applied to make the design. The photograph here is of a Gujarati bride (an Asha Parekh role?!), I think perhaps in the 60s-70s. Another Gujarati bride here.

Must be the purist in me but I can‟t get on the sticker train for this:)

Decorative facial designs by way of tattoos or black dots is common in rural and tribal India. The application of three dots on the chin is one of the more common rural designs and expectedly often made a screen appearance.

In the pics: Sreela Majumdar in Mandi (via dhrupad), Vyjayanthimala in Ganga-Jamuna and Nargis in Mother India.

Specific designs are often seen in medieval and later Indian paintings. An e.g. is the straight line on the forehead seen on Deccan women as in this MV Dhurandhar illustration. Another example is the chandra- bindu or the moon bindi. Which is also a Sanskrit character. In bindi form the dot may be placed within the half circle or outside it. Though worn elsewhere in Western India, it is characteristic of Maharashtra (pic 1) and can be combined with further lines and dots. A maang tika (forehead pendant) can also function as a similar kind of bindi like in pic 4.

While all kinds of bindis from the sindoor to a round dot to lines to designs are seen in 20th century India, some types seem to dominate in the popular images (read cinema) in certain decades. The 1940s and 1950s stills often have a lot of different designs, sometimes these appear to suggest a particular aesthetic in historical or mythological films but they also appear in more modern looking publicity shots. The designs can be quite varied and complex though the flower bindi (pic 4) with its Bengal hints (red core with white dots) pops up quite often on 1950s actresses.

Pic 1: Nalini Jaywant, Pic 2: Sushila Rani, Pic 3: Shakila (courtesy photodivision) and Pic 4: Madhubala

 The 1930s/1940s urban woman look required a very basic and small bindi . Where it is positioned on the forehead depends on the wearer. Shaping the eyebrows also seems to have been a thing in the 1930s and 1940s.

In the pics: Amrita Sher-Gil, Gayatri Devi, Devika Rani, Shanta Hublikar, Leela Chitnis, Miss Gohar.

These were also decades that did not require a sari to be worn with a bindi as in these pics (pic 1: Hansa Wadkar, pic 2: Neena).

The “tilaka” or the elongated forehead mark takes many forms, some of which have a religious function. It can also be present as an ornament . It has a decorative aspect and can be drawn on as required by the wearer. While quite commonly seen in South India on young women, it is also prevalent in other parts of the country. Quite often seen in the 1950s and 1960s when it was worn by young women- you can see a few examples in today‟s post.

Last pic courtesy photodivision.  

  By the 1970s and 1980s the simple round bindi was around, it could be applied as a powder or liquid but the presence of Shringar kumkum as well as the initial simple felt bindis meant that the latter were preferred. By the 1990s of course the felt decorative bindi we are familiar with had appeared.

In the pics: Rekha, Aruna Mucherla, Swaroop Sampat (still the Shringar kumkum girl

 And between the lac bindis of the early 20th century and the felt bindis of today there was the plastic stick-on bindi. Made of a stiff but pliable plastic, it had a bright and smooth surface and came in more than a few colors. It‟s not hard to spot in photographs of the 60s and 70s but never replaced powder and liquid bindis like its felt counterpart.

Finally he appears with white fragrant paste on his body, a bright crest jewel, white silk garment with a yellow border of swans, tilaka mark on his forehead and ornaments round his hair, neck and arms.

Various forms of the bindi, largely the round dot and tilaka, were also used by men. A band of sandal or turmeric across the forehead was also be worn by men. Often these serve as caste marks and include a mixture of lines, dots and tilaka. Usually drawn with sandal, ash or kumkuma they are more common in the Southern and Western parts of India. They also serve a decorative purpose, especially for a bridegroom.

In the pics: Gandhara head (photograph mine), Krishna, Maratha chief, 1860, Maratha prince, late 19th century, Madhava Rao and Sir Pannalal Mehta painted by Raja Ravi Varma, Maharaja Sayaji Rao in 1902, Mysore raja in 1906, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, bridegroom.

PostScript: Facial decorations are of course known all over the world, especially in tribal societies. Decorations similar to the bindi in more urban cultures occur in Mycenaean Greece and Tang Dynasty China (and can also be seen in Korean wedding rituals today). The Tang Dynasty in particular had many kinds of designs and a number of colors were used, though red predominated. As well as a story re its origin, the falling of petals on a princess‟ forehead. Nevertheless the persistent and diverse uses of the bindi for ritual and decoration appears to be peculiar to India.

                               The 1940s Salwar Kameez

The adaptation of the salwar kameez with modernity is perhaps less documented than the sari. In the 1920s and 1930s, the new kind of sari drape was the on trend garment. By the 1940s, the salwar-kameez (or on occasion the churidar-kameez) was in vogue, especially for young college going women. While maintaining the traditional silhouette and embellishments like zari, gota and sequins, it was also possible to incorporate new fabrics and prints as well as collars, laces, trims and the like. Especially for the kameez

The most common ensemble in the 40s is as in pics 3 and 4, a kameez that ended above the knee, loose salwars and a dupatta. Pics 1 and 2 are of churidar ensembles which you see now and then in the decade.Pic 1: Amrita Shergil with her cousins

Pic 2: Still from a 1940s film Pic 3: Drama group, Delhi, 1947

Pic 4: Still from Midnight‟s Children.

The Kerala Post

This post was in response to a reader request on tumblr. Its fairly basic and is confined mainly to the 19th and 20th century but does cover some ground. Here goes!

Though the “set-mundu” consisting of two pieces of cloth is considered the traditional attire in Kerala, in practice its fairly common to see the lower half i.e. mundu alone in many 20th century photographs. This is usually worn with a jacket like blouse or sometimes a saree blouse as in the 1965 film Chemmeen.Typically the mundu is a woven cloth of cream or off white with a border. While the border can be a simple coloured band, the festive version has a woven gold border and is called kasavu. You can see the kasavu mundu worn with a blouse on three of the women in this photograph of the Travancore sisters and others. Of the three sisters in the middle, Lalitha on the left wears a neriyathu (the upper part) as part of a half-saree like ensemble. Ragini wears a mundu and velvet jacket and Padmini on the right wears a half- sari that is common in Tamil Nadu (in the 50s this was usually a silk skirt, a georgette upper part and an embroidered blouse). Photograph circa 1954 courtesy Betsy Woodman. L to R Ambika, Lalitha, Chandran, Ragini, Betsy‟s dad, Padmini, Sukumari.