Indian costumes as seen today are an outcome of nearly four thousand years of history wrought with significant political, economic, social and cultural upheavals and influences. Consequently, costumes, which form an integral part of any historically dominant culture in India, also underwent several crucial transformations.
Indian Costumes presents an overview of Indian costumes from the Vedic times to the 20th century, with special focus on the prevalent vestimentary cultures of Northern, Eastern and Northeastern, Western and Central, and Southern India, studied in separate sections. Each section attempts to present the history and traditions of the local costumes, their variations according to occasion and social hierarchy- royalty, elite groups, soldiers, dancers, and the common man, to name just a few- as well as their jewellery and other accessories.
A finely illustrated book, Indian Costumes takes us through the dazzling array of styles, shades and designs that have held people across the world spellbound since time immemorial.
About the Author
Anamika Pathak is deputy curator (Decorative Arts and Textiles) at the National Museum, New Delhi, where she has worked for over two decades, gaining expertise in Museology, Decorative Arts and Textiles, and Archaeology. A student of Ancient Indian History and Buddhist Studies, she participates actively in seminars, lectures and talks, and has mounted several exhibitions abroad.
Anamika Pathak has contributed to several national and international research journals on Textiles, Arts and Museology, including Marg, Arts of Museology, including Marg, Arts of Asia, National Museum Bulletin, National Museum Institute Bulletin and Pruratava. She has also contributed towards catalogues for Alamkar, Singapore, 1994; Jewels from India, Milan, 1996; Arts of Sika Kingdom, London, 1999; and Islamic Arts of India, Malaysia, 2002. She has collaborated on a research project with the Nehru Trust, New Delhi, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, entitled 'Painting on Ivory.'
She is also the author of a pioneering book, Pashmina.
A Brief History of Indian Costumes
Across the world the sari and blouse are invariably evocative of the Indian woman's typical attire, and the dhoti and kurta, of the Indian man's attire. In India unstitched garments are as popular as stitched ones. Local variations are identifiable in traditional costumes used by men and women. The most popular garments used by Indian men, however, are the kurta, the paijama or the dhoti and the turban; the long shirt or phiran; the salwar; and the achkan or sherwani; the paijama, and the turban. Similarly, the typical Indian women's garments are the kurta, salwar and odhani; the ghagra, choli and odhani; and the mekhala-choki/blouse. These costume of their evolution over nearly four thousand years of Indian history wrought with significant political, social and cultural upheavals. Consequently, costumes, which form an integral part of any historically dominant culture, too underwent crucial transformations.
The words presently used to designate costumes and clothing in India are paridhan, vasha-bhusha or poshak (in Hindi), or libaas (in Arabic). In the Vedic period, however, the word paridhana was used exclusively for the lower garment. (Atharvaveda, VIII, 2, 16)
The term 'costume' is derived from the Latin consuetude, which means a complete set of outer garments, including ornaments and hairstyles. Costumes are used not only to cover the body and embellish it; they also constitute a significant non-verbal medium of communication that serves to establish the cultural identity of a person, including a person's community or country of origin at any given historical period. They help understand fashion trends prevalent during a particular historical time-frame. It has been observed that fashion trends usually veer towards new directions every ten to twenty years.
Several factors-geographical, historical, religious, cultural-play a key role in determining the nature of costumes in different regions, as do the availability of raw material and the technical skills for creating fabrics that could be used to create the desired costumes. Besides these factors, social and economic status, as well as people's occupations determine the nature and quality of costumes that they are likely to wear.
The story of Indian costumes takes us on a journey back in time. India is the seventh largest country in the world, besides being the second most populous one. Situated entirely in the northern hemisphere, it covers a surface area of around 3,280,483 square kilometers with a varied landscape rich in biodiversity, spanning the mighty Himalayas along the north and the northeast; deserts in the west; and large coastal areas in the eastern, southeastern and southern parts of the country. Geographical factors have a direct bearing on climatic conditions, which in turn play a crucial role in the choice of material for the costumes of a particular region.
Apart from geographical and climatic parameters, over four thousand years of chequered history have contributed immensely to the evolution of Indian costumes, besides bequeathing to the country a rich and pluralistic cultural legacy. India was invaded several times (the Greeks, Sakas, Scythians, Kushans, Huns, the Sultanate, Khiljis, Lodis, Mughals, Europeans) from either the northwest or the south. Invaders like the Greeks and the Huns came to India in search of booty. They came, fought and sacked the country before departing with handsome loot. Innumerable warriors of invading armies, however, preferred staying on in the midst of the indigenous people, rather than returning to their homeland. Other invaders conquered India and ruled over the indigenous contact between the invader and the invaded led to a cultural exchange between the two-the logical outcome of the face-to-face interaction of culturally divergent peoples. These multi-cultural and ethnical influences have collectively and significantly altered and shaped Indian costumes as well. Fairs, festivals and different religious ceremonies inspired weavers and artisans to create special religious costumes and textiles in India. Some of the popular religious costumes such as the sadri, mirjai, kurta or the namavali chaddar, have religious inscriptions either woven into them or printed on them.
Since the Vedic period, during ritualistic ceremonies draped garments were preferred to stitch ones. This tradition has been carried forward especially by priests in the southern part of India.
Apart from costumes associated with religious occasions, special ones are made for marriages in India, as elsewhere in the world. Traditional Indian marriages are lavish, colourful and elaborate as is evident from the concomitant costumes, jewellery, decoration and food. Myriad are the ethnic and regional variations in marriage costumes.
Therefore, Indian costumes present a dazzling array of shades and designs with their very own colour symbology, mesmerizing people from all walks of life across the world.
An overview of Indian costumes from the Vedic times to the 20th century will help understand the vestimentary mosaic of India, with special focus on the prevalent vestimentary cultures of the Northern, Eastern and Northeastern, Western and Central and Southern India. Each section attempts to present the history and traditions of the local costumes, and their variations according to occasions and social hierarchy-royalty, elite groups, soldiers, dancers, the common man, to name just a few, along with jewellery and other accessories.
According to some European scholars, Indian art barely depicts stitched garments, thereby perhaps implying that the indigenous people were not aware of stitching, and that stitching was an art taught by foreigners to the indigenous people. Tropical countries, however, have a history of people wearing loose and elegant garments in the form of a drape. Neither the sari nor the dhoti needs any stitching, but both are considered to be comfortable and graceful outfits. While art is an important index of the costumes of a society, it should not constitute the paramount yardstick to assess the vestimentary practices of a society during any particular historical period. Nudity, for instance, is a predominant theme in modern art, without being an index of any society's vestimentary practices. Indian art has essentially been inspired by religion, and religion has always laid great emphasis on the spiritual path to attain God. Even the well-know Krishna-Leela-Krishna stealing the costumes of the gopis or cowherds-must be interpreted in a spiritual light. According to the Bhagvad Gita, the sacred Hindu text, to attain God one must rise above the world of attachment in one's purest form, and surrender oneself to God without hiding anything. In their depiction of the Krishna-Leela, Indian miniaturist have conceived the pond as representing the earthly world of attachments in which the gopis represent human beings who reach out for God without hiding anything from Him. Costumes are representative of the sins which the gopis are wont to hide or cover up.
Indian art has always been a means for explaining the philosophical essence and ethos of Indian culture.
Three main sources-archaeological evidence, literary references and actual costumes-furnish crucial leads in the reconstruction of the history of Indian costumes. The archaeological history of Indian textiles starts from the Indus Civilization (c.2600-1400 BC). A plethora of literary references to costumes starts from the Vedic period (c. 1200-600 BC). The actual costumes in the museums and private collections abroad and in India date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. All these references provide interesting insights into the chronological and cultural trajectory described by Indian costumes through the ages.
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