The Shawl Post

I did a series of posts on shawls on tumblr that started in the early winter. We are past that now but still in winter so rug up for the ride:) Unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere i.e.


In early winter
It’s hard to tell what people like
or even what they hate.
Like the company of good men
Fire forever gives pleasure. Vajjalagga

The early winter of Magh/Pausha is Hemanta or a wet winter while the late winter of Phalguna is sisira or a dry winter (the corresponding Tamil terms are munpani – early dew – and pinpani – late dew).

The use of heavier clothing, staying indoors, oil massages, the replacement of cooling scents like sandal and camphor with saffron and musk and the like are all referred to in old Indian texts.  While the uttariya, the upper stitched drape, is often worn throughout the year a shawl or chaddar is added in winter and can be seen in several miniature paintings like the one today of a early 1800s Kangra lady warming herself before a brazier.

Patterned fine wool or wool-silk mixes or sometimes silk referred to as पत्रोर्ण (patrorn) were used for garments and likely also as shawls in Ancient India though in sculpture the depiction of shawls is more often than not on men.

The Mogols and Indian women as well as men, wear them in winter round their heads, passing them over the left shoulder as a mantle. There are two sorts manufactured: one kind with the wool of the country, finer and more delicate than that  of Spain; the other kind with the wool, or rather hair (called touz) found on the breast of a species of wild goat which inhabits Great Tibet. Jean- Baptiste Tavernier.

In his brocade robes, priceless jamawar shawls, ropes of pearls and jewels flashing from his chest and turban, he was a fine figure of a man and commanded respect wherever he went. Description of Dwarkanath Tagore in Jorasanko,  Aruna Chakravarti.

Shawls are synonymous with Kashmir and words like pashmina, cashmere, toosh and kani still denote luxury. Jamawar shawls have a long tradition (they are tapestry kind of shawls, the technique probably introduced by the Mughals in the 15th century).  The bold, close motifs and the use of gold and silver threads in Mughal and 18th century India gave way to a predominance of mango (or paisley) motifs and the like with the European market,  Their importation into Europe at the end of the 18th century eventually gave way to cheaper imitation versions of Jamawars produced quickly on Jacquard looms (hand made shawls took at least 16 months to make). Both originals and imitations are still around.


Kashmir shawls are mentioned and much valued in Akbar’s time and also seen in later Mughal paintings – often with a fur stole – as seen in the above portrait. However it is the many portraits of the 18th and 19th century that routinely depict Indian men in jamawars. The shawl was however worn by men and women  in India unlike in Europe where it appears predominantly as an article of women’s clothing.

In the pic set:

Pic 1: Bengal Gentleman, late 18th/early 19th century
Pic 2: Jotindra Tagore,19th century
Pic 3: Fragment of a shawl, early 19th century.
Pic 4: Gentleman, Maharashtra, 19th century.
Pic 5: Young man, Lucknow, 19th century.
Pic 6: Presumably 19th century.
Pic 7: Woman wearing Cashmere shawl, presumably late 19th century.

Piece on the craftsmen behind the shawls.

A bit on its European past. Examples of the shawl with Regency and Victorian attire (X and X).

It’s use in  a man’s coat in Qajar Iran.

Chittara-pattu for the body
Sunfe-ra-dhatu for the head
It is the costume of our Kullu
A town to be beholden. Folk song quoted in Textiles, Costumes and Ornaments of the Western Himalayas, Omacanda Handa.

Of course Kashmir is not the only centre for wool products like shawls. Wool products have a long history in Himachal Pradesh – in particular from Chamba, Kullu and Kinnaur. Places like Rampur in Bashahr/Kinnaur (which gives its name to the Rampuri Chaddar) were well known in the 19th century and each region had characteristic patterns and weaves.

The basic costume of the Kulu with the pattu being made of wool has remained the same and is described here. Pattu, described as the local tweed, often tended to be “khudrang” (neutral tones/black, white with chittara being a black and white check) but are also said to be colourful with motifs specific to the region. The colourful version can be seen here, though this is one of the “tourist” ensembles for portraits. The more superior wools were often used for shawls which tended to be coloured with motifs incorporated.

All Kullu pics of 1956/1957 via photodivision.  Pic 4 of Chamba also photodivision.

In Calcutta, Ray is typically dressed in Bengali traditional clothing, pajama/kurta, or dhoti, and a shawl depending on the weather. Bengal Film Practitioners: Art, Intellectualism and Morality, Victorian Maya Mukerji.

The Uttam era, they said, when a spotless white dhoti, kurta and chappals were the epitome of elegance—reinforced, in winter scenes, by a regal shawl—was over.  Mahanayak, Swapan Mullick.

He quickly rang up Rajiv Gandhi to borrow a churidar pyjama, kurta, and shawl. It was perhaps the first time that he had worn the outfit that was to become his favourite clothing. Description of Amitabh in In the Afternoon of Time, Harivanshrai Bachchan (1976).

The Rajiv Look — clean shaven, shawl across the shoulder, Ray-Bans and lots of teeth.  India Today, 2001.

In the early 20th century the kurta-paijama worn with a shawl in colder weather appeared as a gentleman’s dress for anyone who did not want to adopt the Western suit but wanted an updated version of traditional garments. Of course the shawl was not the only warm garment – there was the frock-coat like achkan and the sleeveless jacket. But the shawl had a certain cachet and ranged from the cheaper woollen ones from Punjab mills to hand made pashminas. Alternatively you could use a cotton chaddar sort of garment.

The drape of the shawl differed but the shawl across the shoulder tended to dominate in later decades.

Even standard  woollen shawls were relatively costly, their wearing therefore indicated a well-to-do man. I don’t know the exact date of this estimate but it is useful comparison of costs for middle class attire:
Good dhoti cost 15 annas, medium quality sari 1 rupee and 7 annas, and a standard warm shawl 3 rupees and 9 annas. 

Still from a luxury item in the form of a jamavar that denoted status, in the early and mid 20th century highlight the shawl also denotes simplicity and an intellectual.  The style was particularly associated with Bengal in its time. The ensemble persists in the country and is still seen on politicians, bridegrooms and older gentlemen, of the last Amitabh is probably its most ubiquitous wearer.

Pics: Gandhi and associates in Noakhali, Dharmendra in Anupama, Sardar Patel, Laksmiswar Sinha via ebay; An Associate of Rabindranath Tagore.

Though the wool shawls are famed, there are probably as many shawl types in India as there are regions. Shawls can be anything from simple wraps to enveloping chaddars and depending on the climate thick cotton or wool and everything in between. The country has opulent Banarasi shawls, monchromatic Uttarkhand weaves, distinctive weaves and patterns like in Nagaland and Kutch and coloured acrylic mill shawls seen on India’s streets every winter.  Pattern and motif – and of late paste gems -often appear though plain shawls are not uncommon.

Capes, cardigans, coats and so on are around but there is probably nothing easier than wrapping yourself in a shawl in an Indian winter to keep out the cold.

In the pics: 1)  Girl in Wakro, Arunachal Pradesh who wove the shawl she is wearing 2) Toda woman in 1956, their shawls are quite distinctive 3) Phulkari shawl from the Punjab 4) Dilip Kumar – probably a Kashmiri shawl with a patterned border 5) Smita Patil – this may be a simple Kutchi shawl 6) Woman at Pushkar fair wearing a mill type shawl with motifs 7) Weaving of a dohru shawl 8) Imran Khan of Kashmir Shawl Atelier 9)  Agyesh Madan (this may be a Kullu shawl) 10) Rengma Naga man in a shawl – see more at wearabout 10) weaving of a Naga shawl.

And to end the post a favourite Bendre painting of a Arunachal woman weaving.

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A bit late but Happy New Year everyone!


Lux calendar for 1954 with Suraiya featured for January/February.


A Painting from a Barahmasa series – The month of Magha (January/ February), Garhwal, 1780-90.


Posted in 18th century, 1950s, 2016 posts, Actor, Cinema, costumes in art, Culture, fashion, historical art, historical costume, historical fashions, indian art, Indian fashion, Indian Singers, Indian Textiles, Indian Women, mid century, miniature paintings, Movies, Old Bollywood, retro fashion, Sari, Sari Blouse, vintage fashion, vintage photography, women in art | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

wp1The 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, sandal wood paste; they fan her with palm leaves. [X]

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 mang 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 (माँग टीका).  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 colours.  It’s not hard to spot in photographs of the 60s and 70s but never replaced powder and liquid bindis like its felt counterpart.

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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. [X]

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.

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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.

Mycenaean sculpture here. Recreation of Helen of Troy here. Tang dynasty lady here. Tang Dynasty recreation source here.


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Autumn/Festive Season

We are in autumn but it remains very warm.  Reading autumn poetry is about the only one to keep one’s cool.


The skies, growing gradually peaceful,
flow like long rivers across heaven,
with sandbanks formed of the white clouds
and scattered flights of softly crying cranes;
rivers which fill at night with waterlily stars.

Vishakhadatta on Sharad ritu (autumn) in Mudrarakshasa.  Autumn arrives in India post monsoon so the feeling and emotion in many poems is quieter. And full of bird imagery.  Vyjayanthimala as a waterlily is a bit of conceit though my mother once told me this particular part of Nagin (1954) was considered to be full of a beauty never seen before.

Vyjayanthimala gifs thanks to @zamaanapatsi-bollyfan

Detail of painting (1760-65) from X.

wp1The garba around our parts has been subdued, perhaps they will ratchet up the enthusiasm (and noise ) in the weekend.

While in Singapore I found this postcard of a textile piece showing dandiya dancers in the 15th century. Made for the Indonesian market (see also X), you can see the decorated sticks in the hands of the dancers (click for larger view).

There are three designs of printed cottons, one for the kaccha or dhoti type garment below, one for the waist wrap knotted over the dhoti and one for the fitted long sleeved bodice.

wp2And here is a rasamandala aka the circle dance of Krishna and the gopis. Jaipur, 1750. Note the full skirts and voluminous upper drape of the 18th century

A fuller version of the painting here.

Pic Source.

monsoonweddingOctober is Marigold.

And indeed that first line holds true for Navaratri when the markets in parts of India are full of marigolds.

And marigolds as a recurring motif symbolising love had their own starring turn on Monsoon Wedding.

And now I am going to take some time out for marigold appreciation. See you in a bit.

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Just a heads up that I don’t usually post messages that have links so apologies if I haven’t approved any such posts from people who follow the blog.

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The Rangoli Post

wp7wp8Source for Rangoli terms-X.  Pic Source – X. (~1890s, click for larger view).

wp5Making an Alpana, Santiniketan, 1954.

wp6Life Magazine, 7 February 1955.

From what I know, the use of rice flour or paste is intentional and is meant as a meal for insects, in particular ants. Hence too the daily application and not just on holidays – though holidays usually result in elaborate decorations.

wp4Untitled, B. Prabha.

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At the age of 54, she took a post as a visiting professor at India’s Tagore International University and was charmed by India. She continued to visit India occasionally thereafter, and produced works incorporating motifs based on India’s scenery, landscapes, temples and so on.

Rangoli/Kolam in Akino Fuku’s paintings.

[Pic 1: Morning Prayer, 1988]

wp10To end a personal post. My cousin and I making a kolam. The design is a simple version of kolams based on the parijat flower.

This struck me as a bit faded for the mid 90s and then I realised its 20 years since the mid 90s. Like truly retro:).

The salwar-kurta is a handloom ‘set’ – my mother bought it on a Chennai visit.

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Lit Post – 3

wp1Kamala was simply dressed in a pink silk sari, fastened on the right shoulder with the diamond coronet which Tara had lately given her. The thick soft tresses of her long jet-black hair were wreathed with white roses, and she wore in it the ruby rose, Tara’s first gift. Hindupore, SM Mitra.

In the 1900s it must have seemed like the sun would never set on Empire judging by two novels that deal with the coming together of east and west by way of inter-racial romances. In Lilamani the British are the civilizing influence, in Hindupore, given the title, the Hindus. While I haven’t read the novel in its entirety – tbh I didn’t care for either novel –  the descriptions of the clothes can be puzzling. Some of these are unclear (a teagown and a sari?). But it is likely a lot of Western dress elements are included to make it understandable to the British public at whom the book is aimed.

The book includes a photograph of the author and in a way his rather unusual attire reflects the coming together of some of the themes of his book. There is the starched collar.  There is the safa which is also cravat like. The coat has Chinese influences in the frog closures – the book has passages from Okakura’s Ideals of the East and discusses Pan-Asianism.

wp2I had waited for an opportunity, ever since I first set foot in England, and felt that cold aloofness which is ladled out with spoonfuls of condescension to those like me who do not belong to a pure white race.

Intellectually I felt I belonged to the West, emotionally to the East.  I Go West, DF Karaka.

DF Karaka’s 1938 book I Go West is an account of his student life in the UK – a time when he became the first South Asian president of the Oxford Union, wore Savile Row suits, gambled away a good deal of money and wrote about the colour bar – before he returned home in 1938. He subsequently covered the War and then went on to found Current magazine after the War.

Not exactly a fashion post (though Savile Row…) but part of a few books and authors of early 20th century India that I was looking at this week. Unlike Hindupore, the book is written for Indians familiar with English.

Pic Source.


Extract from DF Karaka’s Chungking Diary (1942), an account of the Chinese wartime experience contrasted with the Indian situation.

Karaka records that Kung Peng who had been in the hospital for five months after being with the Eighth Army was full of vitality, spoke English well and that she was attempting a translation of Grapes of Wrath during her hospital stay: Elsewhere he records the dress of Chinese women – in Chungking* some women are dressed in sombre dark blue and have black shiny hair and a high colour in their cheeks (very similar to Marseilles women according to Karaka) , others are rouged modern Chinese girls wearing an adaptation of the traditional gown and high heeled slippers.

*now Chongqing, in 1942 the city was the base of the Kuomintang.

Posted in 1910s, 1940s, Authors, British Raj, Chinese, Colonial, Early 20th Century, fashion, History, India, Indian Authors, Indian Dress, Indian fashion, Indian Literature, Indian men, Literature, Men, Photography, Studio Portraits, Vintage Books, Vintage Dress, vintage fashion, Vintage Men | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment