Ashadh ka ek din

आषाढस्य प्रथमदिवसे मेघमाश्लिष्टसानुं
वप्रक्रीडापरिणतगजप्रेक्षणीयं ददर्श॥१.२॥

Ashar has come, filling the southern sky with
A cloud, frolicksome as an elephant
About to charge, he seems to lower his tusks. (translation of lines from the Meghadoot from here).

The month of Ashadh is the first month of the rainy season and is followed by Shravan. This year it runs from 5 July to 2 August.

Ashadh ka ek din is a 1958 play by Mohan Rakesh. Given the title it is obvious the pivotal events of the play occur during the month.

Before we jump into the costume, my favourite bit of the movie with Kalidasa and Mallika sheltering a pursued deer. It feels like a sweet nod to Shakuntala. Plus I am a sucker for cute animals:)

I often refer to Roshen Alkazi‘s books on Indian costume.  These books were written in part as background research for theatre productions. While she didn’t costume the 1971 movie based on the play – Lalitha Kaul did – it does share some elements in common with Alkazi productions of the 1970s. That is there is historical basis for the costumes but they are also stylized for the theatre…and of course often more modest than historical art or literature suggests.

Ashadh ka ek din is set in the times of Kalidasa, so you are roughly looking at the time of the Gupta empire.  The film is also influenced by the Ajanta frescoes (indeed what work set in the era isn’t?).  And additional element is the hill setting of the film.

The principal character, Mallika (Rekha Sabnis), is a village girl. In the initial scenes (e.g. with the deer) she is a young girl, in the later scenes a young woman. Throughout the film has her in simple handlooms, either plain or striped. The sari is a simple wrap, unless I am missing something it is kind of devised for the film since it doesn’t exactly follow the antariya-uttariya pattern though there is an example of a wrap that starts from the underarm in the frescoes (see below).

There is very little jewellery save the thread necklace and an arm band, both of which probably have a silver pendant or amulet. The hair is tied in a single braid (ekaveni).

The second female character in the film is the princess Priyangumanjari.


Priyangumanjari’s costumes appear to be based on the Ajanta frescoes (see especially the fresco below of 3 women). The costume uses some of the elements from frescoes as well as literature – the diaphanous uttariya, pearls as hair ornaments, the coiffure with curls. Though wearing an upper garment wasn’t essential, the film uses a block print top – perhaps akin to the flowered muslins described as being worn in cities.

The unibrow struck me as a little unusual (it somehow seems like  a post Qajar influence in India) but it does appear to date to an earlier period in Persia. You can see a few examples at Ajanta.

For the antariya, there are a few simple wraps seen in the Ajanta frescoes and often these are striped. Priyangumanjari’s is a tad more voluminous but it is striped and held in place by a girdle.

For comparison two Ajanta paintings. The second is taken from here.

Kalidasa (Arun Khopkar) appears first as the village lad with great talent and later in the film he returns from Ujjain after hitting the big time but disillusioned. In the first half the costume for most of the village men, including Kalidasa, is a shawl and dhoti.

When Kalidas returns his attire is a little different, he wears a tunic and like with Priyangumajari the antariya is a  bit voluminous and striped. It isn’t entirely clear to me if this sartorial choice is due to Ujjain (since some of the other city characters wear different clothes) or a result of his returning after a period of wandering. On the other hand I might take it as Gupta Age hipster chic:)

Below costumes of characters from Ujjain, a hunter and the men who accompany Priyangumanjari. It has a few of the elements of costume adopted by the Mughals including a tunic, antariya and kayabandh. There is also a distinction between the finer cloth of the city and the coarser version of the village. The full costume of the hunter can be seen above (with a sword in his kayabandh) where he is shown with Kalidasa.

Among the other male characters in the village is Vilom (Om Shivpuri), Kalidasa’s antagonist and Nikshep. The former is older and his costume is almost threadbare. Nikshep is younger and though the costume is similar in including a shawl and dhoti it is worn more elegantly and is richer in its few details.

Ambika is Mallika’s mother and seen in a simple wrap sari, worn much like Mallika’s.


I am not sure which part is played by  which actor but the cast credits include Anuradha Kapur, Uma Sahay, Pinchoo Kapoor, Hemant Bose, Surendra Dheer, Sharma and Vishnu Mathur.



For a shorter version in the 80s see this episode of Bharat ek Khoj. The costume for Mallika is the ghaghra-choli of Western India and there are a  few changes for the characters from Ujjain too including Priyangumanjari. For the latter, the inspiration seems to be sculpture with the elaborate hairdos, breast band etc.

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The Monsoon Post

I could probably do an entire blog on the seasons in India and the associated poems but for this blog I stick to posting when we are in the midst of a season. More often than not I post on the flowers of the season, given that they feature a good deal in describing beauty as well as in beauty rituals.

Today’s flower is the kadamba.

New woodland grass
My soul and the kadamba blossom together.
Rain clouds wet my eyes with their blue coryllium. Kshanika, Rabindranath Tagore

The kadamba is so emblematic of the arrival of the monsoon in India that even the breeze is referred to as kadambanila in the season. It is not entirely common to spot a kadamba tree in India now and even less to find the blooms sold on urban streets. So its nice to see the blooms out and about in Bangladesh.

See also X, X, X.
Also part of Jharkhand cuisine.

So let your hair
Now full of budding flowers
Bloom as it desires. Ainkurunuru 496.

The Kadamba tree usually flowers around July. References to the wearing of its flowers largely come from Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara and Meghadutam, sometimes rather confusingly as adorning the hair parting. This is probably the only image I have seen though where it is used as a hair ornament.

Art by Manishi Dey.

Their hips are golden with girdles of kadamba flowers
their shoulders streaked from earrings of banana buds
and their bosoms white with necklaces of jasmine
delicate of nature is the costume
favored by the fair ones.

In the clumps of ketaki
as the tiny leaves unfold
the spikes appear
with tufts as white as lambs’ tails.

The other flowers of the monsoon: Jasmine/Juhi (Still from The Cloud Door), Ketaki (illustration from Ponniyun Selvan) and Banana flowers (Kathila earrings).

Monsoon poems from here.

And to end here is the last stanza of the canto on Varsha (Rainy Season) in Ritusamhara:


A source of fascination to amorous* women,
A constant friend to trees, shrubs and creepers,
the very life and breath of all living beings–
May this season of rains rich in these benedictions
fully grant all desires accordant with your wellbeing

Translation courtesy The Loom of Time (Chandra Rajan).

*why does kamini sound better than amorous?!


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Sumair [a relative] wanted to present me with a divine sari of pure gold that was her wedding present and she doesn’t want to wear for she claims to wear only French materials. Poor Indian women of queer tastes, they don’t realise how much more beautiful the Indian clothes are than the Western ones. But I couldn’t accept it because its value is Rs. 600/- and I can’t afford to give an adequate return, alas! Amrita Shergil, A Life, Yashodhara Dalmia.

Amrita Shergil’s portrait of her cousin, Sumair, was one of my more popular posts. It’s appeal is immediate and understandable. And Chang’s lines seem written for it’s fresh green, also picked up by the large drop earrings.  The sari was probably a French chiffon and is almost like a haute couture sari of the time, I am fairly sure the Maharani of Nabha wore something similar in 1932. In the movies you see similar sarees (Pics 3 and 4 on actresses Madhuri and Khurshid), either French material or knock-offs.

Subsequently, while in South India, ASG went a step further in her disdain for the aesthetics that new textiles introduced in India and that of authentic Indian textiles.


South Indian Villagers going to market, via wiki

Most of the south is curiously devoid of Europeans, which is aesthetically, and in many other ways too, a blessing. In the trail of their tawdry civilisation come the hideous printed materials, ugly shoes etc. etc., that replace the hand-woven cloth that is innately beautiful in texture and colour, and the sandals that the people,when they are unadulterated, make and wear. [X]

Dalmia’s book states that once the artist was in India and in search of a new Indian idiom for her paintings she switched to saris in rich, deep colours which were also inexpensive. Her scorn for French materials notwithstanding, ASG’s personal style as seen in photographs suggests an overlap between the Europeanised sari (for lack of a better term) and the handlooms she encountered down South.

Both positions in reality speak of Indian identity. Regardless of material, the wearing of a sari was a marker of Indianness. For others, especially those in the freedom movement, handlooms alone were the soul of India. As for South India itself, handlooms had a long tradition and were worn extensively in the 1930s. Nevertheless foreign materials were a marker of social status, even around the time ASG was painting in India.  For the maid who could only afford handlooms, a Japan sari was probably a little sexy, fun and modern.

In the 1970s and definitely by the 1980s the situation had reversed. There remain pockets in India where hand-woven cloth is worn by people in an “unadulterated” way but for the most part printed synthetics are the norm and handlooms are an urban style. In part this is due to the cost of hndloom saris.  This urban style itself has a long history, worn by elite women from the Swadeshi movement and then the freedom movement, followed by a 1980s revival that still persists.


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Shanta Hublikar


In the sequence above, we notice that, even in parody, Kesar and Moti manage to find a private mode for communicating desire for each other. Though the lyrics might deride silly love songs from Chandidas and Achhut Kanya, Moti’s wit and Kesar’s erotic playfulness in the course of this performance realize the subjective possibilities of the romantic duet. We must recall that prior to this scene, Moti has been afraid to venture into public space with Kesar – a fact that pains her greatly. But here for a moment, in full public view, these social interactions are suspended. The policeman and the prostitute sing together, exchange joyful looks, and perform little intimate gestures to give us a glimpse of a couple-form whose time has yet to come. [X]

Shanta Hublikar was an actress of the 1930s and 40s, one of a clutch of “educated girls” in the movies, who is best known for her performance in Manoos/Aadmi (1939).

The song referred to is Premi Premnagar Mein Jaayen (Lovers go to the city of Love) which parodies songs from Chandidas and Achhut Kanya. The sequence opens with a film picturisation of an anglicised couple singing before Kesar and Moti take over. Such song sequences were a staple in films from Bombay Talkies and New Theatres which to Shantaram were unrealistic and anglicised.

Apart from the song above, Kashala udyachi baat (Why Talk of Yesterday) from the movie brings together several regional Indian types, clearly differentiating each in the sequence.

Though differentiating itself from the other studios in being authentically Indian, Manoos/Aadmi provides a glamourised version, there are a few pretty saris in the film that suggest the imported saris of the period as well as fashionable blouse styles and finger waved hair.

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Dream Girls and Boys

The iconic Tamil writer Kalki once described her as ‘Kollum Vizhiyaal’ — one who could kill with her eyes! [X]

Thyagaraja also had a very good stage presence sporting long hair and earrings. [X]

Around the time that video cassettes became popular in India I spent a good amount of time with my grandparents.  They were teenagers in the 40s but given the times had not seen many famous films of the decade.  The video shop had not so good prints of many of these Tamil films which delighted them no end. So I ended up binge watching with them in the weekends. I love these films for a number of reasons but I wouldn’t exactly recommend them because they are very much of the time.

Many of these films starred TR Rajakumari, even with the bad prints you could see why she was a “Dream Girl” and captivated an entire generation of young men with her somewhat heavy-lidded gaze. In Haridas, where she is pretty glamorous in a negative role, her “flying kiss” was a bit of a sensation and many a college lad probably went to the movies just for that moment.

Many films also starred MK Thyagaraja Bhagvathar who was a favourite of my grandparents. Like KL Saigal in the North, he was a star known for his singing.  It wasn’t his singing alone that captivated audiences, according to my grandmother “even married women would buy postcards with his picture and kiss it all day long” (1940s Tamil fangirls!). My grandfather had once seen him and  proclaimed him “golden skinned and wearing brilliant diamond earrings”. Some of the hyperbole may be due to my grandfather being an impressionable boy at the time but along with the curly locks this was in accordance with male beauty standards of early 20th century Tamil Nadu. It may not be apparent to a modern audience but it was the kind of looks sought after for the mythologicals and historicals MKT often starred in.

The 30s and 40s are not very popular when it comes to Indian cinema but they set up a lot of the tropes we see in cinema in later decades. Which is why I love them. 40 songs per film and all:)

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Bombay Stars



We returned from abroad via Bombay. I admit to the ostentatious glamour of the film world there and the intoxication and heady glamour that accompanies it. I also admit to the dearth of deeper imagination or an ascetic dedication to work. But having admitted these, one cannot but admire the tireless effort of actors in Bombay to maintain their bodies. A beautiful body is an asset, to feed the heart while starving the eye is almost impossible…Of course such admiration of physical beauty might appear excessive, still, a beautiful woman or a handsome man will always attract the eye. Bombay’s stars are so captivating because they do not shy away from giving their utmost to keep their looks. Exercise, swimming, riding, dancing and yoga fall within the essential activities of their daily lives. I like this vitality very much. The artistes of Bengal should give more attention to this aspect. My Homage to All, Kanan Devi.

Excerpt from Kanan Devi’s autobiography. Kanan herself in her youth had a lot of physical activities as part of her schedule, perhaps here she is emphasising the glamour that has always been attached to the Bombay film industry due to its approach to appearance as opposed to Bengali cinema.

Her autobiography, My Homage to All, is fairly detailed and provides glimpses of her life as an actress and then as a producer. Parts of it are quite frank e.g. her recounting of sexual harassment on the sets or the attraction she felt towards her future husband.

There has been a recent biography of hers (by Mekhala Sengupta) which fills in the gaps in the autobio and is on my reading list.

Pic 1: Zubeida (X) Pic 2: Kanan Devi

PS: I get what Kanan is saying but my heart still belongs to Bengali aesthetics:)

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On Colour

The most common colors on the market are the kind you cannot name, the not quite blues, not quite grays and the not quite yellows that are used only for background and referred to as neutral colors, camouflage, “civilized colors,” or secondary colors. Amid these secondary colors, there are splashes of enigmatic brilliance and coy allure, like the sun of another world shining on one’s body. But I always feel that even these splashes are never enough, like Van Gogh, who always bemoaned that his colors were not strong enough, until he painted sunflowers suffused in the intense sunlight of southern France and was finally compelled to pile colors on top of one another in such staggering amounts that layers of oil paint began to protrude from the canvas, transforming painting into a kind of sculpture. Written on Water, Eileen Chang.

I can’t wear these wishy-washy English colours with my sarees. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

In the pics: Melancholy Courtesan, Kamaladevi Chattopadhay, Sardar Akhtar, Paoli Dam.

Returning to India the first thing your eyes drink in is the colours in the market, a change from racks and racks of civilised and fashionable “neutrals” in many parts of the world. But the Indian love affair with colours is not a simple matter of a love of bright colours or a fixation on certain colours (Pink is the Navy Blue of India!).

Of course we have colours that dominate since they are auspicious (e.g. red. green, yellow). And we have a history of colours thatwere considered classic or fashionable (e.g. MS Blue, Chandrakala aka the midnight blue-black of Paithanis, the red and white checks of Orissa’s pasapalli). But the market is rarely restricted to a few colours, both colour and pattern are varied and combined in many different ways.

Having said that the simplest kind of sari worn in India up until the polyester explosion and the use of synthetic dyes was off white or what may be called a sandalwood colour.  However in almost all parts of India such a sari would have a coloured border and its pallu or free end would have at least a few woven motifs.  Further it could be worn with a printed or embroidered blouse (or even a petticoat) to dress it up a bit. And almost always ornaments or bright blooms set off such saris. But India’s rich dyeing history also meant that our woven and printed cloth used colour abundantly and well.

In cultures that used to use colour extensively (e.g. hanboks), it was often employed in a regulated and symbolic manner.  Modern culture which often draws on Western aesthetics strictly regulates colour  – as an e.g. a single colour dominates the entire life cycle of a fashion trend as shown in The Devil Wears Prada.

For the most part the Indian use of colour is however freer than elsewhere in  the world. Partly this is because our weaves can range from the simple off white to the satrangi (7 colour) leheriya to the shaded weaves like ganga-jamuna (rivers) or dhoop-chaon (light and shadow) to much more. Further you can play with colour in parts of the sari e.g. the border, the pleats, the pallu.

Saris can also have further additions as with Assam’s mekhela chadar where borders are sold separately or as with the current border styles for sari. As an e.g. a few months ago I was in a slightly downmarket part of Mumbai. Polyester saris, most from Surat mills, are sold on the pavement for as little as Rs 100.  These saris come in many patterns and colours. Alongside are sold sari borders embellished with velvet, sequins, zari and so on. Each woman can therefore create her own sari deciding on the patterns and colours pleasing to her eye.

A further individualisation of the garment of course comes through the blouse which can be matched or contrasted as desired by the wearer. An additional colour effect therefore takes place.

Similar variations can be seen in the three piece garments we use like the chudidar-kurta, the salwar kameez or the ghaghra choli. You can play with colour in each component of the attire and in the way you bring it together. Further such combinations are not restricted by the requirement of pure colour or colour blocking, prints in various colours are freely mixed.

So in a way we cannot be reduced to a single colour like pink, perhaps that is best left to Western fashion aesthetics. Sometimes we cannot have enough and pile it on like van Gogh’s sunflowers to dazzling effect, sometimes we rely on our folk art that often uses a satrangi palette (red, green, yellow, purple, orange, dark blue, and white) combining it in different ways.  Whichever route we choose our garments require us to bring together disparate elements harmoniously hence colour persists in India as opposed to neutrals. There are no specific rules here, no Colour Theory 101…..but every Indian woman also knows the rules and  how colours and patterns can be made to come together:).

PS: Not to exclude men – there are splendid examples of the use of colour in male costumes in India – but in post-Independence India it is not that common.  Where they exist they tend to be traditional wear or “tapori” styles so it is a little hard to break down the components.
PPS: Eileen Chang is one of the most astute writers on clothing – her essay quoted here is an ode to colours and also Japanese fabrics.

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