The Families Post

A look at families from the late 19th century till about the 1980s.  Its impossible for me to do justice to the many photographs documenting families across region, religion and caste so this is just a sample.

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First up, North India.  The many years of Islamic rule (and of course weather and so on) has women wearing mainly variants of the chudidar-kameez and the salwar kameez.  These vary in length and style over the decades.  Jewellery is often specific to a region as in the portrait of a Punjabi grandmother wearing an enormous nath aka nose ring and matha patti (head piece) (pictured here with her daughter and grandchildren). Anklets were common as well as mojris (curved shoes).  The families of Muslim intellectuals like the founders of the Aligarh Women’s College combine Western influences, especially for the men and children, with modern Indian fashions for the women.  As an e.g. the bold polka dot, collar kameez on the young girl in the photograph.  Shoes for women also appear often in such portraits. Similarly the sisters of Hajra Masroor, an Urdu “Bronte”.   Or the family of Manto, where the women are simply dressed (the link makes reference to the writer ironing his wife’s saris for photographs, saris were thus also part of the wardrobe).  For political families like the Nehrus, the first wave of extreme Westernisation reflected in male costumes was followed by their involvement with the freedom movement (this 1920s pic has the women covering their heads, common for North India as well as the decade).  Almost always young girls appear in frocks, common by this time for upper class families.

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In the western part of India, largely Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, the costumes are specific to region. For a Maharashtrian family in the 1890s traditional clothing is the norm bar the young boy who seems to be playing dress ups (though caste marks are left intact). The mother is in the nine-yard lugade as are two of the girls while the young girl in a ghaghra-choli.  By the 1910s, largely traditional Maharashtrian clothing for the women (including the nath). And very different headgear as well as a few Western elements in the clothing of the men. In particular, the coat which was easily worn over a dhoti or paijamas (check for e.g. the seated man on the left).  Pic 3 is titled a “Group of Mahomedans” but fairly obviously a family. Dress is quite similar across Maharashtra with variations in castes/religious denominations.  Lots of saris, a woman in a half-sari, second from left. A few variegated cholis made from separate pieces of cloth. The way the dupatta is worn by the standing girl, extreme left, pops up now and then in vintage pics. [X]. And embroidered velvet caps and turbans (which were often specific to region, caste and religion) on men are also seen often in the late 19th century/early 20th century. And while kurtas, achkans and long coats are common across castes/religions, these are combined with chudidars or paijamas rather than the pleated dhoti amongst Muslim men.

I can’t quite place pic 4 but am inclined to think its a family from  Kutch/Marwar. And more likely Gujarat due to the mother’s sari. Loads of jewellery (likely silver) and rich dresses for the children while the parents are simply dressed. At least two of the saris for the girls appear to be in striped saris of the kind known as leheriya.  The group portrait of the Bhatias has the men in distinctive headgear, turbans offer plenty of clues on caste and religion.  And again velvet caps for the little boys.  The style of sari worn by the women is still worn in Gujarat and parts of North India that formed the erstwhile United Provinces.  And last a charming portrait of a Parsi man and his daughter c 1910.  Long Victorian/Edwardian dresses were common for young Parsi girls. The old style elongated Parsi caps for men appear in some pictures, simpler versions are also seen as in this picture.

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In the East,:

My second girl was engaged to Lionel Mander, a young Englishman who appeared devoted to her. She was just like an English girl, although at home she lived as an Indian Princess. I gave my consent to the marriage, as I had long ago determined to let each of my girls marry the man she loved, and I quite realised that, owing to caste and creed, there would be many difficulties in the way of marriage with any of our princes. [X]

Unusually for a Maharajah, the Cooch-Behar ruler, Nripendra Narayan, was a Brahmo. His wife, Suniti Devi, was the daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen, a well known Brahmo leader and fairly liberal in her views.  This portrait is taken at their Calcutta home, Woodlands. The Cooch-Behar royals employed English nursery staff and governesses and they are probably present in this photograph. The family also lived at Ditton Park while the children were educated in England. Suniti Devi’s autobiography indicates that Curzon (a Viceroy she disliked), found that the “Cooch Behar boys were too English”. Bar Suniti Devi, everyone in the portrait is in Western clothing of the time.  The Queen and her daughters were often photographed [X], [X], [X]. And the Cooch Behar princes. Photograph probably taken late 1890s/early 1900s.  The Tagores on the other hand were consciously Indianised in their dress as in this picture of his wife and children.  Though the young boy appears in western dress, as adults the clothing is almost always wholly Indian. Saris were common for young Brahmo girls.

Family in Jamshedpur, 1957. The sari of the older woman suggests that they are Bengali. Like the nine-yard sari, the Bengal drape was also worn mainly by older women in the early 20th century and finally reserved for occasions. Fairly sure I have seen the printed sari and blouse in some films of the decade. By this decade, frocks were common for young girls and teenage boys wore shorts well until the final year of school.  The window curtain/blind and the cot (with a smaller one tucked below) are also typical of Indian houses of the time.  And last MK Binodini Devi and her sisters in traditional Manipuri clothing.

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Many thanks to Kamini for permission to post the first pic on South India.  As she notes in her post, there are a mixture of influences – note for example the scalloped sari, the belts on the younger women, the madisar on the lady in the middle and blouses that are still not as fitted and tailored as today. The men look elegant in zari bordered veshti and angavastrams. As common in South India the young boy is in a shirt and vesht but it is interesting that the charming young girl in the pic is not in a pavadai but a “punjabi” suit.  I think the pic is late 30s/early 40s. Kamini has some more wonderful family photographs – they are rich in detail and a very interesting glimpse into South Indian clothing in the early 20th century. And note the shoes in some of the pics.

He grew a moustache, wore a long coat and a turban. This is the picture that we see in several of his portraits that have been archived. Selected Poems, Subramania Bharathi, translated by Usha Rajagopalan.

The family of the poet, Subramania Bharathi in pic 2. Bharathi spent a few years in Varanasi.  This along with his involvement in the nationalist movement led him to adopt items of clothing normally not worn in the South-the freedom movement is full of examples of this kind of a conscious construct of attire. Like so many portraits of the pre-Independence period, this too shows different styles of clothing – the transition from the nine-yard sari to the six yard sari for women, the incorporation of Western elements like the young girl’s blouse and Bharathi’s pan-Indian attire. [X] [X]

Pic 3 is of the Mysore Royals circa 1900s.  At least some of the saris are worn Mysore style with voluminous pleats falling below the feet. The two ladies at the back appear to be Parsis. The children are in embroidered velvet caps as previously mentioned. [X] Another pic from Mysore.

The last two pics are from Kerala.  The source site for the first pic doesn’t mention the date of the pic but its  likely taken 1920s or later (see for e.g. a 1929 pic). By this time the old costume had been replaced by the sari, earlier styles can be seen in [X]. The second pic is also likely from the 20s and is the family of the singer, Kozhikode Abdul Khader. The family was Christian. The lady on the right is quite stylish and has shoes (Mary-Janes?), the pallu bunched and pinned with a brooch which is quite characteristic of the decade. In both pics the blouses are fairly loose which is also common for the decade. There is a good deal of Western clothing in both pics, possibly due to a) affluence and b) religion. For additonal examples, see also Manglorean Catholics.

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Pablo Bartholomew and Dayanita Singh‘s photographs spanning the 70s-present are in stark contrast to the composed, slightly stiff portraits of large families in the early 20th century.  From parents to friends [X] [X] to “unclear” families to casual family pictures [X], they provide a glimpse into the fluidity of modern Indian life amongst the – often Westernised – upper classes.  That fluidity extends to clothes which combine a number of influences and are no longer as culturally specific as in the late 19th or even the early 20th century. In some cases like Raghu Rai’s portrait of a modern Parsi family, they are a temporary assertion of cultural identity (note the Parsi saris).  See also on tumblr: [X] [X]

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Immigration from India has a long history.  More often than not for Traders as in pic 1,  cultural identity is often strongly retained.  By and large these communities retain identity, as  with Indian traders settled in Kenya and Singapore, as an e.g. Similarly amongst communities that migrated as indentured labour during colonial rule as in this Fiji family of the 1930s, though this is diluted with successive generations. For skilled migrants who left India post independence,  diverse as the diaspora is, almost all photographs are of the nuclear family as opposed to the larger groups seen in all other photographs here.  More often than not, it is the wives who retain Indian clothing, even in quotidian photographs. Pic 3 from Sandhya Suri’s I, for India.


I have had to omit many regions and decades for several reasons, including photograph quality, in doing this post.  My intention as always was to provide a flavour of Indian costumes across states/castes/religion and the changes over decades. I will stop the series here but you can of course explore on your own! You can also see some of the individual pictures on tumblr.

About Anu M

A potted history of Indian clothing and fashion.
This entry was posted in 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 19th century, 20th century, Asia, Bengal, Colonial, Contemporary, Costume, Culture, Diaspora, Early 20th Century, Edwardian, Family, fashion, History, Immigration, Indian Dress, Indian History, Indian men, Indian Women, Islamic Dress, Late 19th century, Photography, Royalty, Sari, Sari Blouse, Sets, South India, Vintage Blouse, Vintage Dress, vintage fashion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Families Post

  1. Oh I adore these photos so much! Thank you for a lovely post & have a special weekend ~ Lakshmi x

    • Anu says:

      Thanks Lakshmi. It took a long time to compose but I wanted it all at one spot:) Have a good weekend!

  2. Saba-Thambi says:

    Reblogged this on SABAS LOG and commented:
    An interesting and educational slide-shows of the past Indian generations

  3. eyekensee says:

    These are precious photos…

  4. annesquared says:

    Very interesting. Thanks!

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