Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

How the Parsi sari was adapted into Bengali culture

If you try to picture Rabindranath Tagore – especially if you are a fan of the bard and his literary works and remembered his recent birth anniversary – you will visualise his trademark silver beard and a kurta that almost touches the ground. However, fasion experts say that the poet was not just prolific with his words, but also in his sense of style.

Article by Dyuti Basu | DNA

“Tagore fashioned his kurta to resemble an androgynous style,” says fashion and interior designer Sandeep Sarkar, who designed the clothes for Elar Char Adhyay, a movie based on the Tagore novel, Char Adhyay. “He was quite fashion conscious and ensured that his own image would be a reflection of his beliefs.”

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In an era, where women had only begun to venture outdoors, the poet had already conceptualised androgynous clothing, which is a rage today. It was not just Tagore, but his entire family that was fashion-forward. At Jorashanko (Rabindranath Tagore’s home in Kolkata) different drapes of sari were improvised on so that women could step out of the andarmahal (inner house) where they were relegated. This had Tagore’s sister-in-law, Jnanadanandini Devi, bringing the Parsi way of draping the sari from Mumbai to Bengal.

“Chitra Deb, in her book Thakurbarir Andarmahal, describes the entire process of how the Parsi sari was adapted into Bengali culture,” says Manabendra Mukhopadhyay, Associate Professor in Santiniketan’s Visva-Bharati University.

Although the Parsi drape, which included blouse and petticoat, was much less cumbersome than the conventional atpoure style of the time, Jnanadanandini and her friend Maharani Suniti Devi of Coochbehar, finally managed to create something that would make the Bengali woman’s life much easier. And thanks to the advertising that the Tagore lady put out in the local papers, women from upper crust Bengali society, and eventually the rest of India, began to dress in this fashion. “Jnanadanandini’s daughter Indira Debi and her friend Suridhi Debi further improvised on the sari, bringing it closer to its modern avatar,” he adds.

“Even Rabindranath’s father Debendranath Tagore had created a rather cumbersome ‘oriental dress’ so that women could step out, but it included many pieces of cloth in a mishmash of fashions,” says Indrani Das, erstwhile curator of the gallery at Jorashanko.

While the Tagores were revolutionising the sari in Jorashanko, Tagore’s centre for learning, Santiniketan, was where different artistic techniques were brought in from across the world to blend into the local artwork and fashion. “An instance of this is when Tagore visited Java in 1927 along with architect Suren Kar and Nandalal Bose’s student, Dhirenkrishna Deb Barman,” says Sushovan Adhikari, ex-curator of Kalabhavan Library, Vishwabharati. “They minutely studied the batik technique prevalant in Indonesia and brought it to Santiniketan.”

Indonesia batik work is done using a special metallic pen through which wax is dripped onto cloth to create intricate designs of mostly religious motifs from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and then dyed. Tagore and his companions modified this technique to paint wax onto cloth using brushes, creating intricate floral and paisley designs on saris and shawls, and eventually leather, using a technique brought in from Germany by Tagore’s son Debendranath. “At Santiniketan, many other Indian arts were also modified – such as bandhani from Rajasthan, or chikankari work from Lucknow which mingled with the indigenous kantha stitch,” adds Adhikari.

But it is in his literature that Tagore, the fashion designer finds his ultimate expression. The late director of Elar Char Adhyay, Bappaditya Bandopadhyay, had commented on the detailing of costumes in Tagore’s novel. “Shesher Kobita is another novel where his knowledge of fashion finds expression,” says Mukhopadhyay. “Through it, you can see that Tagore had a definite sense for the fashion trends – both of the traditional women and the westernised upper classes.”

While Tagore’s contribution to the world of literature is widely lauded, it is the Tagore family’s endeavours in fashion that altered the cultural fabric of India and brought women out of homes and to the forefront.