At a recent event in Lucknow, I wore a cotton gharara with a crimped dupatta. This was the garment I had seen my grandmothers, aunts and mother wear in my childhood. Many women stopped me and said it brought back memories of their mothers and grandmothers. Somewhere along the line, the gharara fell out of use because it was expensive, and required expert tailoring and upkeep. It also became more practical to wear the sari or churidar kurta. This set me thinking about the evolution of the dress in the subcontinent.
The first thing that strikes any visitor to Ajanta, Ellora, Khajuraho or other ancient temples is the sheer gorgeousness of the Indian women. As the sculptures show, in ancient India, people wore unstitched clothes. The women wore a long piece of muslin tied at the waist in a simple knot or with intricate folds, with another shorter piece tied on the breasts, called the choli or angiya. Later, this developed into the sari.
As clothes developed, women took to wearing loose skirts called lehnga with cholis. These cholis had sleeves too. They would often wear a rupatia or scarf on the shoulders, and wore heavy ornaments from top to toe. The men wore dhotis, which Babur described it in his memoirs as “a decency-clout, which hangs two spans below the navel. From the tie of this pendant decency clout, another clout is passed between (the legs) and made fast behind.”
When the Arabs first came to India in the 8th century, they wore long collarless kurtas which were stitched with a tahmat, or a piece of unstitched cloth knotted at the waist — this is still the common dress of many Muslims in India. The tahmat was very similar to the dhoti, the only difference being it wasn’t drawn and tucked.
With the flourishing of the Abbasid empire, the Muslim dress became more and more refined as they adopted Sassanid customs and the elite started wearing tunics, trousers and turbans. The Turk Muslims, who came towards the end of the 12th century and founded the Delhi Sultanate, were dressed in tunics, trousers and turbans like the Persian and Arab elite of the age. India influenced them to wear heavy jewellery too.
The Mughals wore a side-fastening cloak, tight at the waist, and a flared ankle-length skirt with tight-fitting trousers and turbans. The material varied according to the weather and the wearer’s purse. The ladies wore long skirts of the same fashion in fine material called the peshvaz, with tight-fitting trousers and, of course, heavy jewellery. The Rajput nobles were influenced by Mughal attire, but ladies continued wearing their beautiful lehnga-choli and dupatta.
Though the Muslims who came to India adopted the style of wearing heavy jewellery from the natives, they added their touch to it. The nose-ring or pin was their gift to the subcontinent — it wasn’t used here before. Perhaps, the most important clothing that influenced Indian dressing was thepai-jama: pai meaning legs and jama meaning a garment that is famous all over the world as pyjamas.
Pyjamas were of various kinds, tight at the bottom and billowing at the top, or what is known today as slim fit. The Qandharis wore loose pyjamas and when their number and status in the Mughal army increased, the pyjamas in India started becoming wider at the leg — in Lucknow they became even wider. When the Mughal empire declined in power and the court of Awadh, with its Persian nawabs, was on the ascendancy, the attire became more sophisticated.
The pyjama was no exception. Under Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider, pyjamas were also worn in the harem. According to Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926), in his book Guzistha Lucknow, the Nawab, who was fond of British clothes, saw a resemblance to a British lady’s gown in the wide pyjamas and introduced them in his harem as ghararas. I have always been puzzled at the frock-like pleats in the ghararagote and this explains it!
The gharara is a pair of wide-legged pyjamas and, like the gown, it has gathers at the knee instead of the waist, from where it flares out. It is worn with a kurta and a dupatta. The area below the knee, called gote in Urdu, is often elaborately embroidered in zari and kamkhwaab work. The traditional gharara is made from 6 -12 metres of fabric. The upper part of the gharara is called paat or kunda and the two parts are separated by a piece of cloth called rumaali or miyaani. This plays an important role as it strengthens the upper half of the garment, which has to bear the weight of the heavier gote. A folded band on top, called the nefa, is used to thread the izaarbands or drawstrings to hold it up.
Traditionally, lachka gota (silver lace) was stitched on the joint of the paat and gote so as to hide the joint. This used to be pure silver and gold work once upon a time, but is now just metal lace. This joint differentiates a gharara from a sharara. The latter has two separate parts like a pyjama but no joint or gathers, and flares on the knees. When material became expensive and not many people were available to stitch the gharara, the sharara evolved. The palazzo is an adaptation of this dress, and is a cross between a sharara and a pyjama.
I still remember all the love and time that went into the ghararas my mother made and embroidered with lachka work, for my sisters and me. Then there was the farshi gharara. The word comes from farsh or ground, which the gharara trails on. These were made from more than 12 metres of fabric and were very long. The gote was shorter and lower than the normal gharara. There were two ways to wear a farshi gharara: let it trail like a train or drape it over your arm. Darogha Abbas Ali, who photographed a series of women in the late 19th century in Lucknow, has captured them forever in The Lucknow Album.
I have a farshi gharara, which belongs to my aunt, and just looking at it makes me nostalgic, though there are ghararas still being made in Lucknow, Aligarh and Delhi.
I am sure if a farshi gharara were to be worn at any national or international function, it would get more eyeballs than Priyanka Chopra’s trench coat with a train at the Met Gala this year. After all, not many can compete with the stately gharara!