A story of sartorial amalgamation


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FROM ancient times, the Deccan and the region around has produced the finest of cotton and embellished it with the deft use of vegetable dyes to create dramatic, artistic patterned fabrics. Exported from India in dhows to the Middle East and Europe, the fabrics and patterns set a ‘fashion fever’ for Indian chintzes. Here in India, the many kingdoms patronized the craft and used the fine skills of the master weavers and printers as well as the fine expertise of those who embellished the textiles.

The Greek historian, Herodotus, marvelled at the quality of Indian cotton, noting, ‘There are trees which grow wild, the fruit of which is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness than that of sheep. The Indians make their clothes of this tree wool.’ This reference is to the great cotton-weaving belt of India stretching from the present Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Records suggest that the most sophisticated of the Deccan cottons were printed and dyed, whereas others were patterned on the loom with gold, silver, cotton and silk threads.

The Indian courts prized these stunning fabrics, commonly referred to in poetic terms such as the ‘flower cloth’ or pushpapatta, and the ‘picture muslin’ or chitra virali. However, these historical facts tell us little about how the fabrics were used or fashioned; nor do we get any clues about the styles in which the men and women of that ancient period dressed. Were their ensembles fashioned in a way that was more sophisticated than what we see on the ramp today?

In ancient India, women wore unstitched garments called kayabandhan and antariya – much like a small sarong, held up with a chunni-like sash at the waist, their hair dressed in formal fashion with enviable variations in style. Women through the medieval period, especially in the Deccan, favoured more or less the same ensemble. The rest of the ensemble consisted of little else barring the elaborate jewellery that adorned every part of the body and hair. The torso was not covered except with dramatic neckpieces that emphasised the breasts. Male attire was similar, with equally elaborate jewellery and formal coiffure.


A 5th century Ajanta painting gives us the equivalent of India’s first Vogue cover. It shows sophisticated stitched attire accessorised with some unstitched scarves. In contrast to images of women of ancient India, in this medieval figure the breasts are covered. The figure is of an exotic dancing girl dressed in a tight-fitting tunic. The back is cut high and the breasts are fitted with a white choli. The sleeves are made of a dotted fabric which appears to be tied and dyed in the bandini technique. The front panel of the blouse narrows at the waist leaving most of the midriff bare and hangs loose over a fitted sarong made out of what seems to be a sophisticated ikat fabric. The hair is dressed in three tiers and decorated with what looks like carved white flowers. The jewellery consists of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, a crown and hairpins.

For sheer drama, mystery and an avant-garde sense of fashion, this image is my favourite fashion muse – it transgresses time, and is as much in fashion today as it was in the Gupta period. There is not much to report on Hindu women’s clothing through the ages till the advent of the British Raj. Fashion sense remained tenacious as Indian women continued with, and do till today, their preference for wearing unstitched garments though the draping styles of the sari and the odhni went through many variations.

Stitched garments included cholis, lehngas or ghaghras and the shalwar with a tunic in endless variations. Men’s fashion too underwent a change in medieval India. Records show the inclusion of the transparent white angharkha worn over the pyjama, with elaborate headgear and jewellery, albeit used more judiciously than in ancient India. Thereafter, men’s fashions did not remain as resilient as those of the women since the dress rules changed with the advent of the Muslim court. The identity of Hindu noblemen was established by the style of turbans they wore, while the rest of the attire was based on the prescribed norm in the particular court. Subsequently British rule introduced the three-piece suit that was worn with these turbans through the 19th century.


In the 12th and 13th centuries Muslim rulers, primarily the Turkish speaking ones from Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan, conquered most of northern India and established a culture that was closely linked to the civilization of the eastern Islamic world. Ruling from Delhi, they infiltrated southwards in the early 14th century, finally subduing the Deccan, which until then had been ruled by Hindu kings. In 1347, a Muslim officer serving in the Deccan rebelled against the Sultan of Delhi, assumed the title of Bahman Shah, after the legendary hero of the Shahnama, and founded the independent Bahmanid dynasty. His huge empire stretched across the south of the Vindhya mountains, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. In the 15th century, provincial governors established five Deccani sultanates. The great developments in art and culture happened in these three kingdoms – Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda. Islamic rule was to prevail for the next six centuries, until 1950 when the last Nizam of Hyderabad relinquished power.

Procession of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah

Attributed here to the Bikaner painter, Bijapur, C.595


A surprisingly large proportion of fashion masterpieces were produced for the mysterious sultans of the Deccan in the plateau of southern India during the 16th to the 17th centuries. Unfortunately, no actual garment has survived the hot humidity of the Deccan. This makes for a frustrating situation, a reality that disallows study of the elaborate garments because it is important to feel and touch the fabrics, see the detailing of stitching and the intricate finishing that spells sophistication and skill.

When I was writing my book Costumes and Textiles of Royal India, I realized that in India most historical information comes to us through secondary sources, and history writing is often left to the mercy of conjecture. At the risk of taking some liberties and stating my conclusions from the wealth of Deccan paintings that are sprinkled across museums in the UK and Germany, I will share with you my take on the Muslim fashions of the Deccan region.


Little research has been done on the Deccani kingdoms themselves and less so on the textiles and fashions they produced. The three kingdoms of Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmadnagar patronised the painting of cloth because of strong cultural links with the Middle East, especially Safavid Iran. Though Deccani fashions have long been confused with Persian, Turkish or Mughal court art, a study of the costumes worn in Deccani paintings immediately establishes their provenance, as the clothing worn in the paintings displays its unique character.

Owing as much to lush sensuality of South Indian fabrics as to the Persian traditions of style and dress codes, I suspect that the fashions were influenced by two factors. First, the suitability of cotton in the hot climate necessitated a change in the drape and structure of the coats and heavy garments worn in Turkey. Hence the use of the jama, often in the indigenous angharkha style (angharkha is a term which loosely translated could mean anga rakshak in Sanskrit, or the protector of the body). This crossover style of the jama is seen worn by the male nobility of the Deccan and in the chakdar jama with its many avatars. These lightweight coats seen on royal personages, are styled with the Mughal patkas, the silk sashes worn at the waist, and Turkish turbans.

The second and more visible influence seems to be that of the kalamkari painter and printer. It was this influence that compelled the fashion of the Deccan court to divert from the sparse butis, floral and other motifs of the Mughal courts, and the geometrics of the Jaipur printing school. The patterning on the garments is dense; the compositions are reflective of the local flora and fauna and there is an exuberant use of floral jaals with intense colours creating a lyrical, albeit rustic, romanticism.


This genre of clothing developed an unique indigenous character, alien to both the sobriety of the Mughal court and to the calligraphic subtleties of the Iranian court, reflecting the indigenizing of the Shahs. As the splendour of the Golconda and Bijapur Empire grew, so did the studied formality of court costumes. Baroque in nature, they were to set a different ‘handwriting’, rarely written or even discussed in fashion terms. The layering of garments and mixture of colours and designs is typical of the Deccan kingdoms in the late medieval period intended to enhance a sense of opulence.

Darbar of Sultan Ali Adil Shah

Attributed here to the Bombay painter C.660

Descriptions from my book will give the reader a sense of what these Sultans really looked like – ‘The Sultan Abu’l Hasan Tana, Shah of Golconda wearing a richly patterned jama with rouched sleeves, a three-quarter sleeved farji or coat with bold, floral motifs and a sumptuous golden shawl, a delicately ornamented patka and a striped chouridar pyjama. Although the patterns of the clothing are a blend of Persian and Indian styles, the pointed collar of his jacket and the ermine wrap are very Central Asian. An attendant holding the patterned umbrella, wearing a white jama and dhoti contrasted against all the patterning, is a relief.’


The women of the Deccan wore costumes that established the religion they practiced. By this point in time, the acceptance of purdah was a way of life for the royal and aristocratic families of the Shahs, as well as in the courts. It had come to be symbolic of the strict adherence to Islam. Deccani paintings unfortunately, give no evidence of women in the harems. Interestingly, when women are portrayed in the paintings they seem to be Hindu women dressed in exotic saris and cholis.

There is a wonderful panel from 17th century Pulicat (Madras region), showing three women in motion, wearing ghaghras or gathered skirts and odhnis or long scarves with short half-sleeved cholis or bounces. The bold patterning and colours of their garments is typical of the Deccan style. Their hair is neatly dressed and two of the women have long tasselled braids. Almost as an ominous warning, the panel on the side shows Europeans, probably traders, dressed in tights and short jackets with ruffled collars.

As for the Muslim women, I have to conjecture again. The way the women of the harem dressed would have been dictated by their luxurious surroundings and languorous lifestyles, which revolved around bathing, grooming and dressing. Originally the clothes worn by Muslim women were not dramatically different from those of the men, and were in marked contrast to the sensuous clothing which had long been favoured by high-ranking women of the Hindu courts. They perhaps wore long, loose jama-like robes, which had full sleeves and opened at the front. Underneath that was worn an ankle-length vest, pyjamas, voluminous and exotic, styled to be worn under the entire ensemble, that was complete with a veil that covered most of the hairstyle and face. There was little display of the body and preference was given to layered clothing.


Though outside the harem they wore the burqa, I presume that with the intermingling of cultures and races from across the world within the harem, the style mix was eclectic. There must have been a diverse selection, an obvious shift towards greater sensuality, which was the combined result of the influence of Hindu fashions, the climate and the relaxed lifestyle of the harem. Love for gold ornamentation, zardozi embroidery, kalamkari floral fabrics, ikats and the Bengal and Lucknow embroidery, tone on tone, has been recorded, but I only wish we had been left with at least some garments of this genre.


The men’s dress and gear could certainly have made for the grand finale of a great fashion show anywhere in the world. I quote, ‘There was a certain style of wearing the farshi or pyjama that evolved in the Muslim courts. The gote train was artfully folded by a maid and held by the wearer in her left hand, leaving the right free. The pallav of the odhni was draped so long that it almost touched the floor... The ensemble had such royal grace and elegance that you did not just walk into a room, you made a dramatic entrance.’

Indira Devi of Cooch Behar, Nee Baroda, b.1882-d.1968 (1930s)

Maharani is wearing a sari made in nine yards of silk chiffon tied in the maratha fashion. The pallav is elegantly draped over her head in a style which created something of fashion revolution in royal circles and was quickly adopted by most maharanis.

With the coming of the British, there was a gradual but inevitable shift toward western styles. Silhouettes were streamlined as the garments became more fitted – hence the appearance of fitted coats like the bandgala, achkan and shervani – standard indigenous formal attire in 20th century India. Achkans were often worn with a white collar following European fashion, over a pair of trousers or a dhoti and with an assortment of accessories. The result was a mixture of styles, some elegant and some gauche.


The increased interaction with the British saw most women from royal families come out of purdah in the 1900s. This necessitated a change of dress. Indira Devi of Cooch Behar popularised the chiffon sari. She was widowed early in life and followed the convention of abandoning her richly woven Baroda shalus in favour of the traditional unadorned white. Characteristically, she transformed her ‘mourning’ clothes into high fashion. She had saris woven in France to her personal specifications, in white chiffon, and introduced the silk chiffon sari to the royal fashion repertoire. The chiffon sari did what years of fashion interaction had not done in India. It homogenised fashion across this land. Its softness, lightness and beautiful, elegant, caressing drape was ideally suited to the Indian climate.

Princess Niloufer of Hyderabad, b.1916 –d.1989 (c.1945)

Princess Niloufer was among the last of the Imperial Ottoman princesses. At the age of 15, she was married to Prince Muazzam Jah , second son of Nizam of Hyderabad. Here she wears a chiffon sari, embroidered with sequins and beads on the shoulder, which was designed for her by Fernande Cecire.


Different courts adopted their own styles of draping and indigenizing the sari. In most of the courts the sari was embellished with stitching hand-woven borders in goldfrom Varanasi, delicate zardozi work, gota, makaish and tilla work that embellished the plain fabric, sumiltaneously satisfying both traditional demands and ingrained love for ornamentation. Some images of maharanis in the Deccan show the women wearing a sleeveless, richly embellished waistcoat over their blouses. The Begum of Savanur remembers how sumptuous the chiffon sari became at their gatherings. At some courts it was worn with jaali, or net kurtas and embossed silk waist length sadris or jackets. Some of them were so rich that the entire ground was embroidered over with pearls and zardozi.

Rafat Zamani Begum of Rampur, nee Najibabad , b.1907 – d.1987(1945)

The begum wears a traditional four piece joda made up of a Farshi Paijama of brocade and satin silk embellished with karchobi embroidery, a silk chiffon kameez worn over a shameez and a six yard chiffon odhani.

Princess Niloufer from Hyderabad was among the last of the Imperial Ottoman princesses. In 1931, at the age of 15, she was married to Prince Mauzzam Jah, the second son of the Nizam of Hyderabad, one of the richest rulers in India. Her clothing collection took on a more European style with Mlle Fernande Cecire designing her saris. The designer gave a glamorous, asymmetrical pattern of sequins which covered one shoulder and the pleats. The collection was bequeathed, after her death, to the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi.


Post-independence, fashion trends from across the country continued to become homogenous, insufficiently cognizant of the fact that sartorial tastes are both ingrained in the country and dependent largely on the craft and textile culture of this rich and diverse land. Unfortunately, the contribution of the Deccan has not been sufficiently recorded. It gave Indian fashion its first amalgamation of a true blend of Ottoman tastes with the craft of the kalamkari, embellished and enriched with a large dose of ikat from the region, further ornamented with zardozi and thread embroidery. The over-the-top garments with this mixture of fabrics and techniques made a fashion statement worthy of an exuberant finale anywhere in the world.