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Reform and sartorial styles in 19th-century Bengal.

Reformers in 19th-century Bengal were greatly concerned with upper- and middle-class women's situation--what we now refer to as the "status of women": Rammohun Roy's stand on sati, debates on the age of consent, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar's campaign for widow remarriage, acrimonious discussions around upper-caste kulin polygamy, and, more positively, the need to educate girls and indeed women, occupied the bhadralok, the gentry of a rapidly urbanizing Bengal. For the subjects of such prolix debates to be visible in an ambience that now stressed decorum and respectability, it became essential to "dress" appropriately. Traditionally, Bengali women wore only a single piece of cloth wound dexterously around their bodies; there were no undergarments--but elaborate ornaments were not unusual.

After the middle of the 19th century, female dress reform became an issue, a "movement" about which little was known until quite recently. While the more orthodox sections were not for any change in women's dress and wished to maintain parda (purdah), the reformist sections were considerably exercised over the issue of appropriate female attire. Apart from accepting the new wisdom on norms of decency, they were aware that girls' and women's education and their exposure to the world outside the home were severely impaired by what was deemed to be inappropriate and inadequate attire. (1) Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath's reformist father, worried about how women and girls from his family and others similarly placed were to be presented in public. In the 1870s, his apprehensions were considerably allayed by the return of daughter-in-law Jnanadanandini from Bombay "dressed in a civil and elegant attire in imitation of Gujarati women" (2) (figure 1). Wife of Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service (ICS), Jnanadanandini had been a child bride (she was married at seven) and had grown up in the rambling Tagore home in Calcutta's Jorasanko. (3) She did much to introduce the women of the large extended Tagore family to a new dress code and, with a few others, was soon at the forefront of the sartorial reform movement.

Jnanadanandini Debi was deeply influenced by the newly-introduced Parsi gara, the kind worn by Lady Bachoobai Nowroji Vakil (figure 2). By the latter part of the 19th century, Parsi garas or garos--saris with Chinese embroidery in white or variegated silk threads--were introduced in India. These were either originals or based on the all-over hand-embroidered garas brought back by Parsi traders from China in the 1850s. Either embroidered all over--the peony, cock, and butterfly being favourite motifs--or only with heavily worked borders that were attached, they soon became eponymous with a style that spread throughout India. Not long after its introduction, crafts-people in Surat started copying the gara as well as the fine borders and supplying rapidly expanding markets in the urban areas of Bombay and Bengal Presidencies, and in time, some parts of Madras Presidency as well as north India and the more Westernized among the princely states.

The style of wearing the sari with a blouse often modelled on the Western dress, with a fine muslin sudreh (undershirt), was soon adapted by those from families involved in the social reform movement in Bengal as well as by emancipated families in other parts of the country. The introduction of the sari blouse (jama) and petticoat (shaya) was essential before upper- and middle-class Bengali women could come out in public; in an article said to have been written by Jnanadanandini (using a pseudonym) in Bamabodhini Patrika, a women's magazine popular in reformist circles, the author commented on a new mode of dress that took from English, Muslim, and Bengali traditions and yet retained a Bengali essence. For instance, the author wrote, she now wore shoes, stockings, bodice (angiya cachali in place of the sudreh), blouse, and a short skirt-like petticoat with a sari draped over it; when she went out she wore a chador (shawl) that could be used to cover her head if necessary. (4) Blouses were elaborate, modelled on current styles prevalent in the West: thus high collars with ribbons, frills, jabots, and brooches were popular from the 1870s till the turn of the century and a few women also wore mutton-chop sleeves, peaked at the shoulder. Shawls draped elegantly over one shoulder, closed shoes, brooches, and hair ornaments completed the ritual of Westernized elite female dress (figure 3). Later, while those from the Brahmo Samaj (5) referred to the new style of wearing the sari with blouse and chador as the "Thakurbarir sari" (sari worn in the style of the Tagores, a leading Brahmo family), as more and more Brahmos started wearing the sari in this manner, it came to be popularly known as the "Brahmika sari" throughout India. (6) Children too were dressed in clothes in vogue for British children of the time (figure 4). As for the young unmarried girls in the family, it was acceptable for them to wear the "English frock". (7)

The growing range of options for women whose mothers and certainly grandmothers had worn nothing but a sari is borne out by the tentative attempts at reform in a traditional family (figure 5). At the other end of the scale are those whose extreme Anglicization saw them only in gowns and dresses, the poet Toru Dutt being among the earliest (figures 6-8). The majority, however, wore the Brahmika sari, and this sartorial style melded subtly with the wider issues of reform and progress.


Jnanadanandini Debi, c. 1880s.

Here Jnanadanandini Debi is dressed in a variation of the reformed attire that combines a more traditional way of draping the giley kara paar sari (that had fine pleats along the border) with the modern blouse with high neck and full sleeves with cuffs.

Courtesy Rabindra Bhavana Archives, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan.


Lady Bachoobai Nowroji Vakil, 1890.

Wife of Sir Nowroji Pestonji Vakil, Lady Bachoobai was greatly interested in women's education and actively supported her husband's many charities that have benefited the people of Ahmedabad for over a century. Three years before her death in 1891, Lady Bachoobai founded the Gujarat Ladies Club. Here she wears a dark silk gara embroidered with swans and peonies, and a sudreh in a lighter colour. The mathubanu that binds her head is tied over the sari pallav (end piece), displaying a single earring, quite the fashion among affluent Parsis during this period. She also wears a double string of pearls, rings, and gold bangles.

Courtesy Parsi Zoroastrian Project (PARZOR), New Delhi.


Priyobala, daughter-in-law of B.L.Gupta, ICS,c. 1890s.

Priyobala was very Anglicized, and this is reflected in her style of dress: here she drapes her sari in a manner evocative of the Western gown. Her hairstyle with curls and bangs, blouse with mutton-chop sleeves and frills at the cuffs, and the way in which the sari pallav is carefully placed over Priyobala's head suggest that considerable effort went into presenting the "correct" image.

Courtesy Bhaskar Mukherjee, Kolkata.


"Willie", youngest son of J.N. Gupta, ICS, and daughter, Monica, 1912.

Willie wears a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit while Monica is in a frilled dress, stockings, and holds a toy parasol. The strict dress code that dictated sartorial styles for ICS officers carried over to their young children who could hardly be seen in anything but well-tailored copies of the original.

Courtesy Malavika Karlekar, New Delhi.


"Sreemutty Champabati Dassee" (Mullick),c. 1890s.

"Sreemutty Champabati Dassee" was a daughter-in-law of a well-placed family from the Subarna Banik (goldsmith) caste. Clearly a child bride, the photograph was perhaps taken shortly after her marriage.The sari pallav is draped over her left shoulder in a manner introduced by the dress reformers, and she wears a sari blouse. Champabati's heavy and elaborate jewellery is representative of the gold work of the times; of particular interest are her ear ornaments as she appears to be wearing two sets, one suspended from the upper part of the ear and the other from the lobe. It was customary for women from this caste to wear considerable gold jewellery.

Courtesy Malavika Karlekar, New Delhi.


Aru (seated) andToru Dutt, 1871 (?).

Toru Dutt was born in Calcutta in 1856. Her father, Govin Chunder, exposed both Toru and sister Aru to Western learning, English and French literature, to foreign travel, and to the photograph. In 1869, Govin Chunder (who had converted to Christianity) took his family to Europe and Toru was admitted to a school in France, the only school that she ever attended. She died of consumption in 1871, but had already published A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields, a volume of French poems Toru had translated into English. Her Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan was published posthumously by her father. She also left behind a couple of unpublished novels.While their mother wore a sari with a bonnet-like headdress, both sisters usually wore gowns and dresses. In this photograph, taken possibly at a Cambridge studio, they wear heavy gowns, the bows, jabots, and frills at different levels of the skirts, a true reflection of European styles of the time.

Courtesy Parvati Wadhawan, New Delhi.


Swarnalata Ghose dressed in a riding habit, c. 1890s.

Wife of Barrister Monomohan Ghose - who had been schooled in England - Swarnalata wore Western dress with the active encouragement of her husband. She rode as well, and accompanied Monomohan to mixed social gatherings, soirees, and shikars. Courtesy Nandita Ghosh, Kolkata.


Swarnalata out on a shikar, c. 1890s.

Here Swarnalata Ghose wears a stylish gown - maybe a riding habit with a high neck and jabot - as well as a sola topi (sun hat made of sola pith), while Monomohan is in a three-piece suit, complete with watch-chain. On the other hand, the British appear to be more casually dressed. In all likelihood, a photographer from a nearby mofussil studio was hired to take the photograph. Accepted ideas on composition - the sole woman in the middle, with men on either side, staff at the back, mahouts on the elephants - are somewhat adjusted to the locale and occasion.

Courtesy Nandita Ghosh, Kolkata.


(1) See Himani Bannerji, "Attired in Virtue: Discourse on Shame (lajja) and Clothing of the Gentlewoman (bhadramahila) in Colonial Bengal", in Inventing Subjects - Studies in Hegemony, Patriarchy and Colonialism (New Delhi: Tulika, 2001), pp. 99-134; Meredith Borthwick, The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849--1905 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

(2) Bannerji, p. 103.

(3) Malavika Karlekar, Voices from Within - Early Personal Narratives of Bengali Women (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991) and Re-visioning the Past - Early Photography in Bengal 1875-1915 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(4) Borthwick, p. 248.

(5) The Brahmo Samaj was established in 1843 by Debendranath Tagore and emerged out of Rammohun Roy's Brahmo Sabha (1830); deeply influenced by Unitarianism, it was committed to rational worship as the basis of religion, social reform, and active work among the poor.

(6) Sarala Debi Chaudhurani,Jhara Pata (Life's Fallen Leaves) (Calcutta: Ananda Publishers, 1972), p. 54.

(7) Ibid., p. 53.
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Title Annotation:Photo Feature
Author:Karlekar, Malavika
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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