Mughal dance of the seven veils that wasn't and other tales unravelled from a rich and royal material past

Costumes and Royal Textiles of India

November 26, 1999

When Mahatma Gandhi, during his celebrated visit to Britain in 1931, was asked why he chose to wear a loincloth only, he replied: "You wear plus fours, mine are minus fours." He wore his dhoti and shawl even to meet King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace. When a reporter questioned him about his dress, Gandhi replied with a smile: "The King had enough on for both of us."

The British in India, with rare exceptions, stuck to European dress - stitched, heavy and stiff material - despite its unsuitability for the climate. Indians, by contrast, wore a much wider range of clothes, both during the British Raj and in earlier centuries. "Indian dress can be loosely divided into two categories: stitched clothing (tunics, gowns, jackets, waistcoats, skirts and trousers) and unstitched clothing (mantles,shawls, turbans, scarves, saris and loin-cloths). For the most part, the garments documented in this book fall into the first category", writes Ritu Kumar, a well-known Indian fashion designer, who has spent a decade or two researching the history of Indian clothes.

This is not, therefore, mainly a book about traditional unstitched Indian clothing such as Gandhi's, or about the many dozen ways of draping the sari, or about the turbans of ordinary Sikhs and Rajputs. It concentrates instead on royal and court clothing from the earliest recorded references right up to the costume of the current descendants of the maharajas (who pose in the book).

And what dazzling and intricate costumes they were! It is astonishing to know that Roman traders two millennia ago prized the exquisiteness of the muslins of Bengal so highly that they travelled 3,000 miles to the ports and villages of India to supervise the weaving and designs. Legend has it that the Great Mughal, Aurangzeb, once reproached his daughter for immodesty, thinking that she was walking about naked - she promptly assured him that she was wrapped in seven layers of muslin. So great was the demand for Indian cloth in Britain that in 1720 the government banned the wearing of printed, painted or dyed calicoes from India, because they were killing British weaving.

A century later, under the East India Company, Indian weavers were driven to starvation by the reverse process: the import of mill-made cottons from industrialised Britain, with prohibitive duties on the export of Indian-made cloth to Britain. (The success of Paisley, the Scottish mill town that borrowed its famous pattern from India, dates from this time.) In 1834, Governor General Lord Bentinck remarked that "the bones of the weavers are bleaching the plains of India".

The book deals in detail with the history of styles and of individual garments for men and women, and discusses the techniques of production using pattern sketches; it also provides a useful (and very necessary) glossary of terms, extending far beyond familiar words of Indian origin such as khakhi, chintz, calico, shawl, sash, pyjama, gingham, chemise, dungarees and bandanna. Throughout, there are ravishing images to which mere words cannot do justice: photographs of surviving costumes, period photographs, miniature paintings and portraits by European artists and Indians such as Ravi Varma, even a still from Satyajit Ray's magnificent period film, The Chess Players .

There are some misprints and a few errors (Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was not president of India in 1950; Gaj Singh II was not maharaja of Jodhpur in 1951, for example). And I am sorry to see Arvind Singh Mewar posing as "maharana" of Udaipur, to which he is not entitled. But these are quibbles.This is a thoroughly researched, gorgeously illustrated and intelligently designed book that deserves to become a standard work of reference on the fabulous costumes and textiles of royal India.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES , is tha author of Maharaja .

Costumes and Royal Textiles of India

Author - Ritu Kumar
ISBN - 0 903432 55 2
Publisher - Christie's
Price - £65.00
Pages - 344

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