Punjab Finery

Punjab, famously referred to as “The Land of Five Rivers”, is located in the northwestern part of the subcontinent of India.  The word “Punjab” is made up of two Persian words – “Panj” meaning the number five and “Aab” means water.  This name was probably given to this land possibly in an era when this region came into close contact with Persia.  It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cultures in the world – a multi-hued heritage of ancient civilizations and religious diversity dating back to 3,000 B.C.  The Indian State of Punjab was created in 1947, when the partition of India split the former Raj province of Punjab between India and Pakistan. The mostly Muslim western part of the province became Pakistan’s Punjab Province; the mostly Sikh eastern part became India’s Punjab state (info from here).  As I am in the mood for earthy tones and since we are coming off of the Festival of Diwali, I am presenting my Punjabi inspired finery in the form of a refashioned vintage sari sewn into a 1936 kurta tunic which (I hope) unites both sides of the territory.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a vintage silk sari with a ‘zari’ goldwork brocade border

PATTERN:  Simplicity #2089, year 1936, reprinted by the EvaDress Company

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Nothing but thread!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This came together in about 10 hours (as there was a lot of hand stitching I did to finish the neckline).  It was finished in May 2019

THE INSIDES:  all French seams!

TOTAL COST:  The sari was a special find at only $25

Re-making a sari into a kurta or a long anarkali dress are two of the most common uses for a traditional re-interpretation.  Transforming this vintage sari by using a 1930s pattern was only natural to me as the next step.  The sari is printed and dyed with a very Cubist-Surrealist design, something which was very prevalent in the 30’s, even in fashion.  If I look at the design on the sari hard enough I think I see the face of a man sitting down weaving, but then doubt whether or not I am imagining what I want to see.  Isn’t that the beauty of surrealist art?  Cubism makes one’s imaginary pictures artistic.  Admittedly, I am not certain what era of vintage this sari is exactly – it could be anything from the 1990s to the 30’s.  Indian saris are meant to last generations and so they hold up very well if cared for, stored, and worn properly.  Their traditions are timeless.  Thus, dating them can be quite tricky.  I felt the 30’s was the best interpretation for what I had.

Furthermore, the media’s inquiring eye was on many of the ‘princesses’ of India in the 1930’s while other women of India were making headlines by breaking societal boundaries. Bollywood was coming to its own, and many of the greatest fashion designers were incorporating the country’s influence into their designs.  India of the 1930s was clearly edging towards its long-awaited partition already and many ruling women who could still claim royalty among the many dynasties dying out under colonial reign became a popular curiosity.  Named photographers were capturing the posed glamour shots of the fading royals, rich socialites such as Sita Devi, as well as popular actresses dressed in both the traditional or western-influenced clothing – they were no doubt a global influence.  In 1935, the French couturier Elsa Schiaparelli came out with an Indian inspired collection and a year afterwards the American couturier Mainbocher designed some very Indian influenced tunics (one such released as McCall #9082, see below far right image). 

The first Indian woman to fly an aircraft, Sarla Thakral, made history in 1936 at the age of 21 in her “Gipsy Moth” biplane.  After a hard-fought suffrage movement, about 6 million Indian women (only covering 2.5%) received voting rights in 1935 under the British Government of India Act, with Parliament even reserving seats for women in the lower house.  Women of India were achieving strides of modern progress in the mid-30s, making notable 21st century history.  These are only a handful of examples – I could go on!  It’s no wonder Western fashion took note, even though they sadly did not concern themselves with proper provenance.

This kurta tunic combines proper approbation together with a past time in the history of India.  In this past Indian-inspired outfit’s post, I addressed what is a kurta versus a kurti, but this site also defines the difference nicely.  The way this tunic is dressy and festive, as well as longer (knee length) it is decidedly a kurta.  The darker earthen tones with the orange and golden colors, as well as the distinctive “zari” goldwork along the border makes this a northern Indian heritage piece.  The word “kurta” has Persian origins much like Punjab region.  It means “a tunic, waistcoat” and the word dates to the 16th century (when the Mughal period began) even though its popular English usage is traced to the writings of the famous Lawrence of Arabia.  Nevertheless, garments very similar have been worn for centuries – it is basic and versatile in usage, and composed of simple shapes. The traditional Punjabi kurta is wide and falls to the kneesand is cut straight but today’s version is the ‘Mukatsari’ kurta which originates from Muktsar in Punjab. This modern Punjabi kurta is famous for its slim-fitting cuts and smart fit designs.  With the popularity of peplums and tunics in the 30s, this straight fit but very chic vintage design was a perfect choice.

Despite its deluxe appearance, it was pretty simple to make – quite rectangular with subtle curves and detailing like shirring.  It has a high sweetheart neckline and angular empire waist seaming.  There are loose and comfy cut-on flutter sleeves.  Simple shaping is achieved by a few rows of loose stitching pulled up to a slight gather over the tummy and at the sides of the neckline.  I chose to leave the back seam open for dramatic effect.  (I did wear a cropped cotton top underneath for comfort, though.)  The sari silk was really quite stiff and medium weight so this pattern would look different with a loose weave like a rayon or chiffon.  No matter – either way, this is a fantastic pattern which I will definitely come back to again, even if to only sew up something using the other high-necked, puff-sleeved view!

Contrary to many styles like this in the 30’s, this one is surprisingly cut on the straight grain rather than the bias, so it was perfect for taking advantage of the decorative border.  However, because of where else I wanted the border to be running, I also had to take the gold “zari” border and cut it out from the sari along what parts I did not use, then stitch it on other edges much like an applique.  The front skirt just below the waistline is the true border as well as the back skirt hem.  However, the front hem and the back bodice had their “zari” trim applied on.  Understand that the zari embroidery border runs the whole 6 yard length of either side to my rectangular sari, and is separate from the decoration on the “pallau” (the ornamental end piece of the sari).  In this post of mine there is a perfect example of a Gujarati sari with zardozi work along the border (see the red and blue one).

Zari embroidery is basically understood as thread traditionally made of fine gold or silver used in traditional Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani garments, especially as brocade in saris, woven into fabrics (primarily of silk) to make intricate patterns and elaborate designs of embroidery called zardozi.  The Muslim (Mughal) invasions into Gujarat ca. 1300 brought in new textile influences and forced the dissemination of many weavers and their traditions into surrounding Punjab, but even as far as Delhi and Madras.  Even still, the town of Surat in the state of Gujarat (on the west coast of India) is still the world’s largest producer of all types of zari threads (thanks to government tariff protections put in place in the 1920s).  Zardozi weavers are special enough to be known as “kaigar”, which means ‘artist’, rather than by the common word for weaver, “jullaha”.  The very term for their work is a yet another Persian word recalling how gold specifically is used in stitched decorations, calling to mind the royalty and deities of their culture and religion.  Thus, the practice of zardozi is linked with northern India today, particularly the town of Varanasi.  It was this town’s famous golden brocades that the East India Company ‘took over’ the administration of so that Varanasi became a center for brocaded (zardozi) textiles.

It is hard for me to tell if the border of my sari is imitation, electroplated wrapping, or true gold when it comes to quality grade of the thread, yet is was most certainly machine work by the exact repetition of the intricate patterning of the embroidery.  Nevertheless, my sari border is quite stiff and substantial and was almost impossible to sew through (definitely stopped the machine needle a few times), so I have hopes that this might be the real deal.  Real precious metals are the traditional choice, besides the most practical one, for embroidery in a sari because nothing goes to waste and there is always something left to be passed down the generations.  Even when such a sari deteriorates or wears out, it can then be burned down to just the gold embroidery to be turned into jewelry or woven again into a new sari.  How smartly ingenious and touchingly poignant is this?!  If only the rest of the world’s fashion industry would learn from this we would not have many of the current problems of lack of sustainability as well as surplus unused excess.

The very fact that there is the gold embroidery on a silk sari transformed into a longer length tunic automatically makes this a fancy and special occasion item which is not formal either.  This makes it perfect for the holiday of Diwali in this years’ Covid-downgraded festivities.  This kurta also lends itself to the more elegant option of a skirt and not just trousers underneath.  After all, modern India’s younger set are all about a good spin on traditional wear!  I chose an older RTW bias cut brown poly crepe skirt, which has a wonderful 1930s air to it.  I had my burnout paisley satin dupatta shawl with me too, something I picked up from a Pakistani vendor on one of the trips to Europe when I was teen.

The real star of my accessories is the authentic Indian gold ruby bracelet, necklace, and earrings set.  It was something that came through my husband’s friends from collage of Indian heritage (and who are as close as family to us, and the catalyst behind my adoption and interest of India’s history and traditions). Long before my hubby and I met, he paid for her to bring back a precious jewelry set from their family jewelers on one of her yearly visits back to India.  It is very heavy jewelry and very impressive and beautiful!  This set was his investment in his family, though – it wasn’t just for me, although I am wearing the full set on loan for this occasion.  His mother was given the necklace, his sister the bracelet, and I received the earrings when I was married to him.  It was a poignant Indian gesture of affection to the women in his life, besides (for me) a lovely connectivity with the female in-law members of my family!

So you see now that mindful and symbolical use of what we embellish our bodies with has gone hand in hand with smart re-use and re-fashioning for years under one of the oldest cultures of the world.  The clothes of India may be complex in understanding, meaning, and manner of wearing, but the use of each individual piece is ingeniously versatile and simplistic.  The straightforwardness of their construction makes the details such as embroidery, weaving, and textile shine.  The simple elegance of the 1930s had an all new interpretation for me this time!  Anyway, look for a lot more varieties of Indian tunics to show up here on my blog.  Just to ‘wet your whistle’, all of them have amazing imported fabric, simple but elegant shapes of vintage inspiration, and intricate decorations that took me almost longer to add than making the garments themselves – and I can’t wait to show you more!!  

Out of all the regions and states of India, Punjab culture is so rich to a lover of history like me, as well as so beautiful to an American like me.  However, while I acknowledge the positive highlights to the province of Punjab, it also has one of the saddest facets of modern history as part of the transitions to the Partition of 1947.  It was caught in the surrounding genocidal massacres that sprung up around the newly created boundary lines and the religious divisions (also known as the “Radcliffe Line”).  Please read the links I provided in the sentence before this – even though it is disturbing or if it makes you cry as it did for me.  Here are some first-hand accounts from lucky survivors. This is important to read and take in regarding Punjab, and specifically in Jammu.  

Most estimates on the death toll of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike state numbers over 250,000, even up to 800,000…it is not fully known as many victims were displaced migrants.  10 million Punjabis had been driven away from their ancestral abodes making this the greatest forced migration in modern history – all in the course of a month or two!  It is a bitter history that the region has to live with and a major fact that is often ignored over the greater information celebrating the Independence of both India and Pakistan.

I truly hope this beauty of this kurda tunic brings an opportunity for others to hear about Punjab, discover its amazing history, see the beauty surviving amidst a painful history, and find a new respect for another one of the seemingly limitless magnificent cultures in our world.

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