There is no single authoritative book on India’s costume history that helps us understand (with sketches, images and interpretative footnotes) different time periods or decades through clothes. Nothing that’s historically cohesive or written from a researcher’s point of view. Odd as it may sound in a country whose centuries old craft and costume legacy defines even its current fashion movement, this is indeed the inconvenient truth. There are of course a few important if scattered volumes on identity through clothing, Gandhi’s khadi influence during the freedom struggle, some coffee table tomes on ethnic costumes and fabrics, books that document traditional saris and a couple on royal costumes—craft revivalist and designer Ritu Kumar’s being one of them—as well as designer Wendell Rodricks’ work on Goan costumes.
Given this state of a nonexistent research base, the recent film Lootera’s costume director Subarna Ray Chaudhuri took recourse to a personal mode of research while planning the costumes for Sonakshi Sinha and others in the film. Similar, she says, to what she did for Vidya Balan’s clothes in the 2005 film Parineeta, which had left many a viewer spell bound. Set in West Bengal and then partly in Dalhousie of the early Fifties, Lootera, say some critics, dwells on the “vintage” and is about simple elegance. I disagree with the second bit. Vintage, yes, if you discount that the very word is being used a little too often these days to actually ring true every time, there is a growing sense of a bygone era in the film’s sets, the photo frames, the décor and the clothes that the characters wear.
But simple elegance? Hardly. A rather decorative Banarasi sari worn by Sinha in the very first scene with an ornate, three quarter blouse dusted with gold butis can’t be labeled simple. ‘Old’ and ‘handwoven’ aren’t synonymous with ‘simplicity’, especially in costumes. Ray Chaudhuri agreed when I called her to ask about it. The very process of zeroing down to that particular sari and some others was far from simple, she told me. She went to old sari stores in Kolkata some of which stock samples from fifty-sixty years back only so that they can be reinvented. “These are antique shops with wooden panels and cupboards where old saris are stored in crisp butter paper and I found one whose border I loved,” explains Ray Chaudhuri. She scooped out the field of the sari as it was too tattered while the border woven in real gold zari sparkled and substituted it with a Chanderi field to turn the sari into a wearable, fluid garment yet retain its Zamindari discernment.
Most saris and other costumes for the film, says Ray Chaudhuri fell in place like that, with wise, sturdy personal advice from Nandini Mahtab who belongs to Kolkata’s Vardhman Rajbari family. Old family albums and numerous conversations with “old people” to understand the way they dress helped her choose the rest. “I often find myself observing how old ladies dress and what they wear,” adds Ray Chaudhuri.
I watched this film by myself inside a multiplex sitting in the fifth row from the front because I was insistent about doing so on the second day of the release and that was the best seat I could grab. That proximity to the screen alerted me not only to the textures of Sinha’s saris but also to that of her father, the ageing Zamindar’s sophisticated, hand embroidered kurtas. “I used addi, a pure cotton fabric from Kolkata which absorbs starch very well for the Zamindar’s (played by Barun Chanda) day wear kurtas and got them embroidered in Mumbai by replicating the old babu designs in muted threads,” explains Ray Chaudhuri.
For those keen on Indian weaves, Sinha’s Geechas, Jamdanis, Banarasis, Chanderis and a couple of chiffon-georgettes with tiny floral laces is appetizing fare. I also liked the way her blouses were stitched. But little about them is necessarily “Fifties” or obviously Zamindari. What’s appealing is Ray Chaudhuri’s personal interpretation of it all. Otherwise the saris could have well belonged to the mid sixties or even later as worn by upper middle class women in Nehruvian India and we wouldn’t really find fault with them.
The big tell tale sign of Pakhi Roy Chaudhury’s (the character played by Sinha) lineage is the gold jewellery (“all pure gold” says the costume director). It is truly old style—chains, necklaces, bangle bracelets worn mixed with glass bangles, a large ring and an attention seeking sari brooch—all intricately patterned pieces that contextualize her “status”. That’s a vivid addition to the costumes.
It also tells us why, some day—in the continuing absence of costume history books--we will learn to rely on Bollywood’s period films for our references.
This fortnightly series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words.