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From the court of emperor Akbar to Cannes, the anarkali has had an engrossing portfolio in India’s dressing history. Its metamorphosis from costume to fashion favourite carries in its sweep many small and big stories. These include its classical three-piece form, with two tailored pieces (the kurta and the slim churidar) and an unstitched dupatta; flowing silhouettes from Afghanistan and Pakistan; wide-bottomed Awadhi pyjamas from Lucknow; to its most recent interpretation as a floor-length garment, aping the Western gown. Most visibly at the Cannes red carpet recently, it was the floor-length version that stood tall and in full scrutiny. Well, literally.

Even as a floor-length garment, it was variously interpreted—from Manish Malhotra’s lacy one for Ameesha Patel, Abu-Sandeep’s embroidered and full-sleeved one for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to Sabyasachi’s heavy handloom interpretations for Vidya Balan, which were mistakenly identified by some fashion bloggers as a two-piece lehnga-choli. Either way, it is a sought-after hybrid creation in Indian fashion at the moment.

A sketch of a floor-length ‘anarkali’ by designer Anju Modi
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A sketch of a floor-length ‘anarkali’ by designer Anju Modi

Its historical résumé notwithstanding, the anarkali is a clear favourite of contemporary fashion designers, especially in its current floor-length look. They unabashedly call it the Indian version of the gown, more suited to Indian body types. “I find it very princess-like, it has Arabic and Indian influences, grace, glamour and a little bit of old-world charm which can add drama. It’s got other interpretations too besides the floor-length version—the lehnga-anarkali and the trailing anarkali," says designer Manish Malhotra whose anarkalis have dressed a majority of Hindi cinema heroines for their formal appearances. He says the trend caught on when Katrina Kaif first wore a long, ivory white and gold embroidered ghagra-anarkali with a green hem for the 2011 Idea Filmfare Awards.

Loved for its stark Indian character, the floor-length anarkali, says designer Anju Modi, “is the Indian ball gown, without demanding a certain body type". Always passionate about Indian silhouettes in handlooms, Modi has created longer versions of the anarkali since 2011, many in Khadi and indigo. Her Fall/Winter 2013 collection that walked the ramp two months back includes anarkalis. “More and more Indian costumes are doing away with the dupatta, which is fine since its absence adds versatility to the core garment," she says. Getting the anarkali right, adds Modi, is about bringing together—first in a sketch—the person who will wear it, the material, the occasion, the body type and the weather.

“This is the interesting bit about Indian fashion and whether we liked some and not others at Cannes, these floor-length anarkalis strongly underlined an alternative dressing ethos at an international event where everything else was homogenous," says Kumar, effusive about what she saw.

Other style observations abound. “The anarkali is a strong and classic piece and it lends itself well to the Indian woman’s body. That said, I would love to see it re-imagined. The current empire waist or heavy borders have diluted the beauty of the garment and they appear dated. I did like, though, how fresh Aishwarya looked because of the colours and motifs Abu Jani & Sandeep Khosla used," says Malika V. Kashyap, founder of fashion website Border&Fall, who wrote an open letter on the website Mumbai Boss to designer Sabyasachi on his “matronly" dressing of Balan and Bachchan for Cannes.

In the dynamic, organic movement of Indian fashion that tirelessly searches for a balance between the classic and the contemporary—sometimes diminishing, sometimes upholding both values—the anarkali has more hits than misses. “The floor- length anarkali is relevant to the Indian wardrobe but a few inches of churidar at the bottom are a crucial detail," says Nisha Kundnani.

As the stylist for actor Nandita Das’ recent Cannes appearances, she did not use it for her, but she did use it for director Kiran Rao’s appearance at the Berlin Film Festival earlier. “Without Indian embroidery or local detailing, it looks neither like a gown nor an anarkali—a garment without resonance or identity. It needs an empire-line bodice and a dupatta," says Kundnani. “But it’s a tricky silhouette. Without correct height and posture, it can overwhelm the wearer," she adds.

Both Malhotra and Modi disagree. “I would recommend it even for regular Indian women, who can wear it with a bottom separate or just strappy sandals and bare ankles with a funky tattoo," says Modi. Malhotra is the anarkali’s staunchest devotee. “There are so many variations that we can always alter it according to different body types," he says. “If the girl is not too tall, the back can be longer and the front shorter to add drama and it can be worn with high heels. More than the length, it is its flow that I am fond of," he says.

A flowing garment with a long story, this.

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