Trends change because variety is the spice of life. Variety also spices up the way one dresses. The salwar kurta which started as a trendy way to dress with more comfort and movement that a sari offered soon became a staple in most wardrobes. The thumbs up given by Indira Gandhi -- iconic symbol of empowerment for most women at a time when the workplace was a space mostly for the adventurous -- added to the salwar suit's popularity. Mrs. Gandhi went on record saying that the ensemble helped the working woman move with freedom and ease and yet kept her looking modest and graceful. It then did not take long for convenience to take a turn into the fashion highway. And over the years the once humble garment of the women of Punjab changed shape and form as hemlines rose and dropped.. as salwars took on changing volumes and sometimes gave way to churidars inspired by those worn in Lucknow and Hyderabad and other cities where the sartorial influence was predominantly Muslim.
But whatever the avatar the two piece ensemble took, the third element that completed the look (the dupatta) remained a constant. The dupatta -- which was initially a wide stretch of cloth designated to cover the head and bosom of the wearer -- soon revealed its potential as the perfect canvas for embellishment. Embroidery started to decorate the dupatta in color and design.. adding gold thread and sequins and even precious stones when the occasion demanded. For the working woman the dupatta was a garment that linked her to the sari pallau. It came in handy to wipe a sweaty forehead as she waited for the bus or to cover her head in a sudden shower. At times it could substitute for the bag that had been left at home and could hold the luscious fruits or vegetables that had tempted her on the way home. Many were the uses of a dupatta!!
It was not long before dupattas came into their own. Like the tabla which rebelled against being just an accompaniment to the singer or instrumentalist and took centre stage to speak its intricate language to appreciative listeners.. the dupatta soon evolved into a garment that had its own identity. Sewa -- and a whole phlanx of design houses -- took the dupatta to a new place with embellishments. Silk and georgette and chiffon widened the dupatta's appeal. Everything from leheriya and ikkat to chikan kari gave the dupatta a new identity as a garment around which an ensemble could be designed. Buying an intricately embroidered dupatta and matching it with a plain suit became a trend!!
When the printed dupatta-salwar sets made their appearance it was the first nod that the Indian woman had arrived as a person who could mix and match to create different looks. Buying a coordinated salwar and dupatta in bright colors and wearing it with a series of solid color kurtas in colors that matched one of the colors in the print gave women a multitude of inexpensive choices -- limited only by the scope of her own imagination. Today every multi-brand mall or store has dupattas of every kind to choose from ranging from the crushed twisted mull solids to the khari printed cottons and sequined or crystal speckled georgettes. Dupattas also come in all lengths and widths from the classic two-and-a-half meter lengths that can be draped in a variety of ways to the narrow stole-like versions that can double up as a scarf with western ensembles. Walking into the Indian section of any store I find myself completely spoilt for choice with dupattas beckoning me from various racks. The fine natural weaves vie with the gaily printed which are quite overshadowed by the finely embroidered!! There are dupattas for every mood if one listens to them closely as they whisper their stories.
Which brings me to the point of my story. That in many a woman's daily dressing today the dupatta is found to be missing. The simple garment that withstood the westernization of the kurta when it was teamed by western designers with narrow pants now finds itself left on the shelf even as the woman dons a sweeping kalidar kurta that can only be complete with a flowing dupatta. At best it is used by two-wheeler riding youngsters as a mask to cover face and hands from the blistering sun! In abandoning the dupatta, there is a symbolic shedding of a purdah that forced women to hide behind its folds. The woman who strides out in tee and jeans needs no dupatta to hide behind even when she chooses to wear Indian clothes. That I believe is the logic behind the shedding of the duppata as an unnecessary appendage. I beg to disagree.
To me the dupatta -- if worn properly -- is a garment of grace. Its free flowing form embodies the ability women have to adapt and change as the mood or need demands or as they please. The dupatta adds a whisper of the past that is almost inaudible yet hints at the romance and beauty of the generations of women of yore who have donned it as a vital part of their daily wear. A dupatta creates a mood much like a ghazal does. The infinitely changing forms it can take.. the many ways it can be worn.. each give the wearer a new identity and can change a look from the regal to the demure in mere minutes without a change in the basic attire. I remember an occasion wherein when I had travelled to New Delhi only with western clothes and boots in the dead of winter. I was invited to a wedding ceremony and I would have opted out because of my inappropriate clothes but for the fact that I had carried along a zari-worked dupatta hoping to find silk fabric to match it!! The dupatta saved me. Wrapped in its voluminous folds.. the fact I was in a black polo necked top and pants was almost an invisible secret. I was spared the embarrassment of looking completely out of place! Since then I always pack at least two dupattas -- one simple for suddenly sunny walks and one ornate for an unexpected formal occasion. It is simpler and takes less space than a sari with a blouse and petticoat would and is a great confidence booster because it ensures I am well prepared for the unexpected.
The dupatta is a classic .. a perennial. I hope the no-dupatta phase is a trend that will pass away to join the bell bottom pants and the guru kurta!!