Indic culture has celebrated the female body in all its glory. It has offered clothing freedom with a broader gender perspective, which exists minus Islamic and European colonial/Christian influences.
In keeping with the general lack of serious and informed research on aspects of Indic history and culture, it may be stated at the outset that the origins, history, cultural significance and evolution with continuity of Indic costume have not received the attention they deserve. That is the reason for the confusion on the issue of the ghoonghat or avagunthana; veil, if you will.
It is a fact that the Indian sub-continent has been an amalgam of cultures and manifold influences from the hoary past but the Islamic invasion and European colonisation have had an impact which, too, needs to be carefully and chronologically studied.
Apart from a few books and articles, information has to be gathered from primary sources; texts, sculptures, paintings and coins and the story carefully reconstructed. This author has conducted such a chronological journey into history using artefacts and sculptures in the National Museum, Delhi and what follows is informed by this exploration.
The focus of this article is to analyse the elements of Indic clothing from a gender perspective. This, specifically from the point of view of allegations levied that appropriate clothing for women is sexist in its paradigm and forces women to cover their faces and forms to protect themselves from the predatory masculine gaze in an unequal society.
The basic Indic principles behind clothing the human form will be discussed to arrive at its foundational ideas.
To understand these, we will have to go back and analyse the common principles which reflect themselves in different ways in the Saraswati Sindhu Civilisation, in Vedic texts, Mauryan and Satavahana sculptures, Ajanta Paintings, Gupta temples, Chola bronzes and the myriad other reflections of Indic society in ancient India.
The elements and principles of Indic clothing which will be articulated below have been arrived at after considering the Indian sub continent at least till the twelfth century, a rough marker for the Islamic invasion.
Let the first and most basic principle be set down emphatically. Indic clothing was gender-neutral. The principal elements were uttariya, antariya, kayabandh/mekhala and aabhushan adapted in different ways for men and women. The pratidhi or choli was optional for women and the ushnisha specifically for men. The crux of the use of these different elements (except jewellery) was the drape.
The antariya was a piece of unstitched cloth for the lower part of the body. This was wrapped around the waist in many different styles and methods for women and men. The drape could just be wrapped around the hips or be pulled up between the legs for greater comfort and ease. For women, the drape emphasised the navel, waist, hips and thighs; for men, the abdomen and the hips. These were dictated by period or occasion specific styles as well as personal predilections.
The uttariya was a piece of unstitched cloth for the upper part of the body and it is around this that the concept of the avagunthana or ghoonghat or veil (an extremely poor translation) will revolve. This, too, was draped in many different ways depending on the situation, individual wishes, men and women, desh and kaal.
The kayabandh was again a piece of cloth, plain or decorated, tied around the waist. The mekhala fulfilled the same function but as a piece of jewellery, a metal or bead band around the waist. This separated the upper part of the body from the lower part, both different in terms of their functions; ‘sookshm’, intellectual functions above and the ‘sthoola’, ‘gross’ functions below.
Jewellery was in profusion in ancient India, for both men and women although the exact styles and decoration were different.
Pratidhi or choli was the optional band or blouse around the breasts for women, the former unstitched and the latter stitched.
The ushnisha was the turban around the head for men; a piece of cloth tied up either with the hair or on its own to protect the head.
It is abundantly clear from the above description that draping of unstitched cloth around different parts of the body was the hallmark of Indic costume. It may be noted that with Kushan, Greek and Central Asian influences stitched cloth did make an entrance into Indic costume. The choga like dress and the stitched kanchuka which was short and blouse-like for women and long for men was worn with the antariya and uttariya.
One of the deepest mysteries of Indian history; the simultaneous existence of the most profound Vedic corpus of human wisdom, not yet related to any archaeological remains, with the vast cornucopia of Saraswati Sindhu physical remains, not yet associated with any understood text or oral tradition, has a diffused common reflection as far as dress is concerned. Both show remarkable similarities. The elements discussed above are nearly as valid for the latter as for the former if we go by the figures and figurines recovered from various sites in both India and current day Pakistan whether it be the ‘Priest-King’ or the ‘dancing girl’. For Vedic dress, we depend on the corpus of texts, obviously.
Now to the crux of this article — the freedom to drape. Bear in mind that this is about the principles of Indic dress minus Islamic and European colonial/Christian influences.
Neither society nor the dharma shastras prescribed that women should hide their bodies or faces; appropriate dress for men and women for particular occasions was recognised but there is no prescription asking women to hide their bodies and faces as they are objects of attraction and must remain covered to save men from temptation. As an aside, I would go even further and say that as the Greeks revered and celebrated the male body aesthetically, the Indics did the same for the female body. Even a cursory survey of Indic art will bear this out.
The apogee of Indic sculpture and painting, arguably, is often found in the female body in all its glory.
The uttariya was for the upper part of the body; the pratidhi/choli, too, was used but for the head and face, it was the uttariya which was important. And here is the crucial element, the uttariya could be disposed around the shoulders, over the elbows, over the head and shoulders, across the breasts, or as an avagunthan or covering for the face, as desired. More than one uttariya could be used, one over the elbows and the other pinned on the head. There are innumerable possibilities and the preceding descriptions are all taken from sculptures of varying periods from the Mauryan/Sunga period to the Chola one. It is interesting to note that sculptures of veiled women are conspicuous by their absence.
It is because of this element of choice and the optional cholaka/choli/kanchuka that there exists a certain confusion in the popular narrative. In different representations the head, face and breasts can be bare with the uttariya draped around the arms, or the breasts can be covered by the kanchuka and the head and/or face by an uttariya. Those who prefer a conservative narrative pick paintings/sculptures/texts, which reflect their point of view and others will have the choice of referring to the beautiful sculptures of bare breasted and gracefully bare headed women on the walls of so many of our temples or the texts of timeless Sanskrit and Prakrit works.
The crucial point is that the method of covering and adorning the body was a choice through the particular drape adopted. This choice was informed by appropriateness as per desh and kaala, occasion and inclination. Respect, for example, could be marked by placing the uttariya on the head or fully or partially covering the face as is still done in North India.
Indian ideas about clothing have changed over millennia; we may have difficulty recognising these foundational ideas, so far away they seem. Restrictive Victorian and Islamic ideas of female modesty are often mistakenly seen as foundational Indic ones. Is it time to rediscover our enlightened roots?