Awadh (the region of the modern state of Uttar Pradesh around Ayodhya, west of Varanasi) holds a special place in the history of India, largely due to its culture and costumes amongst other things. The era of Nawabs, who were predominant in Awadh during 1722 to 1856, particularly influenced the evolution of fashion. The aristocracy of Lucknow gained immense wealth with the feudal system and spent extravagantly on their dresses. This had an impact on the dresses of the courtiers and the Awadhi people in general. The emphasis was not only on costumes and textiles, but also on how they were worn.
History made the nawabs and the nawabs defined the culture of Awadh. It was a peculiar period in history, when the rulers’ wealth increased through continued tax collections but at the same time, their power decreased with the arrival of the British. The Nawabs continued to pay large amounts of revenues to the British through various treaties, in exchange for their security. In this peaceful atmosphere, palace life was filled with imperial extravagance. ‘The Nawabs were proud and surrounded themselves with paraphernalia such as titles, elephants, horses, sarpesh decorated with jewels, insignias, jewel-studded swords, daggers and other weapons, fringed palanquins, howdahs, trappings, garlands of pearls, beautifully embroidered shawls, handkerchiefs and other clothes of costly works’ (Aseh-ul-Matabai, 1927).
We delved into some memoirs from Rajkumar Mohd Amir Naqi Khan of Basha State, one of the last living descendents of the Royal Family of Mahmudabad, can be considered the preserver of Awadhi culture, as can be seen from his multifarious activities. The most important of these are his contributions to the preservation of historical monuments of Lucknow and the revival of the old arts and restoration of rare paintings. In his own words, ‘my life has been dedicated to continuing the legacy of the culture of Awadh and the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.’
He recalled the clothes worn by his grandparents and parents. His grandfather used to wear an angarkha, churidar paijama and patka; and he wore a khillat with patka and a sword with high-heeled shoes for ceremonial use. The influences of Hyderabad can be seen in the style of draping the dupatta, and the Awadhi touch in ghatele (type of shoes in fashion in Awadh) worn by his respected great grandmother. The married women of his family wore Bar ka Paijama (also called bade paichon ka paijama). Kalis determined the volume of the paijama; more kalis gave importance to paijamas. Unmarried girls wore ghuttanas (knee-length paijama) with kurta and chunni. These were made of muslin for everyday wear in summers and brocades and silks for the winter season. These garments were decorated with Zari and Kamdani for special occasions. Rajkumar remembers that his mother, aunts and sisters wore many kinds of ornaments like Tika (ornament for the forehead), Chapka or Jhumar (to be worn on the right side of the head), karnphool and bunde (earrings) in the form of fishes called machalia, guluband (necklace), tauk (a pendant), haar (necklace), satlara (seven-stringed necklace), bajuband (armband), and dastband (bracelet), payal or pajeb (literally meaning anklet that bestows beauty on the foot). The married women wore kare (heavy bangles made of gold) and churis (glass bangles) as sign of suhag (Matrimony).
An interesting revelation he made was that there was an area allocated in the palace for mughlanias (artisans) to stitch, dye and embroider cloth. Fabrics were dyed in natural colours and real flowers were added for a pleasing aroma. The flowers were chosen according to the season of the year. For summer; Rose, khas, harsingar were preferred; for monsoons, Bela, Juhi, Chameli, Champa were favoured; and in winter, Mushk, Hina and amber were chosen.
During the British Raj, Awadhi workmanship was amalgamated with European and Chinese influences. The elaborate embroidery and rich borders of floral motifs used to be in pure zardozi and were much sought after. The morpankhi (peacock’s feather) motif was adopted in the later years. It was often added to blouses that were made in an array of colours and fabrics including cotton, silk, satin georgette and crepe. Eventually, these artforms survived the tests of time and their influence may be seen in Ethnic apparel & Indian Wear all over South Asia, a laudable feat in this tumultuous world.