Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The ABC’s of Indian Women’s Fashion (Adornment, Bling, and Color!)

Most Indian women, no matter what their station or profession, love to adorn themselves in brightly colored clothes accented by plenty of jewelry and kicky sandals. Although there has been a recent shift to more modern, yet traditional fashions, the silk sari is still the status garment, to be worn on special occasions by most and on a daily basis by some. It is one of the preferred gifts (along with gold) if you want to give someone something really special.
A sari (or saree) is a strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine meters long that is draped over the body in a choice of styles. Most commonly the sari is wrapped around the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder baring the midriff. The sari is usually worn with a blouse known as a choli or ravika. This cropped form-fitting garment has short sleeves and a low neck. Once a sari is selected, the choli fabric is chosen to compliment it, and a tailor custom sews the garment to the wearer’s measurements.

There seems to be no end of gorgeous saris in the shops. The textile industry constantly rises to the occasion in providing new patterns and colors to women who always want something new. New isn’t really necessary, of course. With this garment, style is constant and it easily compensates for the wearer’s size changes, no matter how extreme they may be (with the exception of the form-fitting choli.)

The garment that is replacing the sari for everyday wear is the salwar kameez (also spelled shalwar kameez or shalwar qameez.) Traditionally it is a dress worn by both women and men. Salvars or shalvars are loose pajama-like trousers. The legs are wide at the top, and narrow at the bottom. The kameez is a long shirt or tunic with the side seams left open below the waist. This outfit was originally confined to the North India.

Today, however, it has become the garment of choice for those who want to make a fashion statement. The fabrics are often colorful and the entire ensemble, including the long scarf or shawl called a dupatta worn draped around the head or neck, color coordinated perfectly.

It is a modest alternative to a sari, and one that flatters practically any body-type. By varying the fabric, color and the level of embroidery and decoration, the salwar kameez can be formal, casual or dressy and it can be made to suit practically all climates.

Many women also mix traditional and modern styles, often wearing tunic-like tops called kurta (originally these fell below the knees but now they are available in all lengths) with jeans or cropped pants. When they throw a shawl over that, (borrowed from the salwar kameez ensemble) the look is stunning: comfortable, casual, modest, modern, and traditional all at the same time.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Majestic Mysore

Mysore is less than 150 kilometers (under 90 miles) from Banglore, but with the difficult traffic in both cities (especially Bangalore) getting there and getting around can be tough. Although Mysore is a natural weekend getaway, we decided to get a car and driver and go for just one day. It was fun, even if we did have to spend over 3 hours in the car in each direction!

Our first stop was Srirangapatnam, an island in the Kaveri River a few miles east of Mysore, where there is a lovely old mosque (Jumma Masjid) and a famous Hindu temple. (Sultan Tipu’s Summer Palace is there too but, since we had visited it on a previous trip, we skipped that.)

Ranganathaswamy temple is dedicated to Sri Ranganathaswamy, a form of Lord Vishnu. This temple makes Srirangapatnam one of the most important Vaishnavite centers of pilgrimage in south India. It was built in the 9th century and improved some three centuries later. It includes several styles of temple architecture. There were lots of visitors when we were there, and the usual assortment of touts, sellers, beggars, and guides. (The guides often describe themselves as “not guides but students,” although by the look of most of them, they have been studying for many years.)

Every bit as exciting for me was finding the town’s Saturday market, where I not only took photos, but was able to buy all of my week’s fresh organic veggies for just a few ruppees.

Once in Mysore, we stopped for a quick look at Saint Philomena’s Catholic Church, and were impressed with its size and majesty. It was constructed in 1956 using a Neo Gothic style, its architecture inspired by the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.

After driving up to the Chamundi Hills, we visited the Chamundi Temple and the large black bull statue called the Nandi. (Nandi was the vehicle ridden by Lord Shiva in Hindu mythology.)

But the real reason most tourists visit Mysore is to tour the famous Palace of Mysore. It was the official residence of the former royal family of Mysore, and housed the durbar (ceremonial meeting hall of the royal court).

The palace was commissioned in 1897, and its construction was completed in 1912. It is a three-storied stone structure, with marble domes and a 14-foot, five-storied tower. The palace is surrounded by a large garden. Cameras are not allowed inside but visitors can photograph the grounds. There were several elephants available to take tourists on rides, but this lone ranger looked like going to work was the last thing on his weekend agenda.
Here are a couple of other images taken in and around Mysore.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

BDA (sounds like bidet) Complex and More Upscale Shopping Options

Soon after I arrived in Bangalore, I discovered an alternative to the trendy shopping malls that I shun in the U.S. The BDA (Bangalore Development Authority which “oversees the development of infrastructure, provision of development-related sites and services and the housing needs of underprivileged citizens”) has small shopping areas all over Bangalore. The one I go to is in Koramangala, near where we live. Our favorite driver calls the BDA Complex "Madam's Favorite Place!"
This is old-fashioned personalized shopping. If you need an envelope of a certain size, a young apprentice in the stationary store searches the back room, then brings several types to the counter for you to choose from. To have photo prints made, you go into a hot little hovel filled with computers and a technician goes over each image until you are completely satisfied. And the prices are incredibly cheap by our standards.

Both John and I got prescription glasses made overnight (at Shruti Optical,) his readers for $15 and my bifocals for $40. I priced a USB hub at a trendy place called EZone (picture young salesmen standing around watching Indian version MTV on really big screen TVs) at $40, and got it for less than $5 at a funky electronics store at BDA.
Every week, for under $2, I have a floral bouquet put together, wrapped in cellophane with a red bow attached, and bring it home to adorn, and perfume, our apartment. John got a haircut at BDA for $1.50 and, although with two computers we haven’t needed their services, a retinue of typists at typewriters is always available.

I find the aptly named Commercial Street, which most Bangaloreans love, to be far too chaotic, so my other Bangalore shopping passions are a bit more upscale. I love shops that sell slightly ethnic but somewhat westernized clothes. These are made of light Indian cottons (perfect for the climate here) in Indian tie-dye, block prints, and other traditional textile techniques. While expensive by Indian standards, I find the $12 to $15 a piece to be completely reasonable for the excellent quality.

Fab India is one such store (which can also be accessed on line at that not only sells clothes but items for the household as well. I was pleased to read that their mission is “to support the craft traditions of India by providing a market and thereby encourage and sustain rural employment.” They have retail outlets in all major cities of India, 86 at last count, in addition to some international stores.

Anokhi ( seems to have shops in 13 Indian cities. Their designs and use of fabric are excellent. From their site: “the company is well known as an alternative role model for good business practices, and the ongoing revival of traditional textile skills.” They maintain a museum on hand printing in Jaipur, Rajasthan that looks great on their web site:
Anokhi is located in Bangalore in the Leela Palace Gallery where another one of my discoveries is housed. Hidesign ( has beautiful handbags for a small percentage of the price you would have to pay for the same quality bag in the U.S. I read recently in a NY Times article on Pondicherry, where the bags are manufactured, that the company is partially owned by LVMH, the parent company of Louis Vuitton.
Although this isn’t a plug for a particular establishment, if you are coming to India, I advise buying your books here rather than bringing them from home. Many current best sellers, some of which are only available in the U.S. in expensive hardback editions, are sold much cheaper as publications that can only be marketed in India. Since it is an English speaking country with an excellent educational and literary tradition and an emerging middle class, the range of literature sold in the many bookshops is astounding.
Finally, while not exactly a product, I advise going to the movies, especially if you are in Bangalore. The multiplex theaters are the nicest I have ever seen, and the system the most organized. You can buy tickets on line (in fact it is nearly a requirement if you are trying to attend a film on a weekend,) and specific seats are assigned. This comes at a cost however, nearly $10 for prime time weekend viewing. There are only a few English films, but you can always try one of these options: Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Telegu, or Malayalam.

That’s the extent of my Bangalore shopping tips except to say that you can get Indian cricketer shirts at KidsKemp on MG Road in all sizes, and can even get them personalized. I got John one for his birthday. Speaking of John’s birthday, we had a small party for him at a wonderful neighborhood Punjabi restaurant called Umerkot. Everything was terrific, even if they did spell John wrong on his cake!