The cultural fabric of Rajasthan is interwoven with threads of palatial architecture, spirited music, vivacious dance - all tied together with the soulful colours of its iconic sartorial tradition. Vibrant is the word that comes to mind when describing the traditional garments of the state. Bright and beautiful colours light up the torrid dunes, mirror-work winking with every swish of the ghagra.
The women of Rajasthan garb themselves in exuberant odhnis, ghagras and cholis, the last of which tells a story about the history of women’s fashion in India. The choli - also known as kanchli in Rajasthan and its bordering states - is an upper body garment akin to a bodice with sleeves. The sleeves are usually on the shorter side, as women of many communities adorn their arms with multiple chudas or bracelets to proclaim their marital status. Conventionally, the necklines are rather deep, featuring a round cut, sometimes with an additional V shape in the middle. In the Rajasthani style of dressing, the strings holding the clothing in place are attached at the back, rendering the outfit adjustable as well as stylish, with colourful tassels serving a decorative purpose. Most commonly available in cotton and silk, kanchlis are rich with heavy embroidery, beads, sequins, mirror-work, shells and corals.
According to historians, cholis evolved from the stanapatta, which was a chestband designed to cover the breasts worn by Indian women in ancient times. The kanchli is said to have originated during the reign of the Guptas. While some researchers believe that at this time, the bodices worn were tailored garments, others debate the claim by stating that sewn kanchlis could not have been popular prior to colonisation. This is because wearing stitched textiles was considered to be impure by orthodox Hindus, who much preferred saris for the same reason. Moreover, women wore saris over their bare breasts, which shocked the Victorian morality of the British. As a result, the colonial rule brought with it reforms in the realm of fashion, forever changing the notion of Indian modesty. Blouses which were originally worn by nautch girls became a symbol of upper caste propriety overnight, altering the hallmarks of “ideal Indian womanhood.”
While some communities in Rajasthan such as the Maheshwaris did continue to wear unadorned white saris for wedding ceremonies until very recently, ghagra-cholis became the popular choice for most women of the state by far. It is interesting to note here that kanchlis are a symbol of matrimonial status, as explained to us by Samjhu Devi in the Kashidakari Masterclass. A woman is only permitted to wear the blouse once she is married. Until then, she customarily dresses in puthias, which are double-breasted garments with a flap that crosses over the body and is tied with a string under the armpit. A young woman swaps her puthia for a kanchli after the fourth phera at the wedding ceremony, signifying her entry into married life.
Having had years of experience with embroidering as well as wearing kanchlis, master artist Samjhu Devi talks about how the outfit is a staple on the auspicious occasion of Shrawan Teez - the celebration of the union of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. This anecdote, along with the significance of the kanchli as a rite of passage for new brides, reveals the interconnectedness of every aspect of culture. Traditional clothes belong to a long and rich history of a people's pride in their homeland, customs and community. The kanchli, therefore, not only represents the aesthetics of Rajasthan but also the exuberant spirit of the queens belonging to the Land of Kings.