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Tuesday, February 7, 2023
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Lucknow da Kurta, Pathani shalwar . . . and the rest is history!

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Mashal Narejo |

Amongst the many things that tie the women of the subcontinent together, a visceral curiosity about the latest fashion trends features on top the list. Borders and shifting political realities be damned.

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A Mughal war dance themed saree worn by a Karachite.
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A kairi themed border of a dress being sold at in Bolton market, Karachi.

Cultural history has been thousands of years in the making, in which the past 70 years are a mere blink of an eyelid. Senior Karachi based fashion journalist and now entrepreneur Mohsin Sayeed described this shared history as the fountain of creativity for themes which are an inspiration for designers on both sides of the borders. “The expression that this shared inspiration takes is what makes every designer unique,” said Sayeed. “Take the paisley or the turangia Keri as we like to call it for instance; its shape is inspired by mangoes which are common to both regions,” he added. “The basic form of the paisley is the same but the colors and intricacy every designer adds to it in their work are what sets them apart.”

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Bombay Talkies

Television has undoubtedly been the strongest medium of fashion diffusion on both sides of the border, in fair weather and foul. “Pakistanis have never been deprived of Indian influence,” said Sayeed. “While Bollywood films were widely available in the ’60s, the VCR culture of the ’70s and ’80s gave further impetus to fashion transference.” The remarkable tenacity of this chain becomes evident when we consider that this was the time of Zia-ul-Haq when there was extreme political suppression and crackdown on fashion expression.

The basic form of the paisley is the same but the colors and intricacy every designer adds to it in their work are what sets them apart.

Bollywood was banned. Indian fashion experts at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), New Delhi, concur on the significance of the television medium to this process. “Television brought the commonalities of the two countries to the fore,” said Nayanika Thakur, the Centre Coordinator for Fashion Design Department at the institute.

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Designers on both sides of the border no matter how renowned in their field, recognize the impact Bollywood have on fashion and have to cater to their customer’s glitz and glamour driven fantasies. “Brides-to-be come to me requesting I add synthetic pearls in their dresses akin to the one Kareena Kapoor wore,” said Dr. Haroon, a high-end Karachi based bridal wear designer who has been in the business for 16 years now. “Whatever today’s brides see on TV goes straight to their wedding wish list.”

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Khalid’s shop in Mehboob Market.

Beyond Bollywood, Indian soaps also hold significant currency in the fashion transference business. For instance, fashionistas Komolika and Ramola Sikand have a fair number of Pakistani admirers. “Ever since we started airing Indian dramas here [advent of Star Plus in Pakistan, 2002], we saw a rise in demand for Indian saris,” said Khalid, a shopkeeper from Karachi’s Mehboob Cloth Market. “We then began ordering saris from Dubai and India,” he added. “Our saris are mostly from Surat and brought here via Dubai.”

Jewelers are not exempt from Bollywood’s influence on their work either. Munir Syed, an old jeweler who has a shop at Glass Tower, Karachi, pointed out that as many as 50% of his customers come quoting references to jewelry worn by some Indian actress or the other.

The remarkable tenacity of this chain becomes evident when we consider that this was the time of Zia-ul-Haq when there was extreme political suppression and crackdown on fashion expression.

Smaller cloth vendors in Lyari’s Ranchor Lines felt that there a considerable portion of the demand for Indian sarees came from the Hindu community-based in Karachi. “There’s a high concentration of Hindus in Sindh, especially in Karachi whereas the majority of the Indian cloth markets are based, such as Jaama [Cloth Market] and the one in Lalukhait,” said Jaan Sher, who has a saree shop in Ranchore lines, Lyari, Karachi. “Bolton Market is the hub of Indian clothing here and everything that’s distributed in interior Sindh is shipped from there.”

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Lawn: The Pakistani Niche

Pakistani lawn is a flourishing industry which has steadily acquired a loyal fan following across the border. However, the lawn of today is a far cry from what it was in the early decades after partition.

“Lawn was what you wore when you went to the bazaar to buy onions,” said Dr. Haroon. “It was nowhere near the pricy affair that it is today with embroidery, embellishments, buttons, and whatnot with women tearing each other apart to get their hands on the latest branded piece,” he added. “Who would have thought that the average lawn suit, which once cost Rs 250 (PKR) would be selling for Rs 10,000 (PKR) today?”

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Imran in Karachi’s Gulf Market sells chaddars made at the Indo-Pak border inspired by Rajhastani themes

Dr. Haroon was not pleased with the aesthetic sensibilities exhibited by Pakistani lawn brands. “Some dresses I see today have entire stories printed on them ranging from colosseums to owls to high rise buildings,” he lamented. “Where is the sophistication [nazakat] that Gul Ahmed and Mausammry prints once used to have? Maybe this is innovation but I cannot relate to it.”

However, he applauded the loyal following Pakistani lawn finds in Indian markets. “This is the one sub-branch in fashion in which we can safely say we have beaten India – our lawn.” Despite his reservations about the quality of Pakistani lawn, he expressed unreserved glee in the sustained demand it has found in India.

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Color: The Indian Forte

Dr. Haroon felt that Indian designers have acquired unparalleled mastery over the use of color. “When Sonia Gandhi visited Pakistan, she announced that India has already won the war as we have managed to infuse our traditions [tehzeeb] in Pakistani culture [Hum to in mein apni tehzeeb daal chukay],” said Dr. Haroon. He felt that there was no equivalent to how Indian designers used color because the color is a part of their religion.

Pakistani lawn is a flourishing industry which has steadily acquired a loyal fan following across the border. However, the lawn of today is a far cry from what it was in the early decades after partition.

“Our religion is based on whites and revolves around concepts of purity, simplicity; we try to understate basically,” he said, adding that even our prophet’s favorite color was white. “Their religion blends a mix of hues, including yellows, reds, and mustards,” he said. “When you allow for music and dance and noise, then the colors that result will obviously attract more attention.” [Jab shor sharaba ho ga aur rang uthen ge, to shohrat us ki ziada ho gi.] Dr. Haroon felt that the richest culture in India was found in Hyderabad.

“Be it clothing and lifestyle or even cuisine – Hyderabadi culture is the richest of all especially in terms of detailing,” he said. “Explore the history of India from UP to Agra and beyond and you won’t be able to find this rich ‘tehzeeb’ anywhere else except in Hyderabad.” He felt that he was carrying on in the line of a generation of designers. “You can call me a revivalist,” he said. “I do what’s been worn in families and will continue to do so. I actually follow the past – and I want to inculcate what we’ve been taught by our forefathers into the coming generations,” he says.

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In short, the subcontinent’s fashion heritage has been so beautifully knitted together over the years that separating the themes that are similar and unique to each would be akin to attempting to “untangle the undercurrent of shared inspiration in the poetry of Mirza Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz”, said Sayeed.

“duniyā ne terī yaad se begāna kar diyā tujh se bhī dil-fareb haiñ ġham rozgār ke”.

Faiz Ahmad Faiz

“go maiñ rahā rahīn-e-sitam-hā-e-rozgār lekin tere ḳhayāl se ġhāfil nahīñ raha”

Mirza Ghalib

 

Note: With reporting from India assisted by journalists Sania and Yash Shukla.

Mashal Narejo is a Karachi based journalist who has written for several Pakistani newspapers and magazines. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.