NEW DELHI: Exchanges with the Middle East have influenced many aspects of Indian culture, including fashion, with contemporary designers still drawing inspiration from tailoring ties established centuries ago.
An integral part of men’s and women’s fashion in the Indian subcontinent is the shalwar — wide-cut pleated trousers — and the tunic known as the kameez.
Many consider it a traditional and everyday costume, and it originates from the Middle Eastern influence brought to India by the Mughals who ruled the region between the 16th and 19th centuries.
With their ancestral domains in Central Asia, the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty, carried cultural elements borrowed from the Arabs, Persians and Ottomans, which were later adopted, adapted and further developed by the Indians.
The styles of shalwar most commonly worn in India – with narrow ankles or ankle cuffs – bear a striking resemblance to the traditional style of women’s trousers known as sirwal in Arabic, worn in many regions of the Gulf countries.
The kameez also resembles the dishdash, an ankle-length robe with long sleeves, worn by both men and women in the Arabian Peninsula.
There is also the Indian scarf, or dupatta, which completes the ensemble of trousers and tunic and which in some parts of the country women also use as a veil to cover the face.
“Some of the basic everyday dresses like shalwar, kameez and dupatta came with the Mughals,” said Debanjana Paul, a New Delhi-based fashion designer.
“The Mughals have their cultural bases in the Middle East, in Turkey and the Arab world.”
But before the Mughals, the exchange of the Indian subcontinent with the Middle East was already established through trade along the Silk Roads, where other goods, such as cloth, traveled in addition to the main commodity – spices.
One of India’s favorite textiles is muslin, a fabric so light that poets in the subcontinent have described it as “woven air.”
The production of the delicate fabric has been centered on the subcontinent for centuries, but the fabric did not originate there. As its name suggests, it originates from the city of Mosul in Iraq, where it was first produced in the Middle Ages.
Paul, who once worked for an Indian brand in the UAE, told Arab News that some floral and geometric motifs, popular especially in northern India, also originated in the Middle East.
Centuries later, some of them returned to their birthplace in a new form. One such form is the embroidery that can often be seen today on kaftans, the loose shirts that are the basis of Arab fashion.
“The products I designed had a lot of surface decoration, and those garments were going to the Middle East,” Paul said.
“This is the influence of Indian fashion on the Middle East.”
But contemporary Indian influence is visible on another level as well. Many famous Arab designers, including Ellie Saab and Zuhair Murad, enlist Bollywood stars to promote their creations.
Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan have often been seen wearing their designs.
“Many brands from the Middle East are hiring Bollywood celebrities as their face,” said Paul.
“It’s an exchange again.”
The interaction is also reflected in the fact that countless fashion shows in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf region, regularly showcase Indian designers and attract large audiences.
“Most Indian designers have shops in Dubai and cater to the local market,” said Swati Ubroi, a Jaipur-based designer who regularly sells her ornate bridal and occasion wear in the UAE.
He believes that their fashion scenes would be incomplete if it were not for the mutual influence of India and the Middle East.
“The long tunics worn in the Middle East are finding space in the Indian fashion industry. Indian embroidery finds space in the Middle East,” she said. “There are a lot of common things.”
For Swarna Gupta, who runs her boutique Paridhan in Jaipur and also sells designs in Dubai, the fashion exchange flows smoothly because Middle Eastern and Indian styles are compatible.
“Inspiration comes effortlessly from the Middle East,” she said.
“Both India and the Middle East are generally conservative societies where women want to look feminine while expressing their style appropriately.”