Rabindranath Tagore: Saree Connection
Jnanadanandini Devi’s New-Age Sari Drapes
In the 19th century, the social reformer and Rabindranath Tagore: Saree Connection sister-in-law reinvented the sari in ways we continue to wear today
Until the global Covid-19 lockdowns, many of us enjoyed a mobility that was unheard of even a generation ago. Whether we went out every day or not, we knew that we could, and we dressed for the occasion. Now, confined to our “four walls” for two months and counting, we have first-hand experience of what it feels like not to be allowed to go outdoors. It is thought-provoking that we are redefining how to dress to stay at home, whereas 150 years ago, Jnanadanandini Devi (1850-1941)—a social reformer and Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law—was adapting what she wore at home into something to wear outside. Her story is inextricably tied not only to the nivi style sari drape, but also to the addition of blouse and petticoat.
Jnanadanandini married into the wealthy Bengali Tagore household around the age of eight, which means she moved directly into the Tagore zenana (also called andarmahal) – those inner rooms which wealthy Hindu and Muslim households reserved for the family’s female members, and which Professor Sutapa Dutta of the University of Delhi calls an “Indo-Islamic cultural product.”
Today we categorise clothing into home-wear and street-wear, and to a certain extent, this mental separation lends itself to understanding Bengali zenana attire. In her classic book Women of the Tagore Household, Calcutta University’s late Dr Chitra Deb explained that no man, neither family member nor servant, was allowed into the inner rooms at will, and unmarried men were not allowed at all. “It was only after marriage, when a separate bedroom was allotted to him, that a man came in at night to sleep.”
Into the Andarmahal
Descriptions of zenanas have ranged from windowless and bleak to sumptuous. See, for example, India’s first female lawyer Cornelia Sorabji’s description of the Maharani of Baroda’s chest with a looking glass and the numerous saris that hung on pegs on the walls, in her memoir India Calling.
Zenana saris in and of themselves were intricately linked to the system of seclusion. Whereas village women who were not secluded “wore coarse woven saris,” Dr Sonia Nishat Amin of the University of Dhaka points out that behind the walls of “the traditional Hindu andarmahal of the well to do was a light sari worn without undergarments which gave a semi-transparent look” (The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal, 1876-1939).
Jnanadanandini later wrote that the only addition to the single length of woven fabric was the occasional winter shawl. In short, zenana saris were not intended for public wear.
So when her husband Satyendranath Tagore (Rabindranath Tagore: Saree Connection elder brother) decided to bring his young wife 2,000 kilometres across India to Bombay (Mumbai) Province, where he was appointed the first Indian Officer of the Indian Civil Service, deciding what she should wear was as big a challenge as was getting permission for her to leave the ancestral home. “If you have to change your mode of dress,” he wrote her, “please do not hesitate.”
The consensus was to try a multi-layered sort of peshoaj (a Mughal outfit), so Satyendranath ordered one from a French shop. The “oriental dress” that arrived was so heavy and complicated that it took both of them to get her into it. She left for the waiting ship from a secluded gate, inside the family’s closed palki. Barely 15, she was the first Tagore daughter-in-law to leave the zenana and was as yet asuryamsparsha (untouched by the sun), writes Dr Deb.
A New Drape
The multicultural life waiting for her on India’s opposite shore included Parsi and European women. This was due to her husband’s job, but also the fact that neither culture included the zenana tradition and many social events were mixed gender. It is generally agreed that these are the years when Jnanadanandini started to blend her own sari style, observing English blouses with sleeves and ribbons, brooches, and the way Parsi women wore blouses and petticoats under the embroidered, Chinese silk Garas that had become their signature sari.
But Jnanadanandini also travelled the region with her husband. In her 2015 book Indian Fashion: Tradition, Innovation, Style, former TVOF columnist Arti Sandhu writes that she also came to adopt the “Gujarati style of tying the sari by bringing the pallu around her body and throwing it over her left shoulder.” This was also convenient, since she was right-handed.
When she returned to Calcutta (Kolkata) some years later, Jnanadanandini combined the above with frontal pleats and a brooch, and the style became known as many things – modern, educated, privileged, Tagore (Thakurbarir sari), Brahmika…but strangely enough, Nivi style, which is what we call it today, seems absent from those early references.
Etymology aside, when Jnanadanandini Devi Tagore came out of confinement, she adapted the sari to her changed lifestyle, and the style of wearing a sari that is credited to her has become the most used in the world.
Banner: Jnanadanandini Devi, photographed in Calcutta. Early 20th Century. Wikimedia Commons.
Cynthia Green is a historian and writer with a particular interest in cultural identity. She has an M.A. from Emory University and has written for NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), JSTOR Daily, and Mode & Tendances, among others.