Thakurbarir Saree Fashion: Remembering Jnanadanandini Devi - The Saree Maverick 

Did you know that there is a special day dedicated to celebrating the beauty and elegance of sarees? And it's on December 22. No, sitting in the hot month of May I am not going to talk about the cold December. It is something different story to tell. On the eve of 25-she Boisakh, the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, let me take you on the journey of Thakurbarir Saree Stories - a culture so pure, untouched, and dignified.

Thanks to Rabindranath Tagore's sister-in-law Jnanadanandini Devi - just like so many things that the Tagore family introduced to the Bengali culture, wearing the saree with petticoat and blouse is also introduced by them. The fashion sense and ethics of the Tagore family simply cannot go unnoticed. 

Wife of Satyendranath Tagore, who was the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service, Jnanadanandini Devi popularised the new form of wearing sarees that we see today. It was her exposure to British Society through her husband and family ties. 

There are more than one interesting stories that come about her experimenting with this Nivi style of wearing a saree with a petticoat and blouse. 

In a 19th-century ad for the women's magazine Bambodhini Patrika,” we will see it is training women how to drape a saree in the most novel way. In this style, the aanchal or pallu was carried around the body, pinned onto the left shoulder, and then thrown backward. It, thus, freed the hands for running various errands and paying courtesies by freeing the working hand. The wearing of undershirts and a petticoat underneath, in this new style, rendered the saree a modest outdoor wear. The maverick woman behind the ad and this new style of draping was Jnandanandini Devi. 

And the second story goes like this, “Satyendranath, was sick and she had to go to a Viceroy's reception in Kolkata in 1867 or 68. Though her dress is not mentioned, it would be safe to conclude that she went wearing a new form of tying a saree."

Tagore Women’s Bringing the Drape Revolution

The saree earlier Bengali women were wearing was not that wrong - the only thing is that it does not please the eye of the onlooker seeing it. 

The book, Tagore Household by Chitra Deb and translated by Smita Chowdhry and Sona reveal unknown aspects of women’s emancipation in Bengal in which the women of the Jarasanko Tagore family were at the forefront. 

The progressive Jnandanandini sailed alone to England in the 19th century, presenting to ordinary women a vision of courage. Even in an event, we have seen that, “on her arrival in Bombay, Jnandanandini discarded the cumbersome oriental dress for the neat way Parsi women had of wearing the saree. Though she made minor alterations she basically adhered to this mode of dressing.”

This mode of wearing the saree was called the ‘Bombay style’ in the Tagore family as it had been imported from Bombay. It was a cross between the Parsi dastoor, worn with pleats held on the shoulder with a brooch, and blouses or jackets designed after English ladies wear, with bits of silk, laces, and furs turning them into the "very latest fashion". Robi, though, disliked these frilly flouncy blouses that were often worn by his bouthans and didis with georgette sarees! 

Since then the aristocratic Brahmikas came to her to learn to wear the sari. Jnandanandini also began the practice of wearing petticoats, chemises, blouses, and jackets with saris. But in Bengali custom, it was mandatory to cover our heads - there was no provision for covering one’s head in this dress so ladies wore small hats. The front resembled a crown while a small piece of cloth hung at the back. 

Along with Jnadanandini Devi, Keshab Sen’s daughter Suniti Devi – the Maharani of Coochbehar attempted to simplify the awkwardness in the ‘Bombay style’, by pinning a broach to keep the shoulder drape in place. She wore a small triangular piece of cloth on her head like a Spanish mantilla to give the sari a dash of Western glamour.

Jnandanandini’s legacy of wearing the saree was carried forward by other women of the Tagore clan, such as her daughter Indira and even the yesteryears actress Sharmila Tagore. Even slowly Indira brought into vogue the custom of partly covering one’s head with one end of the saree.

Cult Movies on Tagore Culture that Intensify The Then Fashion

Some of the movies like Charulata, Kadambari, Apur Panchali, Gora, and Chaturanga received rave reviews from critics and experts has straight taken inspiration from the fashion elitist of the Tagore family. So let us go ahead and answer some of the questions on the saree fashion and the novelty at that time.

Q. What were the commonly used fabrics in early twentieth-century Bengal in both men's and women’s wear of that era? 

A. Cotton both coarse (khadi variety) and fine (muslin) and silks were the most popular fabrics used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Along with that georgette was also a die-hard fabric.

Q. What did the women in the movies like Charulata or Kadambari show as their wardrobe essentials?

A. Chemise, Petticoat, and jacket blouse!

Q. How did they accessorize their sarees?

A. Pump shoes and socks like European women along with gold jewelry with or without other embellishments like pearl, diamond, and other expensive stones.

Q. Which styles have made a comeback?

A. Use of gold jewelry and the jacket blouse is still in fashion and it seems hard to see them out of fashion any time soon. 

Well, I was thinking for a long time to pen this article and I took all my might to make sure that we commemorate the contribution of Tagore women in the time and era of the 19th century and many of these fashion is still valid and is here to stay for a long time, until the Bengali culture extinct. 

About the author

Sumana Bhattacharya completed her Masters in Economics from the University of Calcutta & was working with the Department of Education, Govt. of West Bengal to provide training to the teachers in Government Schools. She moved to USA in 2005 after getting married & is the mother of 2 kids. She is the one that drives IndyVogue every day, every hour, every minute and every second. Salute to her and her undying spirit.