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It seems that you can’t walk for 30 seconds nowadays without running into an anarkali kurta, whether it’s on the college-student-packed roads of Colaba, the designer boutiques of Palladium, the blingy Delhi weddings or even the international catwalks. What is it about this loose, umbrella-shaped tunic that has so caught the world’s fancy?

Let’s start from the very beginning

anarkali, kurta, tunic, Indian, India, fashion, beauty, aishwarya rai, mehr, rampal

Madhubala as Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam

It began in the Mughal period – with an A-line kurta (long tunic) that had a clinched waistline and numerous kalis (flared panels) to create dazzling drama when the nautch girls (dancers) took centrestage. As their feet moved and whirled in a tantalizing rhythm, the glittering dresses flared out and seduced with their own intriguing sensuality… here showing a brief glimpse of a delicately sculpted leg, there reaching out and moving away from arduous admirers.

Then came Anarkali – that most seductive of Indian seductresses, who danced her way into the heart of prince Salim (later to become Emperor Jahangir), leading him to stage a revolt against his father, the Emperor Akbar. This enthralling slave-girl-turned-court-dancer was eventually buried alive by Akbar, who like all good emperors, did not like those who defied his diktats. But not before she had left her own indelible mark on fashion (and love stories) with her signature dancing costume – the Mughal A-line kurta paired with intricately embroidered bodices that heightened its theatrical effect. Today, more than 400 years later, the anarkali kurta continues to beguile, charm and wend its way through the world.

anarkali, kurta, tunic, Indian, India, fashion, beauty, aishwarya rai, mehr, rampal

Anarkali kurtas have been a staple of Bollywood

Back to today

anarkali, kurta, tunic, Indian, India, fashion, beauty, aishwarya rai, mehr, rampal

Aishwarya Rai in an anarkali kurta

When Mehr Rampal wore that gorgeous yellow-gold anarkali on the Cannes red carpet, the world watched in awe. And the demand for anarkali kurtas in the Indian market went up manifold – I myself spent two days hunting for the perfect flare, courtesy mom, who wanted one “just because!”.

Which brings up the question of what exactly makes up a good anarkali? Ideally, according to the purveyors of contemporary Indian style, it’s a long kurta made up of two parts: The upper portion is snug empire waist bodice; the lower part is paneled and flares out like an umbrella. The bodice is heavily embellished, the bottom is highlighted with a beautiful border and the sleeves are tight. It is worn with a churidar – a fitted trouser-like bottom that perfectly offsets the voluminous top.

In the hands of a skilled designer like Rohit Bal (who dressed Mehr for Cannes) it can go all the way from uber-glam and seductive to elegant and semi-casual. And while the original Anarkali wore only silks and brocades, today you can do just as well with georgette, crepe, chiffon, zardozi and mirror work. An added bonus? It’s perfect for adding a hefty dose of Indian grandeur to the wardrobe of those who are not really used to wearing the more cumbersome saris!

anarkali, kurta, tunic, Indian, India, fashion, beauty, aishwarya rai, mehr, rampal

Preity Zintas channels the legendary Mughal dancers in an anarkali kurta