Students
Photos by Reyer Boxem

The importance of traditional clothing

The secret of the Indian suitcase

Photos by Reyer Boxem
When Indian students go abroad for some time, their suitcases will always contain one special item: traditional clothing, to wear during celebrations, like the light festival of Diwali. ‘It is impossible for someone to look bad in Indian clothes.’
21 November om 16:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2022
om 10:44 uur.
November 21 at 16:55 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2022
at 10:44 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Mai Tenhunen

21 November om 16:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2022
om 10:44 uur.
Avatar photo

By Mai Tenhunen

November 21 at 16:55 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2022
at 10:44 AM.
Avatar photo

Mai Tenhunen

Traditional clothes hold a special place in every Indian person’s life. They’re associated with culture, family, and festivities. ‘You wouldn’t find one Indian student here who didn’t bring traditional clothing’, says Gitanjali. 

She brought a white kurta, a long, collarless shirt, that reaches down to the calf, as well as the red anarkali, a flowy dress, that she is wearing in the picture. ‘I brought it here because it’s easy. I don’t need people to help me drape it as opposed to, for example, a saree.’ Another important thing: the red colour makes her think of Diwali, which is a festival significant to her and her family. 

There are many things to be said about traditional clothing from the state Maharashtra, where she is from. ‘There is a version of saree called nauvari or the nine-yard saree. It is draped to be pants in the bottom instead of a skirt, which makes it a more mobile version of the typical saree. My great-grandmother would wear a nauvari every day.’

Nowadays, Gitanjali and many other young Marathi people no longer wear a nauvari daily, but instead go for something ‘Indo-modern’. But even if new generations of Indians have new ways of being traditional, it is still an essential feature of festivities and celebrations. ‘No matter what your choice of daily attire is, whether it is traditional, fusion or purely non-traditional, everyone will go the extra mile and wear the traditional clothing for big celebrations such as Diwali.’

Alekhya Batchu (21) Master in behavioural and cognitive neuroscience

In the picture, Alekhya is wearing a white shirt made in a traditional style of embroidery called chikankari: ‘When I was young, I used to think it was “chicken curry”, the dish. I walked past a store selling chikankari and thought to myself; that’s a food store. Why are they selling clothes there?’

Alekhya describes her daily wear as Western fusion, which she also tries to do in Groningen. ‘I would usually wear a kurti, a long tunic-like top, and a traditional casual wear shirt. It’s easy to wear with jeans.’ Kurtis are also versatile, as you can tailor them to your needs: ‘You can get a simple one for day-to-day wear, then you can get grander designs with different materials, silk, stuff like that.’

A lungi is a type of traditional clothing particular to her region – a long skirt with a blouse. ‘In my state, there is this particular style of lungi where you also put a dupatta, which is a type of scarf, and you put it in a saree style. That’s something I’ve worn quite a bit during traditional functions.’ 

Alekhya wants to avoid making any generalisations for India. To be fair, it’s such a large country that making generalisations is difficult, and the same applies to its clothing. ‘Some clothes have religious significance, while others have cultural significance. Even particular prints have a specific history.’

Swarupa Kuchimanchi (23) Master in applied social psychology

Swarupa has grown up as one of the thirty million people in the Indian diaspora, which has created difficulties in expressing her culture. ‘I felt like I didn’t really have many spaces growing up where I could wear Indian clothes. Only when there were cultural gatherings where I could.’

In Groningen, she wants to take opportunities and create ones that allow wearing traditional clothing. ‘To me, clothing is an expression of who you are and when you fuse culture to it, it’s even more meaningful’, Swarupa says. The meaning is evident in the blue saree she is wearing: ‘It is the one my sister wore to her high school graduation, which I was unable to attend. I wanted to feel like a part of celebrating her and her achievement in some way.’

The garment is composed of three elements; a blouse and an underskirt into which the saree itself (which is a long piece of fabric), is tucked and draped. The wearer is constantly faced with the challenge of actually putting it on: ‘This one is one of the easiest to drape because of the lightweight and flowy fabric.’

In South India, there is also this thing called a half-saree that younger women wear. ‘When you get your first period, it’s seen as a “becoming a woman” type of thing, and normally that’s a celebration, and you are gifted a half-saree’, Swarupa says.

Gitanjali Sukhtankar (21) Master in biomedical sciences

Traditional clothes hold a special place in every Indian person’s life. They’re associated with culture, family, and festivities. ‘You wouldn’t find one Indian student here who didn’t bring traditional clothing’, says Gitanjali. 

She brought a white kurta, a long, collarless shirt, that reaches down to the calf, as well as the red anarkali, a flowy dress, that she is wearing in the picture. ‘I brought it here because it’s easy. I don’t need people to help me drape it as opposed to, for example, a saree.’ Another important thing: the red colour makes her think of Diwali, which is a festival significant to her and her family. 

There are many things to be said about traditional clothing from the state Maharashtra, where she is from. ‘There is a version of saree called nauvari or the nine-yard saree. It is draped to be pants in the bottom instead of a skirt, which makes it a more mobile version of the typical saree. My great-grandmother would wear a nauvari every day.’

Nowadays, Gitanjali and many other young Marathi people no longer wear a nauvari daily, but instead go for something ‘Indo-modern’. But even if new generations of Indians have new ways of being traditional, it is still an essential feature of festivities and celebrations. ‘No matter what your choice of daily attire is, whether it is traditional, fusion or purely non-traditional, everyone will go the extra mile and wear the traditional clothing for big celebrations such as Diwali.’

Muskan (23) Master in artificial intelligence

Muskan is wearing a maroon blouse and yellow palazzo pants: ‘The meaning of the colours for me is warmth and brightness. We light a lot of diyas (candles), and maroon is very bold and strong. If you would decorate the temple, you would use red, maroon clothes.’

These colourful clothes found their way to Muskan through a clothing shop in her hometown, and to her suitcase due to convenience: ‘They’re easy to carry and can be worn on multiple occasions.’

Some occasions on which Muskan would wear traditional clothing include Diwali, navratri – nine day Hindu celebration – and celebrations of academic achievement. ‘In school for lab assignments and graduations it would be kind of required to put on Indian wear’, she tells me. ‘It would feel more special than just any day.’ 

Indian clothing and its materials have a remarkable history. ‘In the Indian Independence there was also a revolution started by Gandhi, which was to wear clothing that we could make ourselves here in India.’ This self-reliance became an important part of the revolution, so important the Dharma Chakra featured in the middle of the Indian flag still carries that symbolism. ‘It’s taken from the machine Ghandi used to get thread from cotton.’

Paradoxically, the fabrics can be hard to come by for Indians nowadays. ‘They are sold at very high prices abroad, like the US, while these materials made in India have become too expensive for locals. All the good quality things get exported.’

Saloni Mangla (26) Pre-master in media creation and innovation

The blue traditional crop top and palazzo pants Saloni is wearing carry a specific meaning. ‘Blue is a colour of peace in India, so it is very important to me’, Saloni says. This outfit she bought in a shop in Delhi, her hometown, and brought to Groningen to wear to Indian gatherings and festivities.

Traditional wear is vital to Saloni, even daily: ‘In Delhi, I would wear kurtis and jeans or kurtis and pyjamas (a type of pants) everyday’, Saloni says. ‘But now I am here in Groningen, I mostly wear Western clothes.’ 

That’s mostly because of the weather, she says. ‘When you are biking, and it’s muddy and cold, it just doesn’t make sense to wear a big flowy skirt’, she says. However: ’Wearing traditional clothing is a way for me to embrace my roots and remind me of my background as an Indian. It’s a way to feel more at home when you aren’t home.’

What she loves most is the precision that goes into every item of clothing, as opposed to Western clothing. ‘There is always some personalised touch, embroidery, something.  Every item looks like an artist made it. I want to embrace these cultural touches.’ And special articles of clothing also make her feel unique and beautiful: ‘It is impossible for someone to look bad in Indian clothes.’

Nederlands