Being Women

The Bengal Drape And Woman Emancipation

For women, there is no dearth of choices when it comes to choosing the best attire. She can have almost everything without repeating it constantly. Every attire has some story attached to it. The untold stories we never knew existed and how it has transformed in these years. Anindita talks about how saree and Bengal have many close connections.

Every attire has some story attached to it. The untold stories we never knew existed and how it has transformed in these years. I wonder how we never thought about it while there are so many interesting facts that might surprise everyone. Women have no dearth of choice when it comes to choosing the best attire for themselves. She can have almost everything without repeating it constantly. Like, Saree and Bengal have some close connections.

Saree is undoubtedly an iconic garment and its draping style can bring out the truly creative side of those flaunting it. But the fact that the draping style had a role in the emancipation of women in colonial times remains relatively unknown even today.

As women in Bengal started stepping out of the confines of the four walls, one of the biggest challenges she faced was her attire. As Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian ICS and elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore reminded his wife, the daily attire of the Bengali woman was not fit to be worn outside. In the absence of blouses or petticoats, the fine quality sarees woven by the master weavers of Bengal left little to the imagination. So most of the Brahmo ladies including the wife of his dear friend Barrister Madanmohan Ghosh who ventured beyond the inner quarters wore gowns like the British women. 

When Satyendranath’s father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore decided to send his oldest daughter Soudamini to Hindu Female School (Bethune School) he designed a dress called Pesawaj, a cross between an English frock and a Muslim pajama, almost similar to today’s salwar kameez. 

Jnanadanandini Devi with Satyendranth Tagore, Jyotirindranath Tagore and Kadambari Devi.

Satyendranath wanted his wife Jnanadanandini to travel alone to Bombay where he was posted. His father Debendranath had given his consent despite the outrage it had caused among the elites of Bengal society but Jnanadanandini’s biggest challenge was her travelling dress. The Tagore family known for its nationalist outlook had always experimented with their dress but time was short and Jnanadanandini had to settle with a unique contraption called Oriental dress, made by a fashionable French tailoring shop. Adding to her woes the dress was too heavy and she could neither wear it on her own nor take it off. Once she reached Bombay Jnandanadini junked it and inspired by the Parsee women started wearing the saree copying their draping style. She improvised and added the Bengali way of draping the anchal which passed over the left shoulder and again under the right one. Sarees were now worn with long sleeve blouses and petticoats but to cover their head Jnanadanandini would also add a shawl while going out. The draping came to be known as ‘Brahmika’ style and she tutored women to wear the saree in this new style. The problem of covering their head remained and the sartorial experiments continued. Her niece Sarala Devi Chowdhurani remembered that her mother Swarnakumari Devi and her friends would wear headgear of cloth almost like the Spanish mantilla attached to a small crown. 

Rabindranath Tagore and Mrinalini Devi (she wears a separate shawl with her Parsi gara saree).

The Brahmika draping style further evolve under the two daughters of social reformer Keshub Chandra Sen – Suniti Devi and Sucharu Devi who both married into royal households. They added front pleats distinctly lacking in the Bombay style and the free end of the saree was pinned up with a brooch. Jnandanandini’s daughter Indira Devi Choudhurani improvised further and the pallu could now be used to partially cover the head. 

Sarala remembered that earlier Brahmo brides would wear white sarees or gowns with long English veils but in Tagore households, the brides wore red Benarasi and Oorni like native brides and slowly it spread among other Bengali families The sartorial sense of the Tagores indeed paved the way for the homegrown Bengali look of our maidens.

By Anindita Chowdhury

She is a special correspondent of the English daily, The Statesman. Apart from reporting, she writes short stories and essays with special focus on History,  particularly the social and cultural aspects of the bygone era. She can be contacted at


Facebook Comments


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social Media

Most Popular

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

No spam, notifications only about new products, updates.

Veda's Exclusive

Get Ready to Turn Heads with Our Stunning Sarees!