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Chaniya Choli


The contemporary fashion scene seems to be looking back into the past for inspiration. The Chaniya-Choli, an old favourite is all the rage—even finding favour in the fashion streets of Europe. Designers today, by juxtaposing old and new have succeeded in creating a most versatile dress code for the nineties.

In ethnic wear a garment that is giving strong competition to the salwarkameez on the fashion charts in the 90s is not the sari but the chaniya-choli. The chaniya or ghagra as it is often called has very strong traditions that date back to nearly 1500 B.C. with the coming of the Aryans in India. The Vedas (coming from the root word vid which means knowledge) have given indications in classics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata that the chaniya-choli was the favourite outfil for the women of that era. In a popular episode of the Mahabharata, naughty Lord Krishna known for his mischief in his childhood is believed to have hidden the chaniya-cholis of Radha, his friend, and the gopis (young girls) while they were taking a dip in the stream. The garba or dandiya raa.s a popular dance of Gujarat which is performed with sticks during the nine nights of Navratri prior to the Dusshera festival, requires the ladies to wear the chaniya-choli. It is the swirling movements of the dance that need a more flared garment. The sari being quite restrictive is not suitable.

In modern times, it was the screening of popular TV serials like the Ramayana and Mahabharata that gave a tremendous boost to the chaniya-choli as a fashion garment. No longer is the garment restricted to just the nine nights before Dusshera; it is now a co-ordinate worn by girls throughout the year. As an outfit it has universal appeal since anyone from the age of 6-60 years can wear it.

The home of the chaniya-choli is no doubt Kutch, Gujarat and Rajasthan. The outfit is popular in the west and north of India. In the south, another more streamlined version known as the pavade is popular. Fabrics that are used for chaniya-cholis normally range from cotton, silk to khadi and at times chiffon, organza, satin cotton, raw silk and brocade. But the last variety is only for weddings and formal occasions.

“It is the embroidery and the shape that makes all the difference to the chaniya-choli and one can identify it with the occasion it is meant for,” explains designer, Bela Parekh who creates ethnic chaniya-cholis.

“For Navratri, the ethnic mirrorwork embroidery is popular with a bit of patchwork. The flare of the chaniya should be about nine metres wide. While for formal wear and weddings the embroidery is heavier in pearls, silk sequins and zari. Here the chaniya is umbrella shaped,” she adds.

The accompanying choli comes in various lengths and shapes. It could be short and fitted like a choli or long, extending below the waist in a loose blouse fashion or it could be the kurti or kanjri style with mirrorwork and a backless tie-up look. It is this kanjri that is very popular and an extremely feminine item. The mirrorwork embroidery is very distinctive of the region of Kutch and it is a family tradition passed down through generations. The work is exquisitely colourful with flashing mirrors bound in with colourful thread. Very often the blouse sports rows of shells which tinkle as the wearer moves. The fabric base colour is very earthy in shades of maroon, black, blue, brown, beige. Some of the chaniyas are hand block printed and then embellished with mirror or embroidered patches. The price of a chaniya-choli could very from as little as Rs. 100/- to even Rs. 10,000/- depending on the base material and embellishments.

Along with the chaniya-choli an odhni is an integral part of the garment. It is in printed, plain or embroidered form and it does not necessarily match the chaniya-choli. Some of the heavily embroidered odhnis with mirrorwork could cost as much as Rs. 6000/-. In the last six years the chaniya-choli has not only turned into a national craze but has also crossed the seas and become a popular garment in the west and east. Countries like USA, UK, Mauritius, Canada, Fiji, Dubai, South Africa. Singapore, Nairobal and Japan are some of the countries where chaniya-cholis have a ready market.

Today nearly 60 per cent of chaniya-cholis are exported. “Manufacturers create 2-3 designs per week and at any given time nearly 500 designs are ready. UK is one of the biggest importers of chaniya-cholis from India,” informs Bela.

Chaniya-cholis are sold all over the country and there are nearly 2000 shops that retail in them. “A set consisting of chaniya-choli and odhni could be exclusive or it could run into 300 pieces per style. The various manufacturers have large capacities running into 200 pieces per day,” says Bela who, however, specializes in exclusive one-of-a-kind pieces. The creation of a chaniya-choli takes a couple of weeks to create as the fabrics are embroidered in Gujarat, Kutch and Rajasthan and sent to different craftsmen after which they are stitched into garments. The tradition of embroidery in India dates back to the ancient past. But there are some references to it in the 13th century by explorers like Marco. Polo when he passed through India.

The form of embroidery done in Kutch starts with sketches on the material in free style. Though there is some uniformity in the geometrics of the designs, it may vary in size and shape. Not many craftsmen, however, draw. Some even use the grid arrangement or block print the designs. Yet the artists given full vent to their imagination as they fill in the designs with colourful threads and mirrors with very detailed fine work, uniform in appearance and intricately executed.

At any given time over 500 workers in Gujarat. Kutch and Saurashtra are engaged in the production of chaniya-cholis. Nearly 70 per cent of the work is by hand in the form of embroidery and intricate embellishments. Each artisan tries his utmost to perfect his design and create a beauteous item “Unlike a salwar-kameez where there are just 2 to 3 items of raw material used to create a garment, in the case of a chaniya-choli nearly 25 different types of raw materials are used to make a swirling chaniya-choli nearly 25 different types of raw materials are used to make a swirling chaniya-choli and because of this one can only produce about three sets a week whereas in the case of a salwar-kameez the production would go upto nearly 50 pieces a week,” reveals Bela.

There are various tribes of Kutch that specialize in certain types of embroidery. The Rohanas specialize in skirt work and they work on maroon handspun cloth in shades to deep saffron, bright yellow, rust and navy thread.

The Sodhas use a geometric style for their embroidery and are famous for their kerchiefs, and turbans. The Garacia Jats are experts in tiny embroidery on the yoke which inter-mingles with red, orange, blue and green threads. While the Dhanetah Jats love embroidering broad pear shaped mirrors using orange, black, yellow and red in chain stitch.

The beauty of the chaniya-choli lies in the two separate parts of the garment. While he chaniya or skirt is flowing and flares around the wearer the choli or blouse is a snugly fitted piece of clothing that accentuates the female form. The odhni, the third part of the total garment, acts as a scarf or covering for the head and body and is a sign of modest shyness for the wearer.

Because of the vagaries of weather at times the work of the artisans slows down causing several deadlines to be missed. A highly intricately embroidered fabric could even take a year to complete. “No doubt the chaniya-choli is the daily wear of the various people of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Kutch but it will soon become the daily wear of women in urban cities in India as well as in the west, because it is easily acceptable by all. Similar to the western skirt and blouse the chaniya-choli’s ornate designs will create excitement amongst the fashion conscious women,” predicts Bela.

From ancient history to the 20th century the chaniya-choli has made a long journey that has sustained it as a garment of fashionable interest to not only the Indian women but women in the west as well.