Exchanges with the Middle East have influenced many aspects of Indian culture, including fashion, with contemporary designers still drawing inspiration from the sartorial links established centuries ago.
An integral part of men’s and women’s fashion in the Indian subcontinent is shalwar — loose-fitting, pleated trousers — and a tunic known as kameez.
Considered traditional and everyday dress by many, the outfit traces back its origin to the Middle Eastern influence brought to India by the Mughals who ruled the region between the 16th and 19th centuries.
With their ancestral domains in Central Asia, the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty, carried cultural elements borrowed from Arabs, Persians and Ottomans, which later were accepted, adapted and further developed by Indians.
The styles of shalwar most commonly worn in India — with narrow ankles or ankle cuffs — bear a striking similarity to the traditional style of women’s trousers known as sirwal in Arabic, which are worn in many regions of Gulf countries.
Kameez, too, bears resemblance to the dishdasha, an ankle-length robe with long sleeves, worn by both men and women in the Arabian Peninsula.
There is also the Indian scarf, or dupatta, which completes the trouser-and-tunic set and which in parts of the country is used by women also as a veil to cover their faces.
“Some of the basic day-to-day dresses like shalwar, kameez and dupatta came with the Mughals,” said Debanjana Paul, a fashion designer based in New Delhi.
“And Mughals have their cultural bases in the Middle East, Turkey and the Arab world.”
But before the Mughals, the Indian subcontinent’s exchanges with the Middle East were already established through trade along the Silk Roads, where besides the main commodity — spices — other goods, like fabric, traveled as well.
One of the favorite textiles in India is muslin, a fabric so light that poets in the subcontinent have described it as “woven air.”
Production of the delicate cloth was for centuries centered in the subcontinent, but the cloth did not originate there. As its name suggests, it is from the city of Mosul, in Iraq, where it was first manufactured in the Middle Ages.
Paul, who used to work for an Indian brand in the UAE, told Arab News that also some floral and geometric ornamentation motifs, popular especially in northern India, originated in the Middle East.
Centuries later, some of them have returned to their birthplace in a new form. One such form is the embroidery that is nowadays often seen on kaftans, the loose shirts that are the basis of Arabian fashion.
“The products I used to design would have lots of surface ornamentation, and these garments used to go to the Middle East,” Paul said.
“This is the influence of Indian fashion on the Middle East.”
But modern Indian influence is evident also on another level. Many celebrity Arab designers, including Ellie Saab and Zuhair Murad, hire Bollywood stars to promote their creations.
Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan have often been seen wearing their designs.
“Lots of the Middle Eastern brands hire Bollywood celebrities as the face of the brand,” Paul said.
“That is again an exchange.”
The interaction is also reflected in the fact that countless fashion shows in the Middle East, especially the Gulf region, regularly feature Indian designers and attract big audiences.
“Most Indian designers have stores in Dubai and they cater to the local market,” said Swati Ubroi, a designer from Jaipur who regularly sells her heavily decorated bridal and occasion wear to the UAE.
She believes that had there been no mutual influence between India and the Middle East, their fashion scenes would be incomplete.
“Long tunics that are worn in the Middle East find space in the Indian fashion industry. Indian embroidery finds space in the Middle East,” she said. “There are lots of common things.”
For Swarna Gupta, who in Jaipur runs her boutique Paridhan and also sells designs in Dubai, the fashion exchange is smooth because Middle Eastern and Indian styles are compatible.
“Inspiration comes effortlessly from the Middle East,” she said.
“Both India and the Middle East are generally conservative societies where women want to look feminine while expressing their style appropriately.”