India has patronized the sari as its national dress from time immemorial. From the period of Lord Krishna, the gopis have been known to be wearing sarees during raaslila. However, during 1000-1500 A.D when India was facing an array of invasions from all directions it became important for the Indian women to cover themselves more than what the one piece sari did. A fuller skirt called lehnga, a piece of cloth to cover her head called orhini, and cloth tied on her bosom called choli, became a more appropriate costume to cover the Indian beauty.
Initially the lehnga was merely a piece of cloth tied around the waist in a pleated fashion with the ends of the cloth left loose. The cloth was held at the waist with a metal girdle. But soon with the increase in its popularity, the garment went through fruitful transitions to suit the convenience of the women. The ends of the waist cloth were stitched. To make it more comfortable, its narrow width was increased by introducing more pleats on the waist, so as to facilitate easy walking for the women. The metal girdle was replaced by stitching a peace of cloth to the waist of the lehnga called nepha and a piece of tape running through it called nara.
The lehnga reached its peak of development under the Mughal kings. It was the best answer the Indian queens could give to the rich Muslim pehsvaz dress of the Mughal royal women. The interaction between the two communities was further increased by the bazaars organized by the Mughal kings where both the sellers and the buyers were women. The dupatta (the Hindustani name given to the orhni by the Indian Muslim women) became almost a mark of respect for the women. It was mostly two and a half yards in length and one and a half yards in breadth. It was used as a headdress and also to increase the beauty of the lehnga. Mostly the dupatta was made of a flimsy material and to give some more weight to the cloth, golden lace or tassels were attached to the ends. The choli was also developed the cover the arms but the length, however, usually remained above the navel, revealing the slim waist of the women.
Through history, the lehnga has undergone very little change. In fact even today leading manufacturers do not fail to steal traditional patterns form the golden Mughal era. The ensemble still comprises a traditional long skirt, the choli and the dupatta. The fabrics used to make the lehnga are in fact the same as those used under the great Mughal King, Akbar i.e. silks and brocades. The dupatta is now made of silk, linen of chiffon which is a new development.
The popularity of lehngas has creased proportionately with the times. In fact, in northern India it has very successfully replaced the traditional sari as a wedding dress. Now Indian brides prefer to wear lehngas which enhance their beauty and charm. The dress is mostly made in red which represents excitement and passion; orange which is a blend of yellow and red – colours so contrary in character – produces mystical effects on the mind; pink possesses all the powers and vividness of red without its frenzied impetuosity and violence.
The beauty of this royal dress however lies in the fine embroidery or zari handwork done on it. This zari handwork done on the lehnga is of a very special quality and is done mostly by Muslims staying in the 100 odd villages of Farokabad in Uttar Pradesh and Lucknow.
The hunar or the art of this embroidery is mostly passed on from father to son where certain skills are taught with utmost secrecy. The fabric for the lehnga is first mounted on a wooden frame called adda, which bears a close resemblance to the Indian charpai. The chhapai or tracing of the design to be embroidered is then transferred on the fabric with neel or chalk powder. Then the embroidered starts. We can broadly categories the zari handwork in four categories (a) Dapka (b) Salma or nakshi (c) Arri and (d) Gota.
Dapka is a very detailed type of needle work which is done after the fabric has been put on the adda and chhapai is completed. For a heavy lehnga at least three to four karigars work at the same time on the same piece. If the lehnga is wanted urgently, then upto eight men sit on the adda and work together. First a thick cotton cord is stitched on the pattern to be embroidered. Then on this cord prefabricated zari thread is looped on with an ordinary stitching needle. The patterns mostly made are of flowers, leaves, or the national bird of India – the Peacock.
Salma or nakshi is cheaper than dapka and considered slightly less exquisite than dapka by some. But a wedding lehnga cannot be complete without nakshi as it shines much more than dapka. As is rightly said nakshi puts life in the lehnga. This form of embroidery is also done by using prefabricated golden thread on the chhapai.
Arri work is a more delicate form of embroidery. It is done with both coloured and golden thread. The thread is put on the tip of a pen-like needle which is passed through the cloth giving chain-stitch-like impressions.
Gota work is done by using gold or silver ribbons of different widths giving rise to different patterns. These ribbons can be cut into small pieces and folded in the shape of leaves. They are also twisted and stitched on the cloth in the form of continuous triangles on the border. This work is mostly done is Jaipur in remote villages by khandani karigars. In Gota work however contrasting colours like pink and green or pink and red are mostly in the shape of behls with patch work to highlight the work.
The lehnga is hence a masterpiece of all these forms of embroideries in various combinations. To decorate this bridal dress, kundan stone, katori, golden cords and pearls can also be used. Hence we can say the lehnga is one part of history which still lives on in India.