Written by Sonja Erchak, (Georgetown University) Student Correspondent UW in India, Fall 2016
As the days grow colder–– and I thought this day would never come–– I’ve been dusting off my sweaters and socks each morning with one major thought pressing on my mind: What am I going to wear today?
The Indian aesthetics of Banaras are brought to the forefront in the winter, as we see everyone start to get bundled up for the first time. From the men in their tailored vests, to the goats in their hand-me-down sweaters, everyone is ready for the weather to be less than sweltering this December. More than these recent trends, however, I would be amiss to go the entire semester without mentioning on of my favorite aspects of living in India–– the clothing.
In many ways, my experience in Varanasi has been shaped by clothing. For my Tutorial class, I opted to study Batik–– a traditional form of Indian textile design––with my Guru (and Professor) Jasminder Kaur. While she has become one of my personal role models in many regards, one of the principle ways she has influenced me is through her fashion. It is through her that I learned first about the breadth of diversity in Indian fashion; textile design varies widely across the subcontinent, both in traditional and contemporary respects. Through studying textile design at Banaras Hindu University, my eyes have been opened to this new world of Indian fashion and design work. Long gone are the days when I was wary to stray from my conservative ‘western’ garb for fear of being appropriative or uncomfortable. What I have found instead is actually an abundantly positive and receptive attitude towards my (and the other members of my program’s) choice to don Indian apparel. (Bonus: drawstring pants are comfortable and keep you ignorant of the amount of food you eat at lunch!)
Coming to Banaras, one learns quickly that there are a few things Banaras is most famous for: The Ghats, the paan, the Vishvanath temple, the Ganga river, and the Bananas saree. So, from the minute of my arrival, I have been on the lookout for this well know textile and have finally purchased my own, after observing the weaving process in action. Varanasi is actually such a hub of textile design and production–– when it comes to Silk, at least–– that even the Pope’s clothes are made here!
After getting the opportunity to travel to various states around India, along with getting more and more comfortable exploring my own city, I’ve come to learn even more about the variety within the Indian aesthetic. From my host family, to a wedding, to the local university, to a temple–– my outfits change entirely. The younger women favor skinny jeans with short and plain kurtas, while local women choose sarees. Our trip to Amritsar revealed the glory of the Punjabi embroidered suit, complete with wide and draped Salwaars (Pants). My time in Darjeeling boasted a population in cozy athletic wear, with people looking like a mixture between a Colorado ski town, and a rural mountain village.
These intersections in trends and designs always amaze me, and leave me baffled at my own assimilation to these styles. As I wrap up my final week here–– I know, I can’t believe it either–– I am sad to think that may days of button pants, winter coats, and denim are rapidly approaching. Despite the flurries ahead of me, I’m more than excited to lug my now exploding baggage through the airport to show off my new wardrobe. And while I know many of these treasure won’t be appropriate to wear at home, they carry with them the memories of my belonging–– of my experience and my comfort–– in this beautiful city.