A woman adjusts her sari in the sun.
A woman adjusts her sari in the sun. Liz Light

India: Heat and colour

BLENDING in is the trick to travelling in India. Blending means not being noticed, hence being ignored by beggars and not having one's breasts bumped by men who have been taught by Hollywood that western women are up for a grope.

I have, in seven trips to this fascinating, frustrating, ugly and beautiful country, learned to dress like a local. On one occasion, when travelling with a New Zealand friend dressed in Western clothes, I gave money to a beggar, who thanked my friend, thinking I was Madame's Indian servant.

My desire to blend in led to an interest in Indian fashion, and a world of cotton, silks and satins, weaving, embroidery, beadwork, block printing and applique opened up to me. Clothing, in India, is about beauty, colour and artistry. It changes from one region to another and trends change almost as quickly as Bollywood film stars change their clothes.

I learned, early on, to wear saris only to weddings, and then I get an Indian friend to dress me. Saris are complicated. Under a sari one wears a drawstring petticoat and a bodice and the sari, 6m of fabric, is pleated, tucked, safety-pinned and draped around the body to become one of the most sensual, elegant dresses on the planet.

But, for Westerners, saris can be hazardous; running is out of the question and walking up steps and stepping on the hem can cause the whole thing to unravel.

A salwar kameez is far easier to manage. It's a three-piece ensemble of trousers, shawl and the kameez, a cross between a dress and a long shirt. The kameez can be shirt length (just covering one's bottom), below the knees or any length between. The cut varies and, these days, knee length, fitting to the waist then split down the sides is all the rage.

The salwar, the trousers, also have trendy variations. Some are hugely pleated in soft fabric and cleverly cut to cascade down the sides of the legs, like looped harem pants. Others are long, lean trousers, longer than the leg so, pulled up, they ruche at the ankles.

Westerners often regard the duppata, the shawl, as an unnecessary accessory but it's an essential part of each outfit; worn over one shoulder or draped around the chest and both shoulders. To be seen in the street without out a duppata is akin to being out and about half-dressed. It's handy, too, to cover your head with when visiting temples or when travelling on dusty roads.

Party salwar kameez can be elegant but many, especially costly ensembles, are over the top with embellishments of beading, sequins and shiny spangling. Rich people, in India, seem terribly rich and most often are not svelte Bollywood beauties but overweight, overdressed matrons and their lookalike daughters.

I observed couture at a posh party in an expensive Delhi hotel; these garishly dressed wealthy women were not half as beautiful as the rural women, whose lifestyle of hard work and simple diet has given them strong, slender bodies, clear skin and bright white smiles.

Colour combinations initially seem riotous but, within a day or two in India, I'm not embarrassed to wear an apple-green kameez with a burgundy shawl, or pink with kingfisher-blue. In the semi-desert areas in the west, Kutch and Rajasthan, colour is all and seeing groups of women, walking from the well to their homes, with brass water pots on their heads, is a vision of countless colours and posture-perfect grace.

The jewellery rule, for those who can afford it, seems to be more is better. When women dress for a party, wedding or even a walk on a Sunday afternoon, it's common to see them wearing rows of bangles up each arm, an ornate gold necklace, gold dangly earrings, a diamond nose stud and an imitation diamond glinting between their eyebrows.

Gold jewellery, and in India it's rose gold, is regarded as a woman's own, an asset that belongs to her and not her husband, so collecting it is a way of saving personal wealth. In some areas women wear heavy silver ankle bracelets that are soldered on; an asset that's indisputably theirs. Though numerous ankle bracelets may weigh a couple of kilos they seem not to notice the weight and wear them with pride.

Gold doesn't suit me but silver does. And semi-precious stones such as garnet, amethyst and aquamarine are plentiful and cheap. I sometimes agonise over buying a finely crafted ring or earrings, worrying about the price and bargaining over a few rupees.

Then I do the conversion. A thousand rupees is only $30, not worth quibbling about for something lovely.

The exchange rate is kind. This allows me to visit my favourite shops and buy a few salwar kameez sets when I arrive, then pass them on to someone who looks like they need them when I leave.

The pleasures of this are many; shopping for exotic clothes, wearing them, blending in and finally giving them to someone else to enjoy.

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