Category Archives: Broader context

How to: wear a salwar kameez

The salwar kameez is a tunic, pants and scarf outfit that is worn by a large number of women in India. With the exception of the younger generation in big cities like Bangalore, if the women aren’t wearing saris then they are wearing a salwar.

The suit is worn throughout India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and is thought to have originated during the Mongol rule of the area. It is incredibly comfortable in the heat, and very modest.

The suit consists of three different items of clothing:


Kurta: A tunic with slits on the side to your hips, and can be worn long (shin/knee length) or short (thigh length). The sleeves also vary – from sleeveless, to short sleeve, elbow length or full length sleeve.

Anarkali: A dress-like top, which has a reasonably tight/fitted bodice and then a flared knee/shin length skirt (which is sewn from multiple panels depending on the region it originates from: sometimes as few as 8, or as many as 80.


Churidar: similar to leggings, but more loose fitting and longer, with bunching (churis) at the ankle.

Salwar: loose pants fitting pants, with a straight cut leg, ending at the ankle.

Pattiala: baggy loose pants with pleats at the top, so the pants fall like balloons over your legs.


Dupatta: scarf/shawl worn around the neck, covering your chest and back over your shoulders. Traditionally this is a huge shawl, quite wide and long. But there is also the shorter, narrower scarf.

Now the salwar kameez can be bought as a set, or as separate items. The trick is to figure out how much colour and pattern you are comfortable with, because it can be quite extreme.

If you are diving in and creating your own ensemble, its important to remember a few rules:

  • Kurtas above the knee are to be worn with loose pants (preferably pattialas)
  • Anarkali and kurtas below the knee can be worn with anything, but look better with churidas
  • It is easiest to start with a single coloured kurta, and then match it with pants with a pattern in a complementary colour
  • The dupatta must match the pants you are wearing first, and then secondly match the kurta
  • Wearing three items all with different patterns can be a disaster, so if you want that much pattern it is best to look for a pre-made set.
Me, wearing a kurta, churrdar and dupatta

Me, wearing a kurta, churrdar and scarf dupatta

It can be a lot of fun experimenting with the different patterns and colours that are avaliable. However it can be very easy to end up with a lot of different items that can only be worn in one or two ways. The most productive shopping expedition I ever had was one where I had a patterned dupatta, and I found two kurta and three pairs of pants that I could wear with it. So that equates to 6 different outfits.

photo 3 photo photo

It is fun.


Fair & Lovely

I was shopping for some face cream the other day, and went to a small chemist to pick it up. I asked the man for some face cream, and he looked at me and then pulled out Fair&Lovely – a skin whitening cream. I laughed and told him I had no need for that, and he gave me a different one. A fairly innocuous event you would think, but after being amongst the advertising in this country for a few months, I don’t think so.

India has an obsession with fair skin, one that I struggle to understand. At home women spend lots of money on bronzing products, and one in three Australians develops skin cancer from being in the sun too much, trying to tan.

India is the opposite: Ads on TV are full of very fair skinned women selling products designed to lighten your skin. Fair & Lovely is only the tip of the iceberg. International brands have developed specific products for the Indian market: Garnier, Loreal, Clinique, Ponds and Revlon have multiple products designed to lighten complexion. From face creams to face washes, even lotions for baby’s skin. Recently there has been controversy surrounding the release of an intimate wash for women, promising to whiten ‘down there’ (read what Vice had to say about it).

India’s cosmetic industry is set to grow to 200 Billion Rupees ($3.6Bn) by 2014, so it seems to be worth the while of these companies to continue to develop such products, and to continue to convince Indians that fairer is lovelier. This ‘colourism‘, as Jyothi Gupta points out, is linked closely to the still-present caste bias in Indian society and exploited by advertising and pharmaceutical companies. Heres an interview she conducted with Dr Parameswaran, a Professor at Indiana University (transcript) on colourism:

I really like the point made towards the end of this interview: what is worrying about the focus on fairness in India is the lack of discourse surrounding it. In Australia the same amount of focus is placed on being skinny, and that image is propagated throughout the media. However, this is accompanied by alternate discourse about health and women’s bodies (whether its doing its job or not is another matter). In India there is no alternate discourse about the harm that this image could be doing to young girl’s self-esteem.

Discourse surrounds colourism amongst Latinos and African-Americans in the States, and studies have been conducted on the impact that skin tone has on salary and education of individuals in America. What is interesting about this particular article is that its published in the Indian paper The Hindu, but talks almost solely about colourism in relation to the States. However there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about it within the Indian context.

Here is another article by Nisha Susan from the Indian magazine Tehelka, if you’re interested. She looks at the idealised image of an Indian in the media and Bollywood.

Walking around the streets of Bangalore and Coimbatore makes me wonder where they even find these women on TV selling these products. Because no-one I see on the streets is as fair as these women – on the TV screen they seem to be even whiter than me!

I’m told that these women are found in the North, however I still think that like the promises and image they are selling, they are mythical beasts.



Here’s Obama’s two cents worth:


Power to Coimbatore

In July 2012 I volunteered with the Australian NGO The 40K Foundation. As a part of this, I worked on a project aiming to supply solar energy to poor communities: mostly temporary communities which form around construction sites in Bangalore. This project was made necessary by the unreliable access to energy that these people had, and their dependence on kerosene for lighting and cooking. Kerosene has severe health side effects, is expensive and also dangerous to use in their homes, which are often lean-to wooden huts. Given the temporary (and illegal) nature of the communities, they are unable to access the permanent infrastructure in place within the city: so a better solution is needed. Out of this project, the India-based NGO Pollinate Energy was formed.

As part of this project I read many articles on the lack of access to reliable energy that a majority of people around the world have. While I was in Bangalore there was a huge power failure in the north of India which left 600 million people (25% of India’s population, 10% of the world’s population) without access to electricity for days.

However, as this article in the WSJ pointed out, a large majority of people in the affected areas would not have even realised that there were power shortages: because they do not have access to the electricity normally!

Now, I have read a lot about lack of access to electricity and the impact this has on people’s lives, as well as reading a lot about the shortages in northern India when it was happening. But until I came to Coimbatore, I didn’t reallyunderstand what this meant.

That was a month ago. Now, I think I have a much better idea.

Coimbatore experiences regular power cuts. And when I say regular, I don’t mean ‘scheduled’, I mean ‘frequent’. If I am having a lucky day, I have power for 2 hours of an evening after I get home from work at 6pm. Some mornings there is power when I wake up, most there aren’t. While I am at the office we are more often than not using electricity sourced from a backup generator. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury at home.

My landlady’s apartment next to me has a backup generator, but I have to rely on an emergency lamp and candles.

Mostly, it isn’t so bad. Its actually kind fun at times: there is something to be said for having a shower by candle light, and with only one person in the apartment it is easy enough to carry the lantern around with me.

Having said that, there are some minor inconveniences. Its taken me 4 weeks to get used to thinking about putting my devices (phone, laptop, lamp) to charge as soon as the electricity comes on, in order to continue to use them when it goes off. And some nights I really miss the ceiling fan – it helps to keep the room a little less stuffy (I can’t open windows because of the clouds of mosquitos waiting outside to suck me dry).

Also, it is a bit of a hazard when cooking, because a few times I have been chopping vegetables and the power has gone off mid cut. Note to self: keep emergency lamp close at critical times.

I guess it is just a habit that needs to be formed: coming from Australia, I subconsciously thought of access to electricity the same as I did about my access to oxygen. Until it wasn’t there, I didn’t think about it being there.

But, the last 4 weeks have cured me of that, and given me a new found appreciation for the work thats done by so many NGOs around the world. Because as the saying goes: there is always someone worse off. My two hours of electricity most evenings still makes me luckier and richer than 3/4 of the world’s population: who only have access to 10% of the world’s energy.

Disclaimer: I’m writing this at 11pm on a Thursday evening, and it just so happens to be the night of the most power since I have been here: it was on when I got home from work, and besides a 20 minute period when it went off, its been on all evening. I’m waiting with baited breath though for it to cut out again…