The bandhgala has taken centre stage in fashion shows and luxury boutiques around the world today. Fashion designer Raghavendra Rathore takes us back to its humble origins in the royal courts of Jodhpur.
The forebear of the Jodhpuri bandhgala first appeared in the princely state of Jodhpur around the 1600s. The gem merchants and traders who made inroads into the desert city brought with them a silhouette that quickly influenced the local attire, the angarakha. By then, the Portuguese and the English colonisers had made the presence of the jacket design felt across India.
Folklore suggests that the then Maharaja of Jodhpur, Sri Sardar Singh, helped the angarakha evolve into the achkan, and over time, the achkan into a more versatile incarnation, the bandhgala. This was the time that the camera made its way to Jodhpur and made Sri Sardar Singh the most photographed Maharaja of the princely state. His numerous portraits helped the Maharaja give style a whole new meaning that would continue through the centuries. Among other things, he replaced the traditional headgear, a pre-tied turban, with safa—12 metres of fabric that had to be tied afresh every time.
While the ancestor of the bandhgala existed during this era, elements like the padding in the shoulder structure of the jacket, the signature interlining, and its tenacity arrived much later when the courts adopted the jacket as their dress code. Fast forward a few centuries, and it is amazing to see the pervasive nature of this relic. Often seen in the window displays of luxe designer stores across the world, it now inspires fashion aspirants and sets global design and lifestyle trends.
The extraordinary journey of the bandhgala can be seen as the precursor to ‘Make in India’. The jacket is the perfect ambassador of traditional Indian style in the contemporary world. What makes it more interesting is that it can be worn differently in different parts of the world; in New York, for example, I remember pairing it with jeans. Many of the people I met expressed a desire for one instantly; they were from all walks of life, suggesting the universality of its appeal.
Asked constantly where one can buy the jacket, I started a small studio 24 years ago
to tailor bandhgala jackets for men and women out of a quaint, little room in a corner of my house. Little did I know that the power of the jacket would attract stalwarts from across the globe. In 1994, Mehar Bhasin walked down the ramp in a 1,200-year-old Jodhpur fort, wearing a beige version of this bandhgala paired with Jodhpur breeches. The jacket was sharply tailored and fit her body like a glove on a hand; it had two satin princess panels on the sides. As Bhasin descended the stairs in the zenana section of the magnificent fort, it was the first time that audiences in India witnessed the profound impact of a tailored bandhgala. This was the tipping point and a perfect place to start the story of the Raghavendra Rathore Jodhpur bandhgala. The jacket also has a sleeveless version, called the bandhgala waistcoat.
Inspiration must come from somewhere—to create and add value, season after season, in the art of heritage clothing. I attribute this energy to a small place I visit more often than any other—a small village midway between Jodhpur and Udaipur, named Narlai. This place has its own rustic charm; it is surrounded by a forest where one’s mind is free to roam. Apart from the untamed wilderness, the tribes that coexist in the region inspire endless ideas.
Rajasthan has so much to offer to the creative mind. One gets to meet aristocratic families who are keen to preserve their culture. Various styles of the bandhgala can be seen as you traverse the state—the more regal ones in places like RAAS Jodhpur, Umaid Bhawan Palace, and the Taj Lake Palace, and as you get closer to the jungle, lighter colours complement different cuts and styles. Outdoorsy people are found draped in sporty versions of the bandhgala at places like Aman- i-Khás near Ranthambhore, The Serai, Suján’s luxury tented camp in Jaisalmer, and at the Rawla Narlai, near Ranakpur.
These excursions to remote dwellings are the ultimate in luxury. And the mind of a designer is like a sponge that constantly absorbs from its surroundings. Any cues on aesthetics that are unique trigger storms of imagination. Experiences like these are akin to picture postcards that one can save up in the attic of the mind and reach out to when needed, to create moodboards for a new collection. Small artefacts of yesteryear, tribal jewellery, wall textures— preserved relics of the past come together in the mind to create new interpretations of fashion, which replace the ones from the last season and cater to modern times. The past always feeds the present.