Prince among jackets

The bandhgala coat gets an international ovation with Canali’s debut in that segment, says Kishore Singh

When 60,000 clothiers compete in the oversaturated Italian market for 60 million buyers, it’s clear the smart brand will pitch its efforts towards exports. Which is what 75-year-old Canali did when, this week, it launched the bandhgala exclusively for its Indian operations in

New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Years after Armani forayed in the same space with its “Nehru jacket” on the international ramp — which Canali managing director Paolo Canali refers to as “seasonal fashion” rather than the “classic” it has interpreted specifically for the Indian market — its revival by a fashion house stresses the importance to consumption patterns for fashion in the country.

Though there is the debate whether, like the chicken tikka masala that Britain claims as its own, the bandhgala is really Indian to begin with. The tunic, as it was popularly referred to in Europe and reached its apogee when the Beatles wore it for an album cover, was, according to some, a raffish jacket that was worn with a frilly collar in Spain, and when teamed with buttons and a great deal of brass and cord, was part of ceremonial uniforms. “It was almost as if it was designed for portraiture,” says designer Raghavendra Rathore.


This was the shortened angarkha, without shoulder pads, made from brocade, and referred to by Ranji as a “smoking jacket”. It was made popular by Hindi films from the forties to the sixties, though inevitably worn by characters playing the role of villains in the movies.

A misnomer because the first Prime Minister wore achkans, never a bandhgala. The Armani “Nehru jacket” again got it wrong because in India it refers to the sleeveless waistcoat worn over kurtas that is now fetchingly paired with shirt-and-trouser combinations.

This is a formal version of the prince coat, and can be worn over jeans or as a suit. In the mid-19th century it was worn as a ceremonial uniform in Europe and South America, and was somewhat dandily used by gadflys in Spain, but in India it is regarded as a formal classic.

This is a long structured coat worn over churidaars. Muslims wear it loose, and the pocket is low on the chest to facilitate the use of a pocket watch, while in Rajasthan it is body-fitted and the front pocket is worn high with a kerchief. 

Loose and kurta-like, it was lightly structured for riding, and also served as a ceremonial court dress. Unlike the achkan, it does not have shoulder pads, or use buttons.

Designers have routinely paid homage to the bandhgala, none more so than Rathore who says it owes its genesis to the angarkha, the long kurta that Indian nobles wore over churidar pyjamas (which later evolved into the breeches). The angarkha, which Rathore says remained in trend till the late 19th and even the very early 20th century, gave way to the achkan, or long coat to which the British added the shoulder pads, lending it a more formal structure.

This, the achkan, the fitted version of which remains a staple among the nobility in Rajasthan, and loose, brocade versions of which are the costume of choice for grooms in India, was adopted by the political class from Motilal Nehru onwards. Invariably, the Presidents all wore achkans, and from gentlemen of leisure to those who aspired to power, the ackhan became a symbol of the upper classes.

Later, it was cropped and teamed with trousers, which became a formal suit in India. In the early years, it still used the angarkha brocades as an inspiration, and Jam Saheb Ranjitsinhji — the cricketing legend “Ranji” — of Jamnagar had brocade “smoking jackets” that were in essence bandhgalas, though with soft shoulder pads, so they draped lightly.

Politicians ill at ease in blazers or Western suits prefer the bandhgala for its “Indianness”, and in recent decades designers have taken upon themselves the mantle of creating variations of the classic as well as the Italian lines (the difference, according to Rathore, is in the way darts are used). Canali’s bandhgala, of course, differs not just in its structuring — Paolo Canali says they worked with Indian designers to perfect the silhouette — but also in the way they manufacture the suit. Says Canali, “Worldwide, 99.9 per cent suits are glued together, but a Canali suit uses a layer of canvas which is stitched by hand with different kinds of threads for different parts of the suit.” It isn’t cost-effective, but it is distinctive, the suit has better structure, and movement around the shoulder, in particular, is not in any way hampered. “We stand for quality without compromise,” Canali could almost be gloating, except it is no empty boast, “and even for the bandhgala, we wanted to have the Canali imprint in its fit.”

The Canali bandhgala, labelled the Nawab Collection, is available off the rack as jackets or as a full suit. Most men wear their bandhgalas with simple trousers, which may suit the politician, but in Rajasthan they still wear them in the traditional way: with breeches. Wonder whether Canali — or other designers — will follow suit?

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