The pheran enjoys its American moment

Majid Maqbool | Updated on August 02, 2019 Published on August 02, 2019

There she goes: Young women from Kashmir, living in different parts of the US, participated in the photo shoots in New York and Los Angeles   -  Sumaya Teli

Kashmir’s favourite attire is enjoying a moment in the US sun

Outfits or pieces of cloth tell their own stories. Think of the checked kaffiyeh or the saffron gamchha. For some women, the pheran — the long kurta traditionally worn in Kashmir — is more than just a garment: It is a statement.

The outfit recently made waves on the streets of New York City (NYC) and Los Angeles (LA) after a group of Kashmiri women organised a photo shoot focusing on the elegant, hand-embroidered pheran.

Sumaya Teli, a medico-turned-writer who lives with her husband and three children in Boston, helped organise the photo shoots featuring young women from Kashmir now living and working in different parts of the US. For the sessions, the women wore pherans, jewellery and accessories sourced from Kashmiri artisans and clothing brands.

“Reclaiming the pheran and traditional Kashmiri embroidery in its many forms (which some Kashmiris dismiss as old-fashioned) while bringing this heritage into public view is an important statement for me,” Teli writes in her blog, where the pictures were published. The pheran, she believes, has come to represent a symbol of resistance — “a call to remember a land that is as vulnerable as it is beautiful.”

Pherans, mostly woollen, are worn both by men and women. The men wear plainer versions of the more colourful and gaily embroidered outfits that the women wear. “The pheran is so quintessentially Kashmiri that it, like its wearer, has been the subject of scrutiny and state policing,” she writes. Security forces, for instance, often frisk men in pherans, suspicious of what the loose garment may conceal.

There was a time, Teli tells BLink, when a Google search for the word pheran would throw up images of the actor Sharmila Tagore in a pheran and a scarf in stills from Kashmir ki Kali, a 1964 Hindi film set largely in the Valley. “Kashmiri culture has been appropriated over the years. Bollywood makes so much money from the ‘hot topic’ of Kashmir while mainly leaving actual Kashmiris out of it,” she says.

For Teli, a pheran is wrapped in memories. She recalls as a child in Kashmir being carried inside her uncle’s pheran, her head poking out of the neck hole of the garment.

After her family moved to London in the early ’90s, she often wore a pheran over her jeans. “It’s modest, comfortable and has pockets, which are just the best part about the garment. I still wear them all the time at home, to the mosque, to dinners,” she says.

It was to showcase the outfit that she and four other Kashmiri women organised the NYC photo shoot in April 2019. A similar event was held in LA’s Long Beach in June 2018.

The clothes for the NYC shoot were sourced from Kashmir by NY-based Kashmiri designer Nousheen Afzal for her label Hamzaara New York. Afzal and her sister designed the clothes along with artisans in Kashmir. The pherans for the LA photo shoot were made by Kashmir-based designer Iqra Ahmed of the Tul Palav brand. Teli also arranged for other accessories, including Kashmiri shawls and jewellery, for the events.

Sabreen Haziq, a digital media professional based in Boston, says that when Teli asked her to join the project, she couldn’t say no. “She thought I could add value and diversity to this concept, for which I am grateful,” Haziq adds.

Faiqa Anbreen, an aerospace engineer in LA, took part in both the LA and NYC shoots, wearing multi-coloured and embroidered pherans and jewellery. The hard work and craftsmanship of Kashmiri artisans transform basic yarn into exotic Pashmina shawls, with tilla embroidery on velvet and the delicate sozni work, another kind of embroidery.

“For me, that becomes a driving force to wear the art of my native artisans on international streets and become a part of the global recognition of Kashmiri art and culture,” Anbreen says.

Teli stresses that the events are not just about showing the garment to the world, but also to turn the arc lights on strong Kashmiri women who are comfortable in their pherans on the streets of NY as well as those of Sopore or Srinagar. “These images and the strength, power and ownership they represent seek to challenge the cultural appropriation and blurring of identity that come as a result of all these years of occupation,” she claims.

She adds that the photographs evoked “wonderful responses” from Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris alike. “The LA story went, as they say, ‘viral’ for there had never before been a 21st-century modern and relevant take on the pheran and I wanted to do this so much for the beloved dress of Kashmir,” Teli says. The NYC shoot was shared extensively on social media sites and picked up by the Kashmiri media, she adds.

She now plans to work with more Kashmir-based clothing brands and artisans. “My intention is to benefit Kashmir and Kashmiris and put the focus on people who are the makers, the weavers and artisans involved in doing the actual work in Kashmir,” she says. “I would be happy if through this work, hand embroidery, which is a dying art, gets back in vogue and inspires the young people of Kashmir to learn these arts and crafts and preserve them for the next generation,” she says.

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar

Published on August 02, 2019
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