When Saba Shafi, who got married in October, told her friends and family that she would be wearing a pheran for her mal maenz (a day before the mehndi ceremony, when henna is applied), their response was: “Who wears a pheran?”
The make-up artist, who divides her time between Srinagar and Delhi, says she wanted to be comfortable. She wore a tailored printed silk korab-dar pheran, giving a contemporary look to a traditional Kashmir Muslim woman’s pheran. This particular kind of pheran has slits at the elbow, you pin up the lower half of the sleeve to the shoulder.
When Shafi posted images on social media, she says she got a huge response, with people asking their tailors to copy the look. During her wedding ceremonies, she wore a pheran on two other occasions. For aab sherun (a ceremonial bath) on the morning of the wedding, she wore a parrot green velvet pheran with hand-embroidered tilla work (gold/silver thread) inspired by her grandmother’s 70-year-old pheran—a tilla pheran is part of the trousseau of a Kashmiri Muslim bride. She paired it with her grandmother’s jewellery. And for her pre-wedding shoot at Dal Lake, she wore a bright pink silk pheran.
Asked about her unusual choice, Shafi says she has always broken stereotypes—she claims to have been the first professional make-up artist in Srinagar when she started Makeup by Saba in 2012. “For me, it’s important to carry forward our culture and tradition but I also like to do things my own way.” Even as a teenager, when her friends would be wearing trendy jackets and oversized sweaters, she would turn up in a pheran. “It’s one of the most elegant garments—you can style it in whatever way you want,” says Shafi, who has over a dozen pherans.
THE WINTER CLOAK
The pheran, worn in winter by both men and women, is anti-fit, made of woollen fabric like tweed, falls just below the knees, has a deep pocket, loose sleeves, is shorn of embroidery and comes with a detachable cotton lining (postch) for extra warmth. It is usually in shades of brown, grey and charcoal, or check patterns, and along with the kangri (an earthen firepot), is an intrinsic part of the winter landscape.
The garment is like your own weighted blanket—snuggle in a kangri, pull your arms and legs in, and retreat from the world. It is spacious enough to cradle a toddler, with his/her head sticking out from the V-neck. Most people usually have one pheran for winter, and this can last for years. Even then it’s not retired; it’s adapted to work as a casserole to keep the rice warm or set the curd.
The Kashmiri Pandit pheran is distinguished by a ladh—a portion of the cloth is tucked in a few inches above the hem, and this can be opened up, to make the garment last a few more seasons, especially for children.
If you have grown up wearing a pheran, the fuzzy memory stays with you. Mumbai-based Rahul Sher, who has a bearings manufacturing unit, still remembers the maroon winter pheran from his childhood in Srinagar when he was three-four years old. His mother has kept his pheran—complete with ladh and postch—from his teenage years in the 1990s in Jammu. He wore it when he was in Delhi during winter some years back. Sher hopes that his four-year-old son gets an opportunity to wear it some day.
“I have promised myself I will wear a pheran when I go back to Kashmir. I will send you a picture from there,” he says.
THE PHERAN OUT OF FASHION
There are traditional summer pherans too; these are worn by elderly Kashmir Muslim women. There is one pheran, though, which has fallen off the sartorial map: the everyday pheran which used to be worn by Kashmiri Pandit women. Of ankle length, it had a cloth trimming in contrasting colour, usually red, around the neck and hem, was tied at the waist with a sash, and worn with elaborate headgear. It started getting edged out by the sari and salwar-kameez after social reformer Kashyap Bandhu is said to have encouraged women in the 1930s to give it up for something more practical. Till a few decades back, you could still see some elderly women wearing it.
Namrata Wakhloo, who is based in Gurugram, Haryana, and works for a global fashion brand, says that some years ago she found one neatly packed in a bag in one of her mother’s old trunks. The bottle-green pheran with red trimming belonged to her great grandmother, Jigir.
Wakhloo says the bag also contained the headgear that completes the look: taech (a gold thread embroidered skull cap worn by brides), kalpush (a zari cap, used in daily wear), zooj (an embellished net head cover that goes over the cap), and some other accessories. There was also a pair of zari-adorned pulhors (straw slippers). “It was a complete ensemble! I just knew then that I had to give life back to this beautiful piece of our heritage.”
She asked a craftsman in Kashmir to restore the pheran but he said the fabric—a mix of silk and pashmina called meemreeshim—would disintegrate. “So, instead, he is adapting the exact style for me, in pashmina, with similar red trimmings, which we have seen on our grandmothers in our childhood. For me, it means claiming back my long-lost heritage, which seems to have vanished into the past.”
And in keeping up with the times, the pheran will be more structured, something she can pair with pants in winter for an evening out. Wakhloo says she would love to pass on the pheran to her daughter.
While the traditional winter pheran is bulky and meant for intense cold, the contemporary versions, which have a wider audience, are slimmer, made in lighter fabrics like silk and crepe, can be worn in summers and have a fluid drape. They come in a range of Kashmiri embroidery, from sozni, aari to tilla, either hand or machine made, the former being more expensive. These pherans, in varying lengths, can be paired with jeans, tights, silk pants, salwars, skirts, saris—Shafi has teamed hers with boots—and can go from office to party wear, depending on the embroidery and material used.
Bengaluru-based Neetu Jalali Singla, who started her clothing line Zafran in 2015, fuses traditional Kashmiri embroidery with modern designs. She calls her pherans oversized kurtas or pheran/kaftan because “clients don’t get what a pheran is”. Singla, who has a studio in London and opened a store at The Hatworks Boulevard in Bengaluru last year, says she showed a jacket-style pheran at a private show in London some years ago. Though it was designed for a female audience, it eventually became a unisex pheran/jacket and has been selling like that since.
Her other twists include lining her crepe pherans in a contrasting colour, satin or printed material, to appeal to a younger audience. Singla says at her pop-up in Hyderabad last year, some customers bought pherans as “Hyderabadis have an eye for hand embroidery”.
Singla, who generally uses hand embroidery in her garments, works with seven craftspersons in Kashmir. After Article 370 of the Constitution was effectively abrogated in August last year, and restrictions came into force, she had to move her embroidery unit to Delhi for six months.
Singla, who has clients from all over the world, says she wears summer pherans to weddings, cocktails and gatherings. She pairs them with slim-fit, cropped pants and heels. For weddings, she says, you can accessorise your pheran with a maang-tikka or kundan earrings, and for a cocktail party, tie a belt. Avoid a neckpiece if the embroidery is heavy. And for a plush look, go for brocade pants.
But there is one pheran which Singla holds dear—a pure wool, cream pheran which belonged to her grandfather. She says her late father would wear it when it got slightly chilly in Bengaluru and then say, “Now give me a hot water bottle,” as a substitute for the kangri. When she would ask him to take it off, he would say, “This is my tradition, do they (Kannadigas) not wear lungis!” Her 11-year-old son has inherited the pheran, “a memory of her grandfather and father”—the next closest thing to a warm embrace.
A versatile garment, the modern and traditional pherans both coexist—the former drawing from the latter. As Shafi says, “Now it’s cool to wear pherans.”