Style Icon: Geeta Lakhanpal

D.M.D., Inverness Family & Cosmetic Dentistry

When keeping up with her children's busy schedules, Geeta infuses her culture into everyday, comfortable ensembles. Namrata Joshipura tunic, Chico's jeans, Bulgari bag, David Yurman citrine necklace, bracelet & earrings.

Photographer, Chuck St. John; Stylist, Tracy James Robinson. All clothing & accessories from Icon’s own wardrobe. Photographed at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

To the foreign traveler, one of the first impressions of India is the colorful attire of its people. The dress of an Indian woman not only represents the gracefulness and richness of the culture, but can also reveal much about a woman’s status, age, occupation, region and religion.

Perusing the closet of Birmingham dentist Geeta Lakhanpal was like entering an exotic land, bursting with color, texture and intricate detail. I was like a kid in a candy shop, wanting to finger every silk, study every embellishment, try on every bangle and chandelier earring. But the story behind the garments was even more fascinating.

Geeta was born in Mumbai, India, then moved to Holland when she was 10, where her physician parents continued to raise her in Indian culture. At 18, Geeta moved to the states to attend Auburn (an uncle worked at Russell Athletic in Alex City), then attended dental school at UAB. Today, Geeta and her husband Shaily, an oncologist, live in Mountain Brook with their children Amrita, 11, and Arjun, 13. All worship at the Hindu Temple in Pelham, spiritual home to about 700 devotees. But every morning before the day fully begins, each family member worships briefly in the small temple within their home.

For everyday wear, Geeta choses comfortable, “effortless” clothing that allows her to shuttle her kids to and from their activities. Fortunately, effortless doesn’t mean sweat suits, but rather  colorful tunics and jeans. She describes her style as classic with a Bohemian bent, which allows her to infuse ethnic accents. “Tunics are easy-fitting and the printed ones hide spills,” Geeta points out. Her wardrobe of tunics include selections from Indian designers, like Namrata Joshipura, as well as styles from Trina Turk, Tory Burch, Michael Kors and Joie.

Parities and weddings within the Indian culture, however, require much different attire. Most ubiquitous is the sari, an unstitched piece of fabric 5 to 9 yards in length that seems to transcend what a strip of cloth can do. There are more than 80 different ways to wear a sari, with the most common being nivi, a style in which one end of the sari is tucked into the waist of the skirt, called a petticoat, then wrapped around the lower body once and gathered into even pleats in the front. The loose end of the sari, called the pallu, is draped over the shoulder – the left if, like Geeta, you are from north India. The fitted blouse, or choli, worn underneath usually bares the navel, as the navel of the Supreme Being is considered to be the source of life and creativity. That said, the sari can offer as little or as much modestly as the wearer desires. This is practical also because of India’s hot weather. Saris are sold with the cholis attached but unfitted. The purchaser takes the blouse to a tailor who properly fits the garment then custom makes a petticoat to complete the ensemble.

Photographed in the BMA Asian sculpture gallery, Geeta wears a delicate crystal bejeweled Swati Couture sari in mint green, one of the "it" colors of spring 2012.

Saris range from simple to formal; the latter might be embellished with crystals and worn as a guest to a wedding. Hindu weddings last several days, thus necessitating a variety of outfits. The bride herself may wear a lehenga choli, which consists of a highly decorative skirt, blouse and dupatta or scarf draped over the head and shoulder. The preferred color is often a shade of red, considered a very auspicious hue among Hindus.

A more casual outfit, worn by the women in Geeta’s Northern state of Punjab, is the salwaar kameez: loose drawstring pajama pants paired with a top called a kameez that can vary in length and style, depending on the current trends. In vogue among hip and younger women is a fitted pant called a churidar, which proves to be more proportionally flattering.

Indian culture was way ahead of American trends when it came to “statement pieces.” Chandelier earrings and armfuls of sparkly bangles are nothing new. The tradition of jewelry started 5000 years ago in India, and accessorizing is an important part of Indian dress. Gold was most commonly used, because gold offered security against financial crisis. Drool-worthy are the 22 karat gold, intricately engraved necklace, bracelets and earrings given to Geeta by her parents for her New Delhi wedding. Recently, using silver gemstones and diamonds has become popular, as has a technique called kundan, which involves setting cut and polished gemstones into a pure gold or metal base. Once the stones are set, intricate designs, called meenakari, are etched and engraved onto the back surface.

Another form of accessorizing is henna application, a ritual performed at all important occasions. This temporary skin decoration signifies love, affection and good luck. At weddings, Geeta explains, “It is said that the darker the henna imprint, the more the girl will be loved by her husband and in-laws. The bride is traditionally not allowed to work in her husband’s home until the henna fades away completely.” Geeta’s daughter enjoys accessorizing with bindis, decorative dots worn in between the eyebrows, and now available in sticker form in all colors an patterns.

While Geeta is knowledgeable about and proud of her Indian heritage, she embraces her Western culture as well, and enjoys mixing the two style-wise. “I’ve always loved contrasting colors, flowing fabrics and Indian motifs like paisley and floral, no matter how they are interpreted.” Wearing what one loves that is also meaningful? That’s what good style is all about.

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