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The Week in Desi Design IV

I wonder what has provoked these sudden outbursts in the Indian media, asking desi designers to stay true to their “heritage”? First, fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee complained to the Times of India, “It is a shame that designers are moving away from India’s rich culture and heritage and aping the West for their creations.” Then there was a truly odd piece in the Hindustan Times, (which smacks of being a PR release by Design Indaba) where Ravi Naidoo did some amateur historicising, “After independence, we lost the old aesthetic awareness because of lack of government support.” And Gunjan Gupta backed it up with her own pearl of wisdom, “Almost every piece of contemporary furniture in India’s burgeoning luxury market is either a Western import or a locally-manufactured imitation of the same.”

What’s so ridiculous about the comments is that they are all talking about luxury goods — the one segment where the idea of heritage actually sells!

Yes, rich Indians buy western imports. But there’s also plenty of exorbitantly-priced, sophisticated, handcrafted accessories going around. Several craft sectors thrive entirely on this luxury market — marble inlay in Agra, stonework in Jaipur, wood carving in Saharanpur. Indian Jewellery traditions like kundan and minakari have seen a remarkable return to fashion in the last few years. I have no idea why Sabyasachi feels that not enough designers are following in his footsteps. Right under his nose, new initiatives like the Malkha Project are  going beyond the obvious zardozi and chikankari, to promote humble cotton cloth to the high echelons of deluxe.

The most recent example of the luxury/heritage/design trend is a much publicised show called The Design Raj at the Mumbai store Bungalow 8. This is the classic international crafts revival model — a bunch of British designers working with Indian craftspeople to create one-off, disproportionately aesthetised, sanitised objects. The organisers are quick to point out that the objects, like meenakari earrings or 100% cashmere shawls, are neither “kitsch” nor “exoticised,” but have some “rare sensitivity” to heritage. And this heritage comes at a price point. Jewellery sells for upto Rs.8.5 lakh, and a cashmere cape costs Rs. 75,000.

So, Sabyasachi, Ravi Naidoo and Gunjan Gupta, I’d actually argue that our haute design world (i.e the world of expensive, ‘designer’ products) is pretty much dominated by different conversations with tradition. The most interesting voice on this in the past week comes from David Abraham, of the apparel line Abraham and Thakore, speaking to The Hindu.

Abraham is photographed standing next to a beautiful silk coat, which on closer inspection, is printed with little kitschy symbols — parrots, a palmist’s hand, a tonga, a rickshaw. But the coat itself is as far from kitsch as it is from being overtly traditional.  I love the concluding quote:

“While the sari is exquisite, nothing has been worked out for all weathers. So we have integrated coats and parkas into the design,” he says while he rubbishes high horsed upholding of the traditional sari, “Tradition is valid only when it is useful.”

And while the hi-flying designers are all making much ado about nothing, our sarkari babus have their own intriguing takes on tradition.

The first viewpoint comes from the Punjab Government, which is about to announce an international design competition for the entrance to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The design brief, as delineated in this Indian Express article, gladdens my heart. The Golden Temple is the bastion of Sikh religious heritage, so designers are advised to respond to the “geometry and key features of the city.” But the main task is to create a “a safe, secure and barrier-free environment that attracts public usage.” Somebody in the Punjab Government seems to share David Abraham’s views on tradition.

Daring as they may be, the Punjabi babus are no match for some local government officials in Kerala, who have announced a competition for “an air-conditioned jacket for outdoor labourers.” No, I’m not pulling your leg, the Government of Kerala wants its handsome, dark-skinned, traditionally bare-chested labourers to start wearing jackets as they ride elephants and shimmy up coconut trees. And they want to spend a lot of money developing these jackets – Rs. 1,00,000 to ten finalists, and Rs. 10,00,000 to one final winner. I have a strong inkling that this particular design story, from the international news agency AFP, is a hoax. But if it’s true, I’m waiting with bated breath for what ludicrous results it will produce!

So you can take your choice between cocktails, lassi and coconut water. Here’s to some equally entertaining desi design news next week!


  1. Gunjan Singh wrote:

    Delightful article Avi!
    Sometimes, people can turn a blind eye to what’s happening around. Textiles and crafts are one sector where innovation is happening beyond whats being displayed at Dilli Haat and Dastkaar exhibitions or at the so called cool fashion weeks( if that’s how far your eyes go in search of tradition!They were good patrons, but I think now they are getting stagnant.. they need fresher perspectives! they need to evolve!)

  2. aindri wrote:

    Even though Sabyasaachi prefers tradition and questions the idea of what exactly is contemporary on occasions such as what should the bride be wearing?
    (which is basically what our fashion industry cashes in most I think ) some of his inspirations come from extremely mundane contemporary situations: Extra large boyfriend fit shirts that he made a few years back inspired from the neighbourhood girls who did not have a mother and wore a lot of borrowed shirts off their dad who was an army veteran. His aesthetics were Fort William Calcutta central but very westernised as well. I like the stories he stitches on to his garments. Yeah, I think tradition and contemporary are too generalised words anyway, maybe his definitions are different, but I guess he is not talking about just the aesthetics bit, or maybe he is?

  3. Thanks for linking to my blog – and also for bringing attention to the piece. It’s an important story.

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