The Swadeshi Sartorialist

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Fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee tells Manjula Narayan that globalised sameness and recession are fuelling a return to tradition

THERE’S SOMETHING about designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee that eludes easy compartmentalisation. A creator of sumptuous high fashion garments that play with textures and embellishments to startling effect, the 34-year-old is well on his way towards establishing himself as a polymath. Apart from infusing garments with an aesthetic at once traditional and modern, he’s now designing interiors for 200 villas in Alibaug near Mumbai as well as creating costumes for Mani Ratnam’s Ravan.

Though his clothing lines are much in demand, it’s clear that he needs more than mere evanescent fashion to feed his soul. “Actually, I’ve lost interest in fashion. I’m not interested in creating something to impress five journalists and a few buyers any more. The real masters in art spend years perfecting a single brushstroke. With fashion, there is constant pressure to create new looks every season. Really, I’d rather be a creator of cultural clothing,” he says. Apparently, ‘cultural clothing’ includes all those traditional garments that have always been part of our lives – like the Kanchipuram sari, the Parsi Gara and the exquisite Bengali dhakai– but never been accorded fashion status.

In a natural progression of this thought-process, the hand-embroidered clothes, organically dyed fabrics and unadorned stripes he came across during Ravan-related travels in the tribal regions of Bastar and Kotpad have become Sabyasachi’s new inspirational wellsprings.

He’s ready to admit, too, that much of this mood of introspection is to do with the intellectual shift brought on by the recession. “People are now taking a step back to look at their own lives. We’re opening ourselves up to new experiences and connecting to products that give us a new a sense of time,” says Sabyasachi. Whenever there’s a crisis, he argues, the need for instant gratification gives way to a pleasure in things that are intellectually engaging. He predicts that the new luxury businesses (no doubt including his magnificent seaside villas) will focus on “finding the unique experience, that’s like a rarity”.

Clearly, in a world where everyone is trying to stuff as much of life as they can into every minute, time has become the rarest of commo – dities. Understandably, the painstakingly handmade artifact, once ignored in India’s hurry to modernise, is now rightly seen as a precious repository of concentrated labour, of generations of carefully honed expertise, of an era when time reserves were infinite. Which brings Sabyasachi back to the promotion of traditional crafts, a pet love. “For four years, I’ve been working at the grassroots with craftsmen to create new products. People want to reconnect to things that are becoming obsolete, and through them to an era when life was more pleasant. There is definitely going to be a great revival of Indian crafts in the near future,” he pronounces.

SENIOR DESIGNER James Ferreira, who has similar preoccupations (though a very different design sensibility), believes Sabyasachi’s colour combinations and cuts especially suit the Indian figure. “Because he’s located in Kolkata, he has access to good Bengali craftsmen- dyers, embroiderers and printers – who work for cheaper rates there than they do in Mumbai. Their craftsmanship is lovely. He would be wasting his time doing western clothes – he’s understood the Indian bridal wear market and incorporates elements like Swarovski interestingly. His work is rooted in Indian tradition, that’s a strength,” says Ferreira. “He’s shown that being Indian can gain you trust in the vicious circles of international design and criticism,” says Raghavendra Rathore. Sabyasachi himself holds up the tenacious Japanese as an example. “In the 1980s, they brought in the kimono and shibori. They held onto their culture so strongly that the whole world noticed. Indians can march ahead only by being Indian,” says Sabyasachi, for whom the Swadeshi Movement’s power lay in the visual nature of clothing. “Gandhi evoked patriotism through clothes. Sadly, now in our urge to be cosmopolitan, we have obliterated our culture. These days, 19-year-olds don’t even know how to wear saris,” he laments. Indian men who once dazzled with their brocades and jewellery have also switched to bland western clothing at least in the professional context. “We’ve regressed. Earlier, we used to be adventurous and men of the court wore pink satin vests under white chikan kurtas so the embroidery showed up. These days, it has become socially awkward to wear Indian clothes to office,” he says.

If Sabyasachi had his way, Friday casuals could morph into a new avatar: “Recently, in Mumbai at a CEOs conference, I suggested they make Friday ‘national dress day’. I hope at least a few will do it. We should belong to a country that has realised the value of its heritage,” he says. But it will take more than a traditional transformation of the office space to restrict Sabyasachi to the rarefied realms of Indian couture. He intends to soon branch out into making films. “Growing up, like all good Bengalis, I would go for film festivals and come back and pontificate! But I do believe film would be a good canvas for my hypercreativity. But I’ll have to wait for my sister to pick up the strings of this business. That’ll take three years,” says Sabyasachi, whose relationship with his sister Payal, younger by seven years, is reminiscent of the Gianni Versace-Donatella symbiosis. “I used to babysit her. I’d say I’ve been a big influence on her. Our sensibilities are the same.”

Whether he continues to exhilarate with his fashion flair or switches to celluloid, you can be sure that all of Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s future enterprises will draw from the rich repository of the pan-Indian tradition.

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