Brooms

The big brooming business

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An acquaintance of mine, Chantal, called from New York the other day with a request: she needed brooms; lots of them. Could I source them from India? Chantal is a gaunt French-Algerian chain smoker. She says merde (shit) a lot; wears Dior rouge lipstick, and lots of moody grey Chanel eyeshadow. She used to be a hand model but now specializes in department store windows. Her job, she says, is to make mannequins “look like models”.
Over Skype, Chantal explained her idea. She would decorate an entire department store with brooms. She had watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Madison Square Garden in New York, US. Her current boyfriend is Gujarati and had told her about the “Clean India” campaign. She had seen photos of Modi cleaning the streets. She didn’t care for the politicians but she wanted those brooms; at least a hundred of them. The mannequins could hold the brooms in various poses.
“Think about it,” said Chantal. “Flying Balenciaga clothes with brooms; Sacai on brooms; Givenchy’s Antigona bag surrounded by a chandelier of brooms; Celine in a forest of brooms; Christian’s nail polish (shoe designer Christian Louboutin) dripping red and purple on brooms. The possibilities are endless.”
I told Chantal that I would see what I could do. I knew a person who could deliver on this demand: Nagamma.
As a young girl, Nagamma had worked for my grandparents in Coimbatore. She was now a septuagenarian and had returned to the family business: broom making. She taught me many of the skills that have made me the woman I am today: stringing together a jasmine garland with a thread made from banana fibre; playing “five stones” and picking up three, four, five and even seven stones with one fist; drawing elaborate kolams or rangoli designs on festive days; and expertly parting hair with fingers and catching running lice.
I caught up with Nagamma at her village near Modakurichi, Tamil Nadu. We squatted under the swaying coconut trees with verdant paddy fields on all sides and engaged in an activity that she had taught me as a child. On one side were dried up coconut leaves. We had to squat on the ground and slit the leaves to pull out the spine. It was an activity that was as meditative as tying jasmine flowers or cleaning a lice-comb with a toothpick. For a while, Nagamma and I sat in companionable silence, ripping the coconut spine from its leaves. We both were chewing betel leaves and it was tough to talk over the red juice that was on the verge of drooling every time I opened my mouth. Finally, I tucked the leaf expertly in a corner of my mouth—another skill that Nagamma had taught me—and proceeded to lay out my proposal. I needed 100 brooms to export to the US, I said.
Nagamma leaned forward confidentially. “Kannu,” she said. The word means “eye” in Tamil but is used not as an “eye for an eye” type threat but an endearment. “Kannu, ever since the Aam Aadmi party, our bijiness has been very good. Every politican wants to wield a broom these days. How can I supply 100 brooms for your friend, Shanta?”
“Chantal,” I corrected absently but that wasn’t really the point.
Nagamma corrected my technique: slit in the middle, not the top, she said. That way I could pull the spine out on both sides. Quickly, she tied a bunch of coconut sticks, or eer-kuchi, as we called it, with a coir rope. A broom was done.
“You’ll get paid in euros, Nagamma,” I said.
She frowned. “Can I buy vethalai (betel leaves) with euros?”
I nodded vigorously. She could buy a barnyard full of betel leaves with euros.
That got her attention. Now I had to lay the problem at her feet. Chantal wanted the brooms to be tied with twine of multiple colours: neon, purple, candy pink, red, and turquoise. “We can’t put Chloé on traditional brooms,” she had said. “We need the brooms to have fashion also.”
Nagamma would have none of it. In the past, she said, they tied brooms with banana fibre. Tying it with coir was itself a compromise that she made for city-dwellers. Neon plastic twine was sacrilege. “In our country, we can eat our brooms, Kannu,” she said. “It comes from earth and it goes back to earth. How can I put all this false colours on the broom?”
I consulted Indologist Rekha Rao, who has written several terrific books on therapeutics in Indian sculptures and how they depict healing mudras and marma points (published by Aryan Books International but hard to find in bookstores). “There are objects that look like our brooms in Indus seals,” said Rao. “In fact, Narendra Modi looks like the male figure of Indus seals. With the same type of beard and facial features.”
Brooms in ancient India were used for saucha, said Rao. Cleaning the external space but also the inner negativities. Rao has analysed the sculptures of Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat. She said many of the sculptures there held brooms and their uses were somewhat similar to the shamanism that was practised in Tibet and Nepal— where the body was literally swept clean. “We use the chamara for fanning and similarly such brooms were used to sweep the body clean,” said Rao.
Rajiv Sethi, the painter and art curator, once showed me photos of brooms designed and held by tribal women, each of which was hand-tied and decorated in a fashion that was almost Japanese in its minimalism and subtlety.
So I did the only thing possible. I called Chantal and told her that I could provide Harry Potter’s flying brooms in a variety of colours if needed. But the humble Indian jhaadu was non negotiable: take it or leave it. She is still thinking about it.

Shoba Narayan knows how to make brooms. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Male Perfume

I thought male perfume was a bit of musk, wood, leather, and all those usual suspect-ingredients. Who would have thought about oudh, orange blossom and the like? These new male perfumers are changing the paradigm. I pitched the story to my editor, Ted, based on Byredo. The perfumer is half-Indian which is how I heard about it. I also sniffed the perfume at a shop in Paris. Bloomberg Pursuits gave me the other names. My Parisienne friend, Elisabeth helped me a lot with this piece. Sourcing contacts and the like. Here it is finally.

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The magazine is here.
BloombergPursuits-Spring2014

Coming of Age

My colleague, Shefalee Vasudev, who has a wonderful sense of Indian fashion, wrote this piece in which she included me. Shefalee knows Indian fashion well. Her aesthetic veers towards handmade, handwoven, quirky and local. I like the photos they have included with the piece as well.

I have another friend, Shruthi, who is a curator of content for an extended group of readers. But she mostly sends articles from US publications. Wonder why Indian publications have not hit her eagle eye and eclectic taste? Is it because they are not as good? Or because we are so bombarded with media and stimuli in India that we prefer to subscribe to our NYT online or The Atlantic online (both of which I do) and forget the India Today, Open, Caravan, Outlook, etc. etc. magazines?

Sari Warrior

A piece on my favorite subject.

The National Conversation

The sari is neatly woven into my country’s social fabric
Shoba Narayan
Aug 28, 2013

Different people have differing relationships with their country’s traditional clothes. The Japanese, for instance, have eschewed the kimono and adapted western attire. So too the Chinese. In Arab nations, women still wear traditional clothes. So too in Vietnam and India, where women switch between western and traditional wear depending upon mood and circumstance.
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In the last few months, I have started to wear Indian clothes, specifically saris, more often. It didn’t start out this way. During the 18 years when I lived in the US, I rarely wore saris. Vintage Christian Dior suits for formal occasions and shorts when the weather turned warm was more my style. They were comfortable and functional; and got me where I wanted to go.
After returning to India six years ago, I began to look for a style that suited a new life in a new land. Since I work from home, I had to dress for the people I dealt with on a daily basis: the plumbers and carpenters who came to fix my home and hang my paintings; the two women who helped cook and clean; and assorted home-delivery people such as the dry cleaner and tailor.
Gradually, I discovered they took me more seriously if I wore traditional clothes. The sari gave me gravitas. It allowed me to wield authority like my mother instead of appearing like a little girl clad in shorts and a shirt.
The sari also drew me into a life that I didn’t know existed.
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The sari, to put it simply, is six yards of unstitched cloth that is woven and draped by women all over the Indian subcontinent. For women of my mother’s generation, the sari has a huge resonance. It is a dress that they know, love and understand. It conveys purity, unsullied by needle and thread. So much so that most women don’t even stitch the edges of the woven fabric, preferring to tie it into knots to prevent it from fraying. No stitches, no pins, no cutting, just long swathes of beautiful textile that they drape over themselves like the ancient Greeks. This is the sari.
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If you ask Indian women, they will tell you that the sari is supremely graceful. It is also, to the modern woman, cumbersome, because it relies on drapery rather than tailoring to give it shape. When I began wearing the sari, I could barely move. The sari, in that sense, is a luxury garment, because it demands a certain leisure and grace that is reminiscent of the past. But looks can be deceiving. My housekeeper, for example, wears a sari to clean my bathrooms. My cook goes through the day – bending, chopping and lifting, all clad in a sari. It is, like haute couture, all a matter of practice.
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With practice, wearing a sari got easier. I realised that it was all a matter of how I draped the fabric and where I tucked it. Soon, I could sprint across the road clad in a sari. It suited the climate of India perfectly, airing out heat from the open midriff and covering the appropriate shoulder when the weather got cold. It made me feel at home. It also made me feel like an anomaly.
You see, the sari, for better or worse, has become a garment that the young and fashionable will not wear, unless it is a special occasion. The young women who populate my book club often prefer to wear skirts and dresses from Banana Republic and Nanette Lepore instead of a sari. They associate the sari with their mothers; with being old fashioned and traditional; with orthodoxy; with being an anomaly. Often, at parties, I am the only one clad in a sari. It makes me feel weird and not “with it” as my teenage daughter says.
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The sari disarms people though. When I go into a gathering populated by the Indian elite, clad in a sari, everyone in the room visibly softens, probably because I remind them of a time when all the women they loved wore saris. Just as the red oxide in my floor prompts Indians to say, “Oh, this floor reminds me of my grandmother’s house,” the sari is an icon that evokes nostalgia. So I disarm the audience in my sari and then slowly reveal the feminist underneath. What was it that they said about iron hand in a velvet glove?

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Jimmy Choos

Today morning, the first thing I did was to go out, pick up all the newspapers and hide Mint Lounge. My parents are temporarily staying with me and I didn’t want my father to read my column today mainly because of the use of the swear word– “Fuck me shoes.”

I lead many lives– some for my readers and some as the good daughter/daughter in law. Sometimes these worlds collide much to my dismay. So the Lounge is hidden. Problem is that my Dad has just gone to my brother’s house and I am sweating bricks and hoping that he will not find or read the Lounge issue there.

I loved writing this piece. I felt bad about using my daughter as a humor tool. What is it about storytellers? We are so selfish about ‘using’ the people around us for the sake of a good story? All my favorite humor writers– Tina Fey, Joel Stein, V. Gangadhar, and David Sedaris ‘use’ their loved ones to enhance the story. In Lounge, Natasha Badhwar writes a wonderful column where she uses her family for personal insights. It is not humor– the genre I obsess about, but it is lyrical and intimate. I am not there yet. Anyway, here is the piece.

Sat, Jul 20 2013. 12 04 AM IST

How Nirupa Roy scores over Jimmy Choo
What is it about women and stilettos?

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Would you give your first salary to your mother, like all the heroes did in Nirupa Roy movies, or spend it on something you have been dying to buy? Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
With my first salary, I will buy a pair of Jimmy Choos,” said the teenager.
I stared at her crestfallen. “What happened to giving your first salary to your mother?” I asked. “It is a great Indian tradition. Watch any Nirupa Roy movie.”
“Who is Nirupa Roy?” she asked. This then is what is called the generation gap.
With her question, my daughter had effectively removed one of the perks of motherhood: the bit where I stand tall, suppressing tears, staring at the sky with a sideways tilt of the head, while my offspring falls at my feet and hands me an envelope full of cash.
“Arre..re,” I will say, and do that accept-reject gesture perfected by elders in Hindi movies. It is like reaching for chocolate when you know you have to eat ragi (finger-millet) biscuits. You want the object but don’t want to appear gluttonous. Your arm, as a result, appears epileptic.
Nirupa Roy. Photo: Hindustan Times
Nirupa Roy always hands back the envelope, but with a self-righteous sniff that says: “It is mine. I am only giving it back to you because my director said so.”
I am more straightforward. I would like to keep my offspring’s first salary as my due—for all those diaper changes and sleepless nights. But this is not to be, because my daughter wants to buy Jimmy Choos. As a modern mother, I can hardly blackmail her emotionally into doing what I want. Well, I can—and do; only more covertly than Nirupa Roy.
“Why Jimmy Choos?” I asked. “Why not Manolo Blahniks or Christian Louboutins?”
And thus began my interrogation, which ended with my daughter telling me to keep the bloody salary and storming out of the room.
I watched her receding back, both smug and dismayed. Yes, I told myself. I can still inflict neuroses on my child? But why did I judge her desire to buy stilettos? Was it because I never wore them?
I was a tall girl till—like a rocket that went phus—I stopped growing and became of average height. As a result, I never wore high heels while growing up. I wasn’t allowed to. With every centimetre that I grew, my grandmother said, the pool of Palghat Iyer boys became smaller. She made it sound like it was my fault. She stopped giving me Complan and Chyawanprash, while heaping teaspoons-full on my brother. To this day, I resent the differentiation, even though I hated those decoctions. If they could do an Indian version of Chinese foot-binding to keep me short, my folks would have done it. They tried making me balance heavy encyclopaedias on my head. They said it was to make me walk gracefully but I think it was to make me short. Asking for high heels in this environment was like giving the Mafioso a gun.
I considered wearing heels only recently. I got tired of listening to friends say that they were addicted to shoes. How can you be addicted to something that doesn’t sustain you in some deep intoxicating way—like ganja, not that I am advocating it?
I am shrinking these days and not in waist size. My waist is balancing out the shrinkage in other parts. So last week, I took out the two pairs of high heels that I bought in a rash shopping spree in the US last year. One is black and the other red.
They are not Jimmy Choos, although they could have been for I like Choo’s shoes, and not just because the phrase “Choo’s shoes” rhymes. I also like Christian Louboutin’s fire-engine red heels because they look distinctive. My favourite shoes—the ones I considered actually wearing fairly continuously—were Prada‘s flame shoes. They look like fire is coming out of your heels. I also loved Yves Saint Laurent’s gladiator shoes. I think it is because I have a gladiator fantasy. I imagine the earth trembling as I walk on these flame-gladiator shoes. Now, that would be memorable, which, along with subversive, are two adjectives I like. I almost bought a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo chappals at Singapore duty-free because they were subversive; also on sale, which helped.
What is it about women and stilettos? Feminist Germaine Greer called them “fuck-me” shoes because you could wear them to bed but not to walk. Only a feminist could make that statement and get away with it, even if it is an exaggeration. What is interesting about her statement is that shoes—more than clothes, watches, or belts—are tied up with female self-esteem? Women say that they wear high heels to feel sexy. I think that we wear heels to have men at our feet, quite literally: Our Louboutins, our Jimmy Choos and our Manolo Blahniks envelop and caress our soles. Feet, I think, are a completely underrated sex organ, witness that Netherlands woman who had a foot orgasm. Any man who wants to score with a woman ought to massage her feet.
Men have their sensible flats; their custom-made Cleverleys; but they certainly don’t use shoes for sex appeal. Perhaps they should. Tamil film actors certainly did—after a fashion. Kamal Haasan used to wear shoes with concealed heels; so the wags in Kodambakkam said. But even so, it wasn’t overt. Shoes are to women what watches are to men: a sex object masquerading as a functional one. Who needs watches these days anyway, what with people checking their phones or BlackBerrys every second? Watches, along with fountain pens, are feel-good items. My brother gave me a Montblanc, but the darn thing dries up because I use it so seldom. I should simply buy those Reynolds pens that my children use for school. At `5 a pop, they work every time, which cannot be said of the stilettos that Greer was alluding to.

Shoba Narayan uses her fountain pen for “show” but finds that she goes searching for a ball-pen to sign cheques.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Ted, me and Moynat

I have known Ted Moncreiff for 15 years. He first assigned a bargaining story to me when he was an editor at Condenast Traveler way back in 1996. He continued assigning longer and longer pieces as Executive editor of Traveler. And sent me to places far and near: Laos (Vientiane and Luang Prabang), Cambodia (Siem Reap and Phnom Penh), Yunnan China (Kunming, Lijiang, Dali and Shangri-la), Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto), Singapore, Malaysia, and much. He assigned me 6000 word stories on Mumbai, Goa and Bangalore.

Then Ted left to join Newsweek as Executive editor. When Newsweek was bought, Ted joined W as Executive editor and assigned me a profile of Indian artists Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher. I spent a couple of days with them, interviewing them and writing up the profile. Got paid but the piece didn’t run. Perhaps Ted leaving the magazine had something to do with it.

Now Ted is the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Pursuits, the luxury lifestyle magazine affiliated with the Bloomberg empire. He calls me every now and then and we shoot the breeze. It ain’t the lunches he treated me to at Balthazar or DB Bistro Moderne, but it is something. People ask me what I miss about my life in the States. Well, I miss lunching with my editors for one.

When Ted called a few weeks ago, I told him about this brand, Moynat, that I had written about for FT’s Vanessa Friedman. I heard about it because the creative director, Ramesh Nair, is Indian and had previously worked at Hermes. I paid attention to it because its Pauline bags are amazing, and it is one of the few brands founded by a woman: Pauline Moynat. When I was in Paris, I had dinner with Ramesh and his lovely wife, Rachna.

When Ted asked for ideas for short, front-of-book pieces for Pursuits, I thought of Moynat. Here it is below. If any of you know an interesting maverick man in his 30s-40s who has reinvented himself, done interesting things, and is obviously hugely successful, please let me know. I’d like to see if he can be profiled for Bloomberg Pursuits.

Moynat for Bloomberg

Khadi

Khadi ‘Freedom fabric’ makes a comeback in India

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At the recent high-profile wedding of the Bollywood stars Genelia D’Souza and Ritish Deshmukh, two outfits that stood out were not made of high-end fabric or Swarovski crystal, but khadi, the Indian handspun and hand-woven cloth, made from cotton, described as “freedom fabric” and popularised by Mahatma Gandhi. The Bollywood stars Kangana Ranaut and Arpita Khan dazzled the paparazzi with their long skirts made of block-printed khadi.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who designed both skirts, is part of a growing number of fashion designers who are helping revive this handspun fabric with its hoary history. “Indians have an emotional connection to khadi, not just because of our independence movement, but because it truly is the fabric of India,” says the handloom researcher, Uzra Bilgrami.

Last October, at the spring/summer 2012 Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, the designer James Ferreira’s ephemeral collection was made from khadi fabric, woven in bright hues, with modern cuts. Speaking after the show, Ferreira said: “Khadi is the most beautiful fabric in India and I wanted to bring it back. I simply printed chiffon and georgette with it to give it a new life.”

This simple, austere fabric that was handspun by Mahatma Gandhi on his charka (spinning wheel) seems to be enjoying a renaissance in India today. Traditionally the attire of ageing Gandhians and politicians, khadi now has taken on a hip, new avatar, thanks in part to the many young designers who are giving this fabric a new spin (pun intended).

In Kolkata, Bai Lou studio, which focuses on handmade handwoven fabrics, sells a “disco khadi curtain”. In Hyderabad, the eco-friendly designer Aravind Joshua designs khadi costumes for his film collaborations under his label Thrithvaakhadi. In Bangalore, two designers, Ravi Kiran, 39, and Chandrasekhar, 41, have started a new label, Metaphor Racha, which focuses exclusively on khadi. The duo began working with khadi to differentiate themselves from other designers — as a way of creating a distinct design identity. But something happened on the way to the numerous weaving villages they frequent every week. They realised that they were part of a bigger community of weavers. “Now we don’t call ourselves designers; we are extensions of the craft and weaving cycle,” says Chandrasekhar.

Khadi in India operates under the auspices of the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC), which was created in 1956 to provide employment and help income generation in backward, marginalised areas to a predominantly female community of weavers. In this mission, it has succeeded. Where it has failed is to “include market forces in the marketing of khadi”, as the textile researcher, Rahul Jain says. “There was never a long-term vision on the part of KVIC to reposition khadi as the fabric for tomorrow rather than yesterday,” says Jain, while admitting that marketing khadi is difficult because the industry is so decentralised with more than a million weavers, primarily women, all over India.

There are some heartening signs. Last month, KVIC announced that it would establish an authenticating “khadi mark” certificate for genuine khadi, akin to its “silk mark” and “wool mark”. It also plans to set up 951 khadi clusters to increase and improve production, and set up 20 “khadi plazas” or malls to market khadi in all the Indian metros and two foreign destinations — as yet unannounced. The goal is to double the nationwide sale of khadi — currently at nine billion rupees (Dh667 million) annually. KVIC has signed an agreement with the leading denim manufacturer, Ahmedabad-based Arvind Mills, to produce and export “khadi denim” for jeans.

Like all natural fabrics — cotton, silk, linen — khadi gets softer with every wash and doesn’t irritate the skin like polyester does. But it has to be starched and ironed to drape well, and it creases quickly. This is part of the reason why busy professionals don’t choose it for their office wear. Good-quality khadi is hard to source because it is mostly available at musty government outlets. “Even though I like wearing khadi because it is absorbent, it is overpriced in India,” says Priya Sunder, the co-founder of a Bangalore-based wealth management firm, Peakalpha. “The key to solving the problem will be to increase supply through more retail chains, so cost comes down and popularity goes up.”

Some designers question whether this freedom fabric is redundant in free India. It was promoted by Gandhi originally as a protest against the importation of mass-produced textiles from British mills. Hasn’t khadi served its purpose in driving out the British? “Everyone is carried away by the romance of khadi but … it is a symbol that is no longer relevant. In today’s economic reality, it is a glorification of poverty,” says David Abraham, of the designer duo Abraham & Thakore. Abraham recommends repositioning khadi as an “exclusive product for a discerning few who are willing to pay the price for it”. Some years ago, the duo sold hundreds of khadi throws at The Conran Shop, each priced at £100 (Dh576).

T-shirt-clad youth are even more candid. “Khadi made sense during the freedom struggle. It has no relevance to our lives now,” says Sheela Gowda, a college student, who stands at a bus stop wearing a tight Aeropostale T-shirt and Levis jeans. “Khadi is thick and coarse and it rumples quickly.”

The irony is that purists and connoisseurs love this coarse, uneven texture of khadi. “You can see the human hand in khadi weaves,” says Chandrasekhar, the designer. “The beauty of khadi is the aberrations and uneven texture because, unlike a machine, the human hand is not perfect.”

Today’s designers, while prizing coarse, handspun khadi, are also using higher-count threads (going from 30-count to 100-count yarn) for their creations, mostly because higher-count yarn is thinner and drapes well. “No textile has such a hold on [Indian] public memory as khadi,” says Mayank Mansingh Kaul, a fashion designer who sells high-end khadi “by appointment only” at Paris salons. “It has become a national brand.”

Young politicians such as Rahul Gandhi and Sachin Pilot don the khadi “brand” as a way of connecting to the public and subliminally evoking not just a sense of public service but also patriotism. As Bilgrami says, “The beauty of khadi is that it is a truly indigenous expansion of the textile craft that Indians have been involved with for 5,000 years.”

Moynat for FT

I love niche products that nobody has heard of.  Moynat fits the bill.  It retails only in Paris for now, and very few people have heard of this brand.  Below is a piece I wrote about Moynat for Financial Times which ran during Paris Fashion Week.

Moynat for FT: this is the edited version on the site.  Scroll down to the Leather Goods section.

Saris from Paris

About the Hermes Sari.  Appearing here in the Financial Times Weekend fashion pages and pasted below.

January 13, 2012 10:05 pm

Saris from Paris?

By Shoba Narayan

French label Hermès has launched a take on the traditional garment and sparked controversy among local designers in India
Saris by HermèsSaris by Hermès

At his flagship Calcutta store, fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is extolling the glories of his new Kanjivaram collection to an adoring clientele. He pulls out silk brocade saris and points out complex weaves and disappearing flower motifs, raving about the nine exclusive weavers he employs in the ancient silk weaving centre of Kanjivaram, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Then a slim twentysomething woman walks in, dressed in a short Gucci dress, with Fendi sandals, Bulgari sunglasses and Prada bag. Her sari-clad mother wants to buy her a Kanjivaram sari, priced at about £1,800. The daughter refuses, saying that the “heavy silk weaves” will make her look fat. She prefers Mukherjee’s transparent “net saris”.

“Indians are moving away from our handmade textile traditions,” Mukherjee says, mournfully. “This is why a brand like Hermès has the audacity to come in here and sell a printed sari for £5,500. The sad thing is that Indians will queue up to buy those Hermès saris but they will ignore our handcrafted weaves.”

Indeed, the launch in India of 28 limited-edition Hermès styles only two months ago has ignited an intense debate, with factions (traditional and non) facing off against one another. At issue: the fact that a French brand is selling a simple “bazaar-type sari”.

“I was so angry when I saw it,” says designer Deepika Govind, who specialises in organic, eco-friendly fabrics. “It is obnoxious to come and wave a simple printed sari in our faces and say, ‘We’ve done a sari.’ OK, but show us something we haven’t done.”

Traditional saris from the winter collection by Sabyasachi MukherjeeTraditional saris from the winter collection by Sabyasachi Mukherjee

Like Mukherjee, Govind speaks reverentially about difficult weaves such as the Patan patola (a reversible weave that appears luminous on both sides); the Bagh prints of Madhya Pradesh (intricate handblocked floral prints coloured with vege­table dyes); and the geometric, multilayered ajrakprints of Rajasthan. “We are sitting on a gold mine,” she says. “If a company can take a very basic design and release it worldwide for that outrageous price, it just shows that we don’t know how to market our products. If any fool were to buy this [Hermès] sari, if any Indian were to buy it! I cannot see a reason to own this product.”

Hermès, however, says that selling a sari in India is not taking coals to Newcastle. Rather, it wants to “connect with Indian tradition and elegance,” says Bertrand Michaud, president of Hermès India. And there is precedent, thanks to Hermès’ Marwari scarves (prints inspired by the rare horses of Jodhpur) and sari-dresses designed by Jean Paul Gaultier in spring 2008 when he was creative director of the brand. Those, however, were riffs; this is a more significant collection. “It is like Indians selling wine in France,” sniffs one Indian style expert. “To sell a sari in India takes Gallic gall.”

Michaud prefers to call it homage. “The idea of the saris was to honour Indian culture and offer an Hermès interpretation of this traditional garment,” he says. Indeed, the brand’s entry into India follows its successful Shang Xia brand in China, which blends home-grown products with Hermès sensibilities.

‘It is like Indians selling wine in France. To sell a sari in India takes Gallic gall,’ says one Indian style expert

Hermès is just one of the many luxury brands thronging the Indian retail space, drawn by the fact that the Indian luxury market, which was a mere $4.76bn in 2009, is expected to grow by 20-25 per cent annually to reach $14.7bn by 2015, according to a report from the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Mayank Mansingh Kaul, a textile designer who has worked with the Indian government on policy related to handicrafts, says: “A lot of Indian designers are critical of the Hermès sari but we have to focus instead on promoting the use of saris among the younger generation – and for more occasions than weddings and festivals.”

Saris have a complicated history in India, dating back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Had Hermès launched a range of dupattas or stoles, or any other garment, the brand would not have provoked so much emotion and ire. But saris, as Rta Kapur Chishti says in her book Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond, are part of the Indian identity and represent a culture in which the woven and unstitched garment was considered not just climatically appropriate but also “an act of greater purity and simplicity”.

Still, not everyone is so critical of Hermès. Handloom researcher Uzra Bilgrami points out that for all their criticism of Hermès, Indian designers themselves don’t wear saris, choosing instead to “run around” in blue jeans. Bandana Tewari, fashion features director of Vogue India, who calls herself a big supporter of Indian handicrafts, says: “The Hermès sari is a nice modern print; completely anti-bling. It isn’t over the top or trying to compete with the textile artisans based in Rajasthan. Hermès is just doing what comes naturally to them,” – ie printed silk. However, though sometimes a sari is just a sari, it can also be a political hot potato.

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