Culture and Globalization

The Question of our Time.

How can we stay rooted in our own culture in a globalised world?
In a globalised world, it’s hard to define our respective culture by what we eat or how we dress up.
Mike Young / The National

How can we stay rooted in our own culture in a globalised world?
Shoba Narayan

November 10, 2014 Updated: November 10, 2014 06:36 PM

What makes you who you are? Is it genes? Or culture? Is it the environment that you grow up in? If it is environment, what aspect of it influences you the most? Is it family, school, college, friends, teachers? These are the questions that interest me – culture and identity and how they dance with each other within a person and across time.

Why do some cultures transmit their values better than others? How does a culture reinforce identity?

I grew up in a fairly traditional south Indian family. Take a simple sentence like that. What does it mean when I say a “traditional south Indian family?” When I say it, I mean a few things that have to do with family, lifestyle and values.

The milieu that I grew up in involved a close relationship between generations, between grandparents, parents and children, all of whom either live in the same house or met each other often.

We ate foods that were contained to a region. Our daily meals were south Indian dishes like dosa and idli, mixed with the occasional north Indian dish.

We didn’t eat out very much, and when we did we went to Indian restaurants. We listened to Indian music – Carnatic music, Tamil and Hindi film songs.

We didn’t know too many foreigners and that was normal.

I remember the first few English movies that I saw. They were Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno. The fact that I remember them vividly perhaps means that I didn’t see many Hollywood movies.

We listened to a few western bands – Abba and Boney M — mostly to appear cool to our college friends. Although we tried to wear jeans and T-shirts, we were most comfortable in loose Indian clothes like the salwar kameez.

The fact that this list is so specific to a particular region and time says something about me. My time, the time when I absorbed external influences, was Madras in the 1970s and 1980s.

An Indian growing up in Kolkata or Mumbai, Darjeeling or Ahmednagar would have a different set of specifics; a different set of regional particularities. The food they ate, the clothes they wore, the books they read, the movies they watched – all would be different and specific to that region. But every region with a strong sense of identity operated (and perhaps still operates) within a narrow bandwidth in terms of the food they eat, the clothes they wear and the lifestyle they enjoy.

It seems to me that the more narrow your world is, the tighter your sense of identity. My parents grew up in small towns and their sense of self is very particular.

Today that is no longer possible because we live in a world where information and identity are very porous. There’s a lot of give-and-take.

Today, I wear western clothes as well as Indian clothes.

I bought a lovely scarf in Dubai, which is made by the French fashion house, Hermes; and I wear it in India, paired with a sari. Objects and values flying across cultures; global versus local, reflecting the shifting sands of time.

My question is this: how does one stay rooted and local while living in a global world? I realise that there is no one answer to this question, but what is yours? Is it Islam, or Arab values, or a language, a constitution, a culture?

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

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

Sensual India

This is one of my favorite pieces and it took a while to write.
It appears in a magazine called Eat Stay Love that is the in house magazine of Aman, Four Seasons, and other luxury hotels in India.
Some time ago, a lady from a custom publishing group contacted me. They do the magazines for the Oberoi and Taj group. This was for the foreign brands, she said. Would I write a column for them? This article is the result.

I am happy with it for several reasons. Defining the Indian aesthetic has become a pastime/obsession for me (and countless others from the sound of it). It allowed me to “name-drop” all my favorite brands without having to appear pseudo. Once I registered that the people reading this piece would be primarily foreigners and I had to “unlock” India for them using the brands they were familiar with, it became easy.

Thank you, Radhika Misra for introducing the group to me. Click the link below and it is pasted below without the photos

122-123 LOVE – Shobha Narayan

For Eat, Stay, Love

How do you define a nation’s aesthetic or style in one word? Some are obvious. Japan’s minimalism as epitomized by Tadao Ando’s architecture, or the tea ceremony. Dutch avante garde product design, witness Maarten Baas’ smoked furniture or Marcel Wanders’ crochet chair. German perfection, as seen in Jil Sander’s clothes, Dieter Ram’s products, or automobiles such as the BMW. Swiss precision as in Akris’ dresses, Jaeger LeCoultre’s complications, and Patek Phillippe watches. French insouciance– think of Jane Birkin mixing a Dior suit with a casual cashmere scarf, or Catherine Deneuve’s je ne sais quoi. America’s sporty casual chic epitomized by J.Crew clothes, Ralph Lauren suits and Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses. Korea’s street style, also known as Gangnam style. Latin sexiness as seen in Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem’s brooding looks. Italian flamboyance, Chinese economic clout, Australia’s easygoing nature, and the Middle East’s wealth. These are instant associations that we make with a culture and country.

What about India? How to describe India’s style credo in one word? The Indian government tried it with its successful “Incredible India” campaign, which encapsulates the varied marvels of this land. But it didn’t delve deep into the Indian aesthetic; its notion of style and luxury. All this requires a much more specific moniker. After months of pondering, I believe I have come up with one: sensual. India is supremely sensual. Put another way, India’s sensuous aesthetic, as reflected in its people, places, ways of life and behavior is unparalleled and hard to find anywhere else in the world, save perhaps Bali (and Bali’s sensuality comes from a Hindu root that came from India). Isn’t this what we call culture?

Let me elaborate. Sure, India is colorful, chaotic, a study in contrasts, expressive, emotional , spiritual. But if there is one stylistic statement that unites us as a nation, it is our sensuality. A Gujarati banker may wear bespoke Zegna suits to meetings in Mumbai or New York. Come Dussehra, he will dance the sinuous dandia under a moonlit sky in Baroda or Amdavad. A Tamilian executive may wear Jimmy Choo heels and Prada pants to client meetings; but she will also walk barefoot on Chennai’s dewy grass wearing Kanjivaram silks, and braid mogra jasmine into her curly hair. A Sindhi entrepreneur may entertain using Baccarat, Reidel and Versace, but when at home, he will eat Sai Bhaji on a simple stainless steel plate that Subodh Gupta used to make million-dollar sculptures. A Kashmiri shopkeeper may sell pashmina shawls and handwoven carpets with brisk efficiency to tourists; but he will slowly savor fragrant Kahwa tea with slivered almonds and saffron during his break. The Delhi socialite may carry her Hermes Kelly bag to garden parties but she will lounge at home in soft diaphonous muslin while getting a sandalwood oil massage. The Rajasthani prince may have turned his palace into a hotel but he sees nothing wrong in wearing inherited Cartier necklaces with giant emeralds while greeting guests. India is over-the-top; supremely sensuous; and the opposite of the less-is-more Bauhaus or minimalist aesthetic. As others have noted, India is about more-is-more. Regardless of region or social class; regardless of state or stature, Indians are extremely fond of and comfortable with sensuality. Indeed they seek in in daily life.

It is this exuberant sensuality that dazzles tourists when they visit India; and it is what a discerning traveler should seek in this land. Enjoy your body being turned to pulp with an ayurvedic massage beside the beach under rustling coconut palms in Kerala. Dine on a Petrus paired with freshly caught fish after. Listen to the plaintive strains of the Manganiyar singers while sipping a pepper mojito. Drape yourself in a Sabyasachi woven sari from his flagship store in Kolkata. Visit the boutique stores of Bombay where contemporary chic meets Indian aesthetic. Go gallery hopping in Lado Sarai, Delhi and buy the young artists on their way to becoming superstars. These are the pleasures of India. They can be uber-expensive, or they can, like a paan, be had for pennies.

One way to access this sensuality is through products that you buy: a small vial of pure sandalwood oil that costs about US$150 at Cauvery emporium on MG Road, Bangalore. I mix it with almond oil imported from the States and use it like a moisturizer. Another way to take home a piece of sensual India is through its handwoven textiles, each in beautiful jewel tones with evocative names: blushing rose, eggplant flower purple, tender leaf green and other. Saris symbolize India and you can take home a traditional Benares silk sari that feels like heaven and costs a few thousand dollars. What comes across in all these purchases is India’s astounding regional variations. We may speak in English but we sing in Telegu, recite sonnets in Urdu, serenade in Hindi and argue in Bengali. The expressiveness of our tongue epitomizes a very particular aesthetic. Through our language, we convey our spirit.

Sensuality is an Indian art form, perfected since the age of the kama sutra. It is what India lives and dies for; and it is what, you can– if you are lucky– seek and experience.

Shoba Narayan is the author of “Monsoon Diary” and “Return to India.”

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.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee

I spent two days hanging around Sabysachi.  He’s an interesting man.  Here is a story about him that appeared in The National.  Also pasted below.

The sari warrior

Shoba Narayan

Nov 26, 2011
Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee wants his customers to take pride in wearing Mukherjee saris and weaves.

The fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is sitting on the floor of his sprawling workshop in Kolkata, surrounded by 10 people. All around are piles of fabric. There are rich brocades in pink and purple, hardy indigo-dyed cloth, swatches of airy beige voile, rich Benares silks and nubby cotton. Two men sit on a desk, drawing floral designs that will end up as borders on his saris and skirts. A PR person walks in, stating that a Bollywood star, Priyanka Chopra, is at his Mumbai store and wants to use an outfit for an awards show.

“Sure, let her take it. Why do you need to ask?” says Sabya, as he is universally known. Three assistants surround him with patterns that need approval. Mukherjee, 37, knows his mind. He tells the sari designer that the embroidery needs to start at the waist, where it will catch a woman’s curved silhouette; instructs another assistant to flip a pattern so that the richly textured paisley print will come at chest level rather than at the waist; and tells a third that the design needs a complete revamp.

An assistant walks in and announces that he has won the Elle Fashion Designer of the Year award. Mukherjee barely registers the praise. “What happened to the blue khadi sari?” he asks the American Harvard University student who is interning with him.

Mukherjee the label (not the man) operates out of a giant three-storey white building in the outskirts of Kolkata. The lucrative bridal collection occupies the ground floor. Here, mannequins clad in sumptuous, intricately woven lehengas (skirts) that are the mainstay of north Indian weddings stand in the dim light. Gold jewellery lines the glass counters. Rooms are full of weavers, tailors and fabric dyers and sorters.

“I am not just a designer. I am a businessman,” saysMukherjee. “One of the biggest challenges that I grapple with is workflow. I have over 600 people who depend on me for their livelihood, not to mention weavers all across India.”

Mukherjee is often called the most successful fashion designer operating in India today, with, he says, an annual turnover of US$11 million (Dh40.4m) – small by global standards, but large in terms of the Indian fashion industry, where labels die after a collection or two. After graduating from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in 1999, Mukherjee began his label with three employees and money borrowed from his sister, Payal. She still works with him, as does his father, who takes care of the finances. His mother gave him his creative bent.

“We are four dysfunctional people in a very functional family,” he says with a laugh.

With long wavy hair and an easy smile, the designer cuts a slim figure that belies his prodigious talent and ambition. “Sabya is a seminal designer, who, along with Anamika Khanna, took fashion from Kolkata to a higher level,” says the Bangalore-based fashion consultant Prasad Bidapa.

After showing at Milan, New York and all across Asia, including the UAE, where he retails, Mukherjee has embarked on an ambitious project: to make fashionable Indians appreciate Indian weaves. He has initiated a project called Save the Sari, where he retails hand-woven Indian saris and donates the entire proceeds to Indian weavers.

“My goal is to make Indians aware of our country’s resources,” he says. “No machine can replicate what Indian hands can achieve with textiles. The trick is to make consumers take pride in wearing our saris and weaves.”

At Mukherjee’s beautiful flagship store in Kolkata, he has commissioned weaves from the southern textile capital of Kanjivaram and embellished the saris with his own designs. Each sari sells for close to US$2,000, and rich Kolkata matrons and their Prada-clad daughters are lining up to buy them. Mukherjee stands amid them, giving advice on colours and patterns when needed. He likes to sell. He likes helping women pick out clothes. No reclusive, angst-ridden designer, this.

“You hardly ever come across design individuals in India with such a strong DNA imprint in their work,” says Kallol Dutta, a younger fashion designer based in Kolkata. “I was gobsmacked when I saw his collections.”

Mukherjee’s latest pet peeve is the Hermès sari, which, he says, has been launched by the famed French house for an unseemly price of US$9,200.

“India offers beautifully handwoven and handprinted saris, but the sad thing is that we Indians don’t realise their value. This is why a brand like Hermès can dare to come into this country and sell a $9,000 sari here. The sad thing is that Indians will queue up to buy an Hermès sari without realising that they are simply wearing a price tag.”

And with that, Mukherjee goes off to help a lovely Indian bride pick a rare Kanjivaram weave for her trousseau.

Secret Luxury for Mint

Mint’s luxury issue to coincide with the luxury conference had a bunch of interesting takes. I liked the one about knowledge and bespoke catering. Would have been nice to see more stuff on luxury travel, music, cigars, etc. Here is the link to Mint’s page. And here it is below.

Discretion is the better part of luxury
Luxury brands are portable symbols of wealth and prestige. Yet even in India, there is a growing group of people who disdain overt displays of wealth and opt instead for subtlety and quiet pleasure
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

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On the face of it, Sandeep Karyotakalam, 38, is your typical IT professional. He wears navy full-sleeved shirts and speaks in precise sentences. After a stint at Infosys Technologies in Zurich, he just completed his executive postgraduate programme at IIM Bangalore, which is where I met him (he was a student in a class I taught there). Underneath his reserved but friendly demeanour is an epicurean sensibility. Karyotakalam collects high-end audio systems and speciality chef’s knives, a passion that began when he used pots as speakers for school parties. “From an acoustic point of view, earthen pots make the best speaker enclosures,” he says. “There are no parallel or flat surfaces, no standing waves, no moving joints.”

Secret pleasures: (left) A Bottega Veneta handbag with its trademark Intrecciato weave and B&W’s Nautilus speakers . Priyanka Parashar/Mint
After he started working, Karyotakalam would bring back audio equipment from abroad.Today, his collection includes some of the best names in audio equipment—Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), Marantz, Pro-ject, Bose, Sennheiser, Yamaha, Sonodyne and others, which cost him around Rs. 3.5 lakh. Next on his list are B&W’s Nautilus speakers (Rs. 20 lakh a pair), Krell Evolution Mono amplifiers (Rs. 6 lakh a pair) and a Marantz Ken Ishikawa Pearl SACD player (Rs. 2.5 lakh). “High-end audio systems are quite beautiful with analogue dials, exposed valves and heat sinks. If you play Knopfler on a high-end super audio CD (SACD) system, you can close your eyes and imagine him sitting next to you,” says Karyotakalam, reeling off details about dampening and connecting equipment, D/A (digital to analogue) converters and specialist cables.
The bling factor: Socialite Paris Hilton with a statement handbag. Toru Yamanaka/AFP
In his kitchen are the professional knives, pots and pans that he collects. He has a couple of Kasumi knives, but he loves Zwilling, Sekiryu and Fackelmann knives as well. The best part? Few people can put a price on his passions. It is, in that sense, a secret luxury.
Secret luxury is a trend that has gained ground in the US in the aftermath of the global financial crisis when it was considered obscene to be spending money on frivolous goods such as Chanel sunglasses and Dior handbags when people were losing jobs and going bankrupt. This resulted in the concept of stealth wealth or discreet luxury. The online fashion site offered the option of sending out its purchases in recycled brown bags last year as opposed to its signature ribbon-wrapped black boxes, to take the “shame out of shopping”, as one trend watcher said. Gucci saw an increase in sales of its handbags with a toned-down logo. The Paris fashion house, Celine, under its current designer Phoebe Philo, has eschewed logos. Its Spring 2011 collection of handbags, with nary a hint of the brand name, received rave reviews from the fashion press.

Mature luxury markets such as France, the UK and US can embrace stealth wealth but India is still an emerging market and we like to flaunt it—most of us, anyway. Marketing professionals tell us that the reason we buy a Prada handbag or Bulgari shades is to “signal” to the world that we have arrived. Luxury brands are portable symbols of wealth and prestige. Yet even in India, there is a growing group of people who disdain overt displays of wealth and opt instead for subtlety and quiet pleasure.Years ago, in Manhattan, logo-phobic women would shop at the Yuta Powell Salon for unusual clothes that didn’t scream Hermès or Versace. In India, the nice thing is that logos still aren’t the norm with our fashion designers so patrons who want to wear a Wendell Rodricks blouse or a Tarun Tahiliani skirt can still do so without being labelled label junkies.

Also Read | Shoba Narayan’s earlier columns

In a study published in the Journal of Marketing last year, consumers were labelled based on whether they liked “loud” objects that screamed out their logos, or whether they were logo-phobic. The “patricians” were wealthy aristocrats who didn’t need the status that logos conferred and went to great lengths to buy discreet logo-less objects that only their fellow patricians could recognize and appreciate. In the Indian context, this would be more like Nadir Godrej, who lives in a semi-bungalow at the end of a leafy lane in the heart of Malabar Hill rather than his neighbour down the road who has erected a 27-floor tower that looks like an Ikea CD rack. Antilla’s owners might be labelled “parvenus” or nouveau riche by the study’s authors. These are wealthy consumers who are high in need of status, and who, as the study says, “use loud luxury goods to signal to the less affluent that they are not one of them”. Think of Paris Hilton and her branded handbags, or any number of socialites in India. The third category are “poseurs”, who buy fake brands and try to emulate the patricians even though they cannot afford that lifestyle. If you save up to buy a Chanel sunglass simply because of its highly visible interlocking C logo, then you are a poseur, according to the study’s authors. The “proletariats” are those who don’t care for and aren’t driven by status purchases.

Secret luxury is less about eschewing brands and more about keeping it quiet. You could buy Frette bed linen or Porhault towels for your home and the world wouldn’t know. You could place the sleek BeoLab 5 speaker from Bang & Olufsen in your den or living room and people might think it to be a space capsule. A Loro Piana cashmere overcoat will see you through the Delhi winter in style, and no one will guess that it cost $4,500 (around Rs. 2 lakh). Perofil undershirts (we call them banians) and Kyle King’s bamboo underwear cost over Rs. 4,000 each but customers swear that they are great value. You could carry a jute bag but rub Crème de la Mer on your skin and still pass off as a college student of poor means. Bottega Veneta, which advertises only through its Intrecciato weave, has always been a cult favourite, as are logo-less brands such as Martin Margiela.

But if I had the money, the brand I would buy is a Chanel. Not Coco, but Guy. This master craftsman made the famous Hermès saddles before starting a small line of high-quality but discreet leather goods. Check out “France”, and “Travel”, in his man-bag line; and “Duetto” from his woman-bags line. Everything is customized; the bags are supple and well made. Best of all, no one will know where they are from. The catch? They cost upward of €1,500 (around Rs95,000) a piece, occasionally going up to €50,000. Proenza Schouler’s new PS1 bags are easier on the wallet and cost only $1,995.

For all my admiration of secret luxury and discreet style, I am not there yet. I have a few of the usual suspects in my closet, which I bought for their logos, and this puts me right in the camp of what Holden Caulfield called phonies. But to understand the intricacies of objects, to learn about their provenance, and to cultivate the connoisseurship that is a component, if not the essence of style, takes time and effort. Buying a brand simply because of the logo is much easier and quicker. I still have my secret and strange walking shoes, though, made by a company called Masai Barefoot Technology. The best part? Rather than staring at my shoes with envy, the housekeepers in my building commiserate with me about my poor shoes. An expensive object sans guilt or shame; and one that puts you on par with the proletariat—that’s a luxury worth having.

Shoba Narayan’s secret luxury is an aged Pauillac.Write to her at

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