Fashion Luxury Textiles

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.”

4 comments

  1. I guess it’s ok as a *description* of what Indians do.

    But I have one question that is – how does wearing A in the morning and wearing B (which is Indian) make *India* (or Indians) sensuous? I don’t know that many will agree the sensuous asthetic is unique to India.

    I guess Indians have caught the 21st century wave and have expanded to Prada and Choo and whatever else, but that makes Prada (outfit) sensuous, not the Indian right? After all Japanese had a fairly well-defined idea of zofku and wafku to distinguish western and traditional garb and that didn’t take away from their culture or make them any less sensuous. Plurality is in. No longer are Chinese just wearing Mao jackets, Germans just wearing lederhosen or Tamilians just wearing dhoti. If wearing A in the morning and wearing B in the evening is sensuous then the whole wide world is sensuous not just India.

    Maybe it’s just me but India’s language distinctions are just as stark. It is a minority of Tamilians that can speak Punjabi and even smaller minority of Gujaratis that can argue in Bengali. Kannada just does not fly in Uttaranchal and Assamese is just Greek in Kerala. The unity is just not there.

    I realize this article is not just about name (brand) dropping or just vivid descriptions. (Just think – one can write beautiful paragraphs about mountains and oceans and forests and glaciers.) But I guess my internal sense is that the Indian asthetic is not defined (even for foreigners) in terms of name (brands) *they* recognize. Kanjivaram sari is a unique thing which simply can’t be described as a ball-gown with throw up veil or wrap-around sarong. If we pitch the Indian asthetic then it is Indian, unlike any other, described completely by itself without preamble or epilogue. Timeless, or as they say, sadaa bahaar.

    Just my two paise.

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    1. Kaushik: have to check out what Zofku and Wafku are. I am guessing western and Japanese garb. I don’t think Europeans are “plural” in their aesthetic. They don’t wear ‘traditional’ garb.

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      1. In Bangalore this week and catching my slice of India with a topping of pepper and lemon 🙂
        Yes, zokfu/wakfu is traditional/modern. Everyone including Europeans are plural. Their “traditional” is probably the tux / ballgown (throwback to the Renaissance frock coat / ladies’ puffy gown or surcoat deal). Traditional is worn for weddings, performances etc and casual is worn for work etc. I have observed that “business casual” to a European is a suit, to an American is Dockers. Also European fashion layers across Europe – Western Europe is more “traditional” but as we get past Greece into Turkey you see more of Arab influences – flowing garments etc.

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