A woman’s love affair with jewelry

Still looking for that hair ornament to tame my curls.

28 March 2016 | E-Paper

A woman’s love affair with jewellery

In India, every community offers their own style of covetable bangles, earrings, necklaces and anklets

A traditional necklace of the Ao tribe of Nagaland. Photo: Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images

A traditional necklace of the Ao tribe of Nagaland. Photo: Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images

The range of jewellery available in India in terms of materials used, designs and techniques of craftsmanship is unparalleled,” says author and jewellery expert Usha Balakrishnan. She gives examples. The Nagas make jewellery using beetle wings, feathers and bones; Bengalis use conch shells for their bangles; Keralites include tiger claws and elephant hair in their jewellery; Maharashtrians use black beads; many states, including Tamil Nadu, use terracotta. The language of Indian ornamentation is vast. There is no such thing as pan-Indian jewellery. As Balakrishnan says, “Every region, every community and every caste has a specific form, design and technique, as instantly identifiable as regional textile prints”. And hugely covetable, might I add.

Consider the unusual ornaments available for a modern Indian trousseau: the curved veni hair ornament of Maharashtra, worn above and around a chignon; the long gold necklaces of the Samvedi Christian community of Goa, with round gold coins the size of a Rs.10 coin; the jadai billai that covers the braided hair of the Andhra bride; the cubist-looking pampadamearrings of Tamil Nadu; the kada-like silver ankle bracelets of Rajasthan; the graceful Kashmiri jhumkas; the fabulous turquoise and silver necklaces of Himachal Pradesh; the shell bracelets of Nagaland; the kasu mala or coin necklaces worn by the Syrian Christian brides of Kerala; the striking tulu-nadu brass belt of Karnataka, with its cobra head; thekopou phool, orchid-like earrings of Assam; the amulet necklaces worn by the Muslim communities of Kerala and Hyderabad; the loriyan earrings, with their geometric shapes, worn by the Mehr and Rabri tribal women of Gujarat; the serpent-like nagmuri bracelets of Madhya Pradesh; the nagbeshar nose ring worn by the Rana Tharu communities of Nepal and Himalayan India. The list goes on and on.

In that sense, Indian jewellery conforms to every notion of luxury. It has provenance in that it is specific to time and place. It is customized. Families have certain motifs for their ornaments—like the tulsi plant or the shiva-lingam found in Tamilian thalis—or mangalsutras. Women still sit down with jewellers and custom-design their ornaments. Each piece of jewellery has an ethos and a meaning, from the navaratna stones that are used to propitiate planets to the jewel-like key bunch that is ceremonially handed over by a mother-in-law to her daughter-in-law.

Some regions are far more accepting of jewellery traditions. The more cosmopolitan a state gets, the less it holds on to its traditional ideas of aesthetics. In Chennai weddings, you still see women wearing uniquely Indian jewellery. The bullukkunose ring; the oddiyanam waist band, usually made of thick gold; the vanki armband, with its graceful upward curve that ends with two peacocks or flowers touching each other.

This love of jewellery transcends region and religion. In Kerala, our Syrian Christian friends went to church wearing starched white “sets” and spartan mundus or dhotis. Come a family wedding though and they adopted the Indian notion of alankara, adorning oneself with gold jewellery to the point where little else is visible. India has a “more is more” aesthetic, and nowhere is this more visible than in the way we use jewellery.

In south India, women wear glass bangles mixed with gold, a casual and sensual mixing of colour, sound and price-point. The colours too are prescribed: for instance, women in Tamil Nadu wear green and red bangles while the Koli fisherwomen of Mumbai wear just green bangles.

The film Bajirao Mastani brought the beautiful jewellery of the Peshwas into soft focus. Not too many Maharashtrian women I know wear the nath, the beautiful nose ring, but they should. They own it after all. Often, a bride was blessed by the jewellery she wore: “May your nath be ever present,” “May your mangalsutra outlast you.”

My mother and mother-in-law view certain pieces of jewellery as cardinal. If I visit their homes, often I am greeted with, “Where are your bangles?” or “Why no earrings?” A mangalsutra is a sacrosanct symbol of marriage. The same goes for toe rings and nose rings.

The late Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi wore them all with—I’d like to say rare grace, but really it wasn’t that rare. The grace with which M.S. carried her jewellery can be seen in pretty much every traditional south Indian woman of the previous generation. They loved their jewels and had no qualms about wearing them and enjoying them.

I come from a family of women who enjoy and collect jewellery. My aunt in Washington has three diamond necklaces and a gold waistband and wears them for functions even in winter. Jewellery, like perfume, is seen as an expression of self; a bolster to the spirit; a reflection of the soul.

I know a purveyor of antiques in Chennai called “Lily-aunty”. She has a shringara set of antique ornaments that is spellbinding in its variety. I bought a brass kajal-dani at an antique fair some time ago. It has two parrots as decoration and ingeniously opens out into two containers: one for the kajal and the other for a mirror. I use it to wear my contact lenses and feel like a tribal princess.

Shoba Narayan is looking for a stone-studded veni (hair ornament).

Jewelry brands.

For the love of Graff jewellery.  For the love of Indian jewellery.  I wrote this piece

28 March 2016 | E-Paper

Star trek

How a traditional jewellery house can morph into a modern avatar without losing its cross-generational clientele

Heritage jewellery from C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons

Heritage jewellery from C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons

In 1877, a young Greek jeweller named Sotirios Boulgaris left his village in the Epirus region and travelled to Corfu, Naples and, finally, Rome, where—in 1884—he opened a store on Via Sistina under the name Bulgari. A century later, Claudio Mariani, a young Italian, joined the company, first as a jewellery designer, then as manager of their Geneva outlet, and later as head of their Asian operations. At the time, Bulgari had just four stores, in New York, Paris, Rome and Geneva. Forty years later, they are everywhere, with over 300 stores selling their jewels and watches.

The question is: Which will be the first Indian jewellery brand to achieve this level of success? And how do you define success in the jewellery universe today? Is it stores in 300 cities; or sustainably sourced stones; or creating important pieces of jewellery—valued at $100,000 (around Rs.67 lakh) and up; or online sales?

Graff Diamonds, for instance, occupies a rarefied niche market catering to, say, a thousand of the richest people in the world. You could argue, and jewellery designers do, that Graff is limited by the quality of its stones. It has less creative freedom in terms of design. When you have a 100-carat emerald, all you need to do is get the best out of that stone, not create a mind-bending piece of jewellery. “If you have a Kashmir sapphire of a few carats, a few good diamonds and emeralds, the piece will easily cost a million dollars,” says Singapore-based Mariani. “Where Cartier and Bulgari have strong creative content, Graff is focused on the singularity of its fantastic stones.”

When people talk about luxury jewellery brands, the names that come up are Cartier, Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Harry Winston. Cartier has serviced every Indian maharaja worth his name. Harry Winston is a favourite of the red carpet, although actor Kate Winslet wore Nirav Modi to the Oscars this year. Each of these brands—like Rolex and Porsche—has metamorphosed, but gradually, to suit the current times. You can trace their evolution. Which begs the question: How can a traditional Indian brand morph into a modern avatar while retaining its cross-generational clientele?

Umesh Ganjam stands at the entrance of his flagship jewellery store in Bengaluru, right across the street from UB City where LVMH and Salvatore Ferragamo share space. Malls like DLF Emporio and UB City don’t like to give first-floor retail space to Indian brands, says Umesh.

The Ganjam store may have the spare interiors of a Christian Dior or the Guggenheim, but its origins lie in temple architecture. Only five materials—teak, rosewood, stone, silk and glass—have been used because five, or pancha, is how ancient Indians measured many things: pancha bhoota (elements), pancha kosha (body sheaths), pancha tattva(philosophies), panchatantra (stories), and so on. Eye-popping necklaces made with tanzanite, opal, sapphire, emeralds and, of course, diamonds, are placed inside glass cubicles. In the centre is the garbha griha, or womb chamber, that is empty to honour the air element, says Umesh.

An artisan crafting heritage jewellery at Ganjam

An artisan crafting heritage jewellery at Ganjam

India has jewellery houses that are several generations old. Ganjam jewellery, for instance, is 127 years old. C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons is 145 years old. Both are Bengaluru-based. In comparison, many of the top north Indian brands that came up in the 1980s, like Nirav Modi, The House of Rose, Amrapali and Anmol, are far younger. Of the lot, the Jaipur-based Gem Palace (1852) and Kolkata-based Raj Mahtani (2000, although the family business was founded in 1880) and Surana (1735) can claim a heritage that goes back more than a century. Most Indian jewellery brands have been so busy catering to the Indian market that they haven’t really thought about becoming global brands, using their heritage as a springboard.

Umesh wants to change this paradigm. Confident, erudite, and rooted in Indian culture, he quotes Sanskrit poetry at will. “Hastasya bhooshanam daanam, satyam kanthasya bhooshanam,” he says. Which roughly translates into: The best ornament for the hand is giving. The best ornament for the throat is speaking the truth. And because much of south Indian culture originated in Hampi—whether it is Carnatic music, temple architecture, or jewellery, the Ganjam brand patronizes these arts. Their latest is an exhibition, on till 30 March, of black and white photographs of the Hampi area by the late photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta.

“How do you define success in the jewellery universe today? Is it stores in 300 cities; or sustainably sourced stones; or online sales?”

“We can’t compete with the French, Italian and British brands, and why should we?” says Umesh. “Their ideas of beauty came after the industrial revolution. The world is now a different place.” He cites examples: Coco Chanel wanted to carry a cigarette in one hand and shake hands with the other. The handle of the handbag came in the way, so she invented the sling. Today, smoking is out of fashion. Fur used to be luxury but now it is an environmental no-no. Notions of luxury today have to do with fair trade, sustainability and hand-craftsmanship.

For Umesh, the way forward is to embrace Indian heritage. They always present themselves as an Indian brand, says Umesh, even if they are sponsoring polo matches in England, hiring the firm that designs the Hermès showrooms to design their flagship store, or getting Kazuo Ogawa as their jewellery designer. All their jewellery is handcrafted by the 100-odd karigars (craftsmen), who use coconut shells, coal and a low flame to bend, twist and tame gold into holds for precious stones. “Indian aesthetics come from a different edifice,” says Umesh. “Our ideas of beauty are rooted in spirituality and connectedness. Our jewels are born of colour and we used coloured stones in a way that is unlike anyone else. We should capitalize on these instead of glorifying everything that is Western.”

Traditionally, ornaments in India tend to be underplayed. Women wear mangalsutras laden with precious stones that they hide within the folds of their saris. It is casual and sensuous, mixing plant-based mehndi (henna) designs on the hand with gem-studded haath-phool bracelets. It is ritualistic: People wear different stones for different days, and link this to planetary movements and seasons. Jewels are an investment and an offering to God. Umesh shows me designs of the vastu-purusha, or primordial man, based on whom temples are designed.

“The reason we wear jewellery on certain parts of the body has to do with vastu,” says Umesh, who says that his guru is C. Sivaramamurti, the Sanskrit scholar-savant who also taught art historian B.N. Goswamy and was the first director of the National Museum in Delhi. Umesh also reads Stella Kramrisch, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and other Sanskrit scholars in their original.

The biggest challenge for Ganjam and other family brands is succession: how to maintain traditional clients while attracting the newer generations whose ideas of beauty and brand value are more modern.

C. Vinod Hayagriv, managing director of C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons, is trying to tread this fine line. For one, they have rebranded themselves as CKCSons rather than the long traditional name. They host fashion shows in their showroom and have three generations working in the family business. While this ensures continuity, reaching a consensus on design and marketing strategies is hard. The elders want to hold back on radical change while the younger members want to shake things up.

“You have to convince teams to evolve; mix the old and the new,” says Hayagriv. “It is an HR challenge on one side and a brand management challenge on the other. What is keeping me up at nights these days is a family member wanting to run an independent wing of the business rather than through teamwork, which is not acceptable to us. So there is conflict.”

So Hayagriv tinkers. He commissions experimental lines of jewellery to see if they sell. He holds on to old customers while wooing new ones.

Heritage jewellery from Ganjam

Heritage jewellery from Ganjam

All Indian brands walk this tightrope. Most tend to stay true to their heritage without too much experimentation—unless you happen to be Viren Bhagat, in which case you can work on anything from Mughal designs to art deco patterns and still have your pieces fly off the shelf. Then again, Mumbai-based Bhagat is arguably one of the two best jewellery designers in the world—the other being JAR, or Joel Arthur Rosenthal. The way Bhagat uses stones to “evaporate” the metal, it looks as if the stone is floating.

Mariani says that when he headed Bulgari in Asia, he travelled through the country searching for craftsmen who could duplicate the complicated workmanship of the “Parenthesis” necklace; and couldn’t find one. “Things may have changed now,” he says. “Indians are luxury oriented and will spend on jewels that they want. They are the toughest customers because they negotiate so much. But they love jewellery.”

The challenge and triumph for Indian jewellery brands will be their ability to stay rooted to the soil that gave them their aesthetic sensibilities while reaching for the stars.

The Savage Beauty of Alexander McQueen

Memories of the V&A and my Parisienne friend Elisabeth Guez are fresh in my mind.

The V&A has another nice exhibit where they try to answer: “What is luxury?”

Wish I could have seen the John Galliano retrospective also– in Paris.

My review of the exhibit here.  And you have to see it on the newly launched Mint on Sunday.  There is a great piece on the “Quest for the Himalayan Quail.”

I never thought I would say this, but digital publications can be just as beautiful as nicely laid out print publications.

Gifts 2014

This could have easily been a photo feature.

The best gifting ideas from 2014

A list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear for Christmas
Shoba Narayan

It is just before Christmas. You are probably in the throes of figuring out what to buy for family, friends and co-workers. Here is a list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear. The logic of choosing these objects was simply this: I saw them during the course of this past year and they stuck in my head—because they are unique, innovatively designed, and beautiful.

Perrin Paris: Glove Clutch Eiffel How many of us wrap our hands around a clutch? Now imagine if we could slip our hands into a glove-clutch. I saw this on Instagram and wanted it instantly. The Perrin Paris glove clutch has turned the hand into an ornament. Prices start at $1,850 (around Rs.1.17 lakh). http://www.perrinparis.com/en
The Perrin Paris glove clutch;

Sophie Hulme box tote in raspberry Because it has cute animal eyes on it. At $700 a bag, it is reasonably priced compared to what you have to shell out for, say, Dior’s stunning Be Dior Flap bag, which costs about $4,400; or LVMH’s Capucines bag, without the littered logo thankfully, that costs $5,600. http://www.sophiehulme.com


Dibbern China, Black Forest pattern, designed by Bodo Sperlein Dibbern China by Bodo Sperlein I saw this collection at the home of a woman who is part of my book club. It has haunted me since. Of course, at €28 (around Rs.2,200) a teacup, it is likely to remain in my dreams. But what a collection! German precision mixed with Japanese minimalism and a bit of Fornasetti’s whimsy. http://www.bodosperlein.com


Lee Broom’s light bulbs Cut lead crystal bulbs by Lee Broom I saw these light bulbs in a magazine and loved them. They are made of cut lead crystal and the beauty is that you can do away with those ugly lamp shades that we use to hide incandescent bulbs at homes. These are perfect for India because all you need to clean is just the bulb itself. I thought they were made by designer Tom Dixon, but they are not. I discovered the name of the designer by typing in “crystal light bulbs” on the Internet. Lee Broom, take a bow. They are priced at £109 (around Rs.10,900) each. http://www.leebroom.com


Akris I don’t own anything by Akris. I don’t know anyone who wears Akris. Actually, not true. I know of a Baltimore, US, based CEO of an Indian pharma company who wears Akris. But I wish I lived in colder climes so I could wear their winter coats. Their summer line doesn’t bust my cockles, but fittingly for a Swiss company, they know their wool. Just buy one of their wool coats and you can very well wear rags inside. You won’t take off the coat and nobody will have eyes for anything else. http://www.akris.ch/en


Fountain pens I love fountain pens. I own a Ratnam pen, a Lamy and a Parker Sonnet, all gifts. Were I to buy one, I would buy the Monteverde, because it is black, sleek and costs Rs.5,600 at William Penn—a far cry from the Rs.100 Camlin pen I used to write with but cheaper than the cult retractable Pilot fountain pen which retails at around Rs.12,000 on eBay.in. http://www.williampenn.net

Champ de Rêves pinot noir 2011 A bottle of Champ de Reves pinot noir 2011 I bought this at a wine store in Washington, DC because the winemaker had signed it. At $45 for a bottle, it is a luscious aromatic wine, particularly if you are one of those who was charmed by that famous monologue in the film, Sideways, about the “haunting” primitive beauty of a good pinot. This winery makes only one type of wine—pinot noir—and they make it well. Eric Johannsen, I have a bottle signed by you and it’s a keeper. http://www.champderevesvineyards.com

F Pettinaroli, Milano If I lived in Europe I would be writing these words on Pettinaroli’s papers. I tried ordering their Mignon organizers online and had a devil of a time. I satisfied myself with a Moleskine and our own Rubberband Paint Box series notebooks instead. http://www.fpettinaroli.it/ and http://www.rubberbandproducts.com

Javadhu-scented powder I bought this powder at the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Kumbakonam. It is made in a small town called Mukkudal in Tamil Nadu. It retails in colourfully packaged 5g bottles for the magnificent sum of Rs.55 each. If you are done with khus, vetiver and rose, try javadhu. http://www.theammashop.org


Coloured gems and jewellery The Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring Bulgari, Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels, you name it. They are selling jewellery that would match the jewel tones of our Kanjeevarams and Banarasi weaves nicely. Maybe start with a Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring. http://en.bulgari.com



Happy shopping!

Shoba Narayan plans to buy a lovely teapot this Christmas season. Suggestions are welcome. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Wine glasses

How to balance multiple readerships is my challenge.
Wine one week; heritage conservation, the next; and wildlife, the third. How to make wine glasses palatable for the activist so that they don’t dismiss it as frou-frou?
I often think of narrowing down my writing to one topic. Just can’t figure out which one will sustain my interest.

In search of the perfect wine glass

A goblet being gilded at a unit of Baccarat in Nancy, France. Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/xpF8gExiOeiHdCflMjKN8J/In-search-of-the-perfect-wine-glass.html?utm_source=copy

Anyone who has stayed in a hostel has a resource-constrained mindset towards food. I don’t care which college you went to. Standing in line and waiting for a finite amount of food does something to your psyche. It makes you think of food, not as a pleasure to be had, but as a resource to be grabbed. It has taken me several decades to get out of this mindset.
I write this as I drink a 2011 Chateau de Fontenille from a wine goblet with a curvy bottom that is shaped like Jennifer Lopez’s—there is no other way to say this—flight path if she were sitting on a boomerang. The wine is golden in colour and goes straight down—like the Congress party. It is available in Bengaluru for about `2,000 and is a blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris, muscadelle and semillon.
The best part of this wine is that the grassy acidity of sauvignon blanc is hidden, or at least balanced, by the other grapes. I have not had a sauvignon blanc that I like in years. Friends have been raving about Charosa’s version but I haven’t tried enough of their wines to agree. I don’t like sauvignon blanc’s herbaceousness. If I want that taste, I’d rather eat ajwain (carom seeds).
The wine is from the lesser-known area of Entre-Deux-Mers, between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in France. I have a case and enjoy it with the manchego cheese that my friend, Phyllis, brings for me from the Whole Foods Market in New York.
The main point of this passage is not the wine but the fact that I am drinking it from a glass that I love. As a college student, if you had told me that people would pay good money for dishes from Rosenthal, Noritake, Villeroy & Boch, and Versace, I would have sputtered out the hot hostel bondas that were served on greasy, grainy stainless steel plates with a side order of a scowl.
Behavioural economics has shown that the environment in which you eat matters just as much as what you eat. A study conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab enlisted an actress who would wear a fat suit and dine with fellow students. The study discovered that people do eat more when they are with heavier people. Moral of the story: When you go out to eat, sit with a thin friend.
Does drinking wine from a pretty glass make the wine taste better? I was about to find out.
My wine glasses are in a state of flux. As newly-weds, we bought Baccarat crystal glasses, which got destroyed on one memorable evening when my husband and I threw them at the wall to… check if they would bounce. When the children were little, we bought pewter glasses from Royal Selangor in Malaysia. They look like Roman amphora now, after many washes in the dishwasher. This year I decided to get a whole new set that fulfilled a specific criteria: They had to look good and feel good; and not be so expensive that I would un-friend those friends who broke my wine glasses. That meant removing Bottega del Vino, Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau from the list; not that they are easy to get in India.
The glasses I bought are by a Thai brand called Lucaris. I bought a set of six at HomeStop for under `4,000. The wine glasses from the “Tokyo Collection” are expansive—not expensive. They are better than Riedel which, in my view, has become an overexposed brand. When you can walk into a Macy’s at Tyson’s Corner Center mall in the Washington, DC area, or at 1MG Road in Bengaluru, and buy Riedel glasses for 50% off, then you know that the brand, which once marketed itself as exclusive, is actually not.
I know wine tumblers are all the rage, but I think they were designed with breakage in mind rather than the beauty of the glass itself. A tumbler doesn’t give me the feeling that I am drinking wine. It’s like drinking filter coffee in a cup. It may serve the purpose but it just ain’t right.
Being south Indian, I’m not as finicky about chai. I know that it perhaps tastes better in a kulhar, but I like drinking my green or masala tea in thin, clinking China cups, with a pretty glass teapot that has an infuser in the middle so that you can see the beautiful tea liquor turn golden. Pour the tea into a glass cup the way the plantation folk do it and you can enjoy your tea in a way that “Nair, single tea,” will never equal.
I have gone from being a utilitarian diner to a finicky one, especially as far as the serving ware is concerned. It had to happen of course. I grew up eating on banana leaves where you had to build dams out of white rice to protect the rasam from running over. There is a charm in that. But there is nothing wrong with the plates that Thomas Keller has designed (I think the Taj group has them in its New Delhi restaurant), pretty linen napkins, sleek cutlery or silverware as the Americans would have it; and wine goblets that curve like a certain part of the anatomy.

Shoba Narayan drinks Kusmi tea from a translucent teapot. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Spirits of India

Cocktails have an intrinsic problem. Unless they are well made/well balanced, they are too sweet for my taste.

Shoba Narayan

Korea has soju; Japan has sake; America has bourbon; Mexico has tequila and mezcal; Germany has schnapps; Scandinavia has aquavit; France has wine; Greece has ouzo; Britain has beer; Portugal has port; Spain has sherry; Turkey has raki; Brazil has cachaça; Peru has pisco; Scotland has Scotch; and India has…what? Chai? Horlicks? At a time when national spirit is high, shouldn’t we consider a signature spirit as well?
The strongest contender in this area is feni, says Vikram Achanta, co-founder of Tulleeho.com, a beverage education and consultant company. “But feni is still to rise above a state-level curiosity and shed its tag of being a country liquor,” he says.
If Goa, the land of the good life, has not been able to market its tipple, where do mahua, chandrahaas and handiya, the fermented spirit of Jharkhand, stand? And really, it is these local tribal distillations that ought to be our starting point.
In the luxury world, three things are revered above all: revenue, brand identity, and provenance. Indian tribes have been distilling spirits for as long as the Scots have—look where they are with their single malts and look where we are with our local liquors, the names of which even we Indians cannot pronounce.
All is not lost. Things can turn around faster than you can down a gin and tonic which, by the way, was invented in India.
Take tequila, for instance. Fifty years ago, it was a nonsense drink: pungent, unrefined, highly alcoholic. The Mexican government, in its wisdom, decided to throw its weight behind marketing tequila. Enter lime and salt; and a hop, skip and jump to frozen margaritas and tequila shots. Before you knew it, tequila had become a party drink. “Now, tequila has taken the luxury route with 100% agave and boutique producers,” says Yangdup Lama, co-founder of Cocktails & Dreams, a bar and beverage consultancy company in Gurgaon.
Local liqueurs are something that Man Singh, owner of Jaipur’s Narain Niwas Palace and Castle Kanota, knows something about. His family recipe for chandrahaas contains 76 ingredients, including saffron, rose and anise. Rajasthani liqueurs contain herbs, dry fruits and flowers. They taste good and are perfect after a meaty meal of lal maas or safed maas. They haven’t crossed borders though and remain with the home or palace, made in small batches with recipes zealously guarded.
Italy does the same thing with limoncello, except that they market the heck out of it. The fact that a particular limoncello is made using a family recipe is used as a virtue. With the variety of tropical fruits that we have, with our penchant for mixing spices and our heritage for distilling drinks, you would think that at least one of these liqueurs would have made it big.
Part of the reason is that we—country and government—are deeply ambivalent about promoting alcohol. On the one hand, prohibition does not work. Yet, on the other, should we actively encourage drinking? One place to begin would be the North-East and Himalayan states where tribals distil spirits anyway. Just as non-governmental organizations and the government promote small-scale, village-based industries and crafts, says Lama, why not encourage handcrafted spirits in a controlled and refined fashion? Instead, we import and pay premium prices for beer, wine and spirits that are produced in small batches in Europe.
The only area where local players have jumped in is wine. Here too, we are planting imported species of grapevines, be they Sangiovese, Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Our wine industry is basically a copycat business where consultants and grapevines are brought in from abroad. Still, it begs the question: Why isn’t there a KRSMA, Fratelli or Sula type player in the spirits space?
Amrut Distilleries has done great work with its Amrut brand of single malt and there are now me-too players like Paul John and, to some extent, Tilaknagar Distilleries. What we lack are the mavericks and lone rangers who chase a spirit just because; who distil or die as it were.
Desmond Nazareth is a candidate. His 100% agave and 51% margarita mixes are produced in Andhra Pradesh and bottled in Goa under the brand name Desmondji. It is a start even if isn’t original or, for that matter, Indian. Offering greater hope is Desmondji’s orange liqueur that uses Indian sugar cane and Nagpur oranges.
None of these—Indian spirits or liqueurs—are marketing to the luxury market that is waiting to be tapped. Indians have travelled everywhere and tried out artisanal spirits, beers and wines. This consumer confidence can translate to sales of locally distilled quality spirits if there is a player with imagination and staying power. In these compressed time cycles, what took Scotland several centuries and Mexico 50 years to achieve with their national spirits can happen in India in a mere 10 years—witness the burgeoning Indian wine industry.
Or can it?
Bangalore-based drinks consultant Heemanshu Ashar believes that the Indian market is not ready. “Chasing one national drink is a pipe dream,” he says. “If even the chai we drink is prepared differently in different regions, how can we be united by one drink? We are a nation of choices—multiple choices—so let’s rejoice in that.”
Only a Rajput riding across the horizon with his chandrahaas, or a Himalayan distiller carrying his home-made spirit in a flask, can change this scenario. I am hopeful.

Shoba Narayan likes her martini shaken and not stirred. With a side of olives. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


The thing with travel writing is that it takes a long time between travel and the actual publication of the article. Depending on the publication.

Barcelona for Eat Stay Love

STAY – 80-82 Barcelona 2

We picked Barcelona as a vacation destination for the same reason that many families do: great weather, design, architecture, the hub of the global food scene and a non-stop flight from India. Choosing the hotels was trickier. As a travel writer, I wanted to stay in some of the best hotels in the city. Being a vegetarian family, we needed to spend at least part of our stay in an apartment hotel with its own kitchen. And we wanted to be by the ocean for at least part of the time.

Hotel Arts, managed by the Ritz Carlton, fit the bill on all counts. We decided to stay in the apartments on the top floor because they came with a kitchen. We didn’t realize that the architecture and location would make for stunning rooms, or in our case apartment. Designed by the late great architect, David Graham for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; and in the shadow of the famous “peix” or fish sculpture that Frank Gehry built for the same occasion, the Hotel Arts had aged well and was full of architectural surprises. We got to know the staff even before we got there. My husband wanted tickets to the Copa Del Ray or King’s Cup between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. We peppered the staff with questions about where to buy tickets and would they hold our tickets if it were couriered to them. They did.

What makes a great hotel? Sure, a lot of it is hardware. Nobody wants to come into a lobby with drooping flower arrangements or dodgy showers. Even though luxury hotels don’t like to admit it, small mistakes happen even in the best hotels. What redeems every hotel’s flaws is the way the staff treat the guest. The woman who responded to our emails, Melanie Dorange, was one such. She researched Valencia; held our football tickets; arranged for a rental car; and answered all our insistent, sometimes inconsequential questions. When she learned that my daughter wanted to be a chef, she took us on a guided tour through the kitchens and introduced her to the pastry chef. It is these gestures that make for memory.

Our apartment was fantastic. Spread over two floors, and overlooking the blue sea, it included a spacious living room, study, dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms upstairs. Light filled the space and created angles and lines in the shadows. We had access to the club floor for sparkling cava or champagne along with snacks and sandwiches throughout the day. Breakfast was in the lawns under Gehry’s fish, with European children doing cartwheels or jumping into the pool.

We were reluctant to leave the Hotel Arts but we wanted to try out a real Barcelona apartment, to see how the locals lived. The Urban Suites came highly recommended on Tripadvisor: two bedrooms, bathrooms, living, kitchen, dining, and best of all, a spacious balcony. We had dinner there surrounded by flickering candles and read books on the lounger under the Catalan sun. The Urban Suites was located near Montjuic hill, where the Olympics were held. It was a great location for shopping, hiking and taking in museums such as the Joan Miro Fondacion. We walked to the local grocery store, manned by Indians (surprise or no surprise); bought manchego cheese, crusty bread, tomatoes, olives, onions and herbs for a great sandwich lunch. We sat in the sun and drank the famed rioja wine and sparkling cava. Round the corner was Barcelona’s most happening nightclub and one night, we joined a long line of teenagers to watch local bands perform. For a family that wants independence without the fuss of staff; that wants to live like the locals at stylish digs; that wants to live in a vibrant neighborhood with great access to public transport, malls, museums and restaurants, The Urban Suites is a good choice.

The Mercer Barcelona is rated amongst the best in the world. The hotel is a revived and refurbished Roman fort in the old Gothic quarter. The red brick fort walls are still visible in the back of the hotel. Our room, a junior suite on the top floor overlooked a beautiful courtyard with orange trees. The scent of orange blossoms delighted our night. At the rooftop terrace, we could sip Bellinis and look over the turrets and cathedrals that dotted this beautiful city. Best of all, we could walk out of the grand swinging door of The Mercer and merge into the narrow lanes and cobblestone streets of the ancient Roman city that has recently spawned the likes of uberchef Ferran Adria and his cohorts who are still cooking up a Catalan storm in the city they cherish.



The big brooming business

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


Oudh and frankincense are scents of the day.

Here is a story that appeared in Qantas magazine, Australia.

Thank you, Stanley Pinto for organizing a superb trip to Muscat. And hustling all of us energetic tourists and members of the Bangalore Black Tie into some semblance of organization.
And thank you, Shawqi Sultan and Saleh Talib for showing us an insider’s view of your lovely city, has only Epicureans can.
Here are some favorite photos of that memorable trip.






And thank you, Elisabeth, for being my fragrance friend. I miss you!

Perfume Oman