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 delights of wearing a sari

This is going to be my year of regional styles of donning this garment.  Just saw and loved Baji Rao Mastani.

Nanditha Lakshmanan, Shilpa Sharma, Sudha Kanago, Deepa Krishnan, Ally Mathan, Jo Pattabhiraman, Chandra Jain, Geetha Rao, and all you casual and effortless sari wearers, this one is for you.


25 December 2015 | E-Paper

The delights of wearing a sari

For many of this generation, donning a sari is both a moral and an aesthetic choice

Dress is not a moral question. It is an aesthetic question,” pronounces Rta Kapur Chishti. For her, maybe. But for many 30- and 40-something women who are used to the “comfort” of wearing pants, the sari can seem constraining. So why bother with this garment? Why bother with six or nine yards of unstitched cloth that is, along with curry, cricket, bindis and bling, an instantly recognizable icon of India?

For some, like Ally Matthan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, who co-founded the 100 Saree Pact, the sari has become a crusade; a movement; a sisterhood. It is a way to preserve and relish a garment that is ours for the taking.

For others, like Shilpa Sharma, a co-founder of Jaypore, the online retailer, the sari is a work of art and a way to access Indian culture. Sharma organizes “textile trails” through the different states, introducing participants to weavers, techniques and experts like Chishti. Jaypore has brought Chishti to Bengaluru to run “The Sari School” workshop, in which she demonstrates some of the many regional styles she has learnt from all over India. I am one of the giddy participants.

Wearing a sari, for me, is both an aesthetic and a moral question. Do I sleep in a sari like my mother? No. Do I wear it throughout the day and travel to global conferences in a sari like my mother-in-law? No. Is the sari a second skin for me, as it is for Chishti? No. Then why am I wearing this garment? I certainly don’t reflexively reach for it every morning like countless women of the previous generation did. When invited to a party where I know most women will be dressed in designer Western clothes, the choice of a sari isn’t merely aesthetic. It is a blend of loyalty, even patriotism towards a garment that you believe is endangered and deserves to be saved, preserved and handed over to the next generation. It is a way of asserting an identity at the risk of standing out, something that many women dislike. It is a statement: “See, if I can wear a sari, maybe you will too.” It is—many times—uncomfortable to go to a party, be the only one in a sari and risk being stereotyped as old-fashioned.

Wearing a sari, for people of this generation, is an act of principle; a conscious choice. Having said that, I discovered a delightful consequence. The sari disarms. You walk into a room full of stylish, svelte women in bandage dresses and think, “Oh God! I am the only one in a sari.” But then they gravitate towards you, these men and women. They talk about Mangalore tiles; red-oxide floors; and grandparents. “I love your sari,” she says. “I wanted to wear one.” They associate your garment and you with comfort, nostalgia and family. That is the effect of this garment. It disarms the viewer and connects you with your past.

Chishti and Saumya Nagar, who works with her, demonstrated several regional styles, none of which required a petticoat. “Once you get hooked on to the feel of a sari around your body, you can never go back to the restrictions of a petticoat.”

The regional styles, many of which involve a kache, or drape between the legs, are like pyjamas; they are more comfortable than the way we wear a sari now, because they free up the legs to move.

That said, would you wear such a drape to a party? It requires conscious choice; the risk of standing out and being labelled “strange”, and the confidence to “own” a style that is Indian and ours for the taking. It is, in other words, the next and natural step for someone who chooses to wear a sari, not only for its aesthetic but also for what it represents.

Shoba Narayan is wearing regional-style sari variations to parties these days. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Also read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns here .

Paris and Luxury

Should brands take a stand is the question I try to analyze in this piece. Normally, no.  But now?  Thanks to Elisabeth Cadoche-Guez for setting me up with luxury brand executives in Paris.  Elisabeth is the author of a wonderful book on Arthur Rimbaud.

27 November 2015 | E-Paper

Luxury in the time of great tragedy

France’s great luxury brands haven’t done much in this time of tragedy, and they ought to repair that

Imagine if you were the head of Dior, Lanvin, Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, or Hermes. You are sitting in your corner office in Paris– your beloved Paris- which is in a state of emergency, and will be for the next three months.  What are you going to do? Do luxury brands have a role to play in times of crisis?

The simplest and easiest approach is to say nothing; to stay away from any political statement because no matter what you do, it could be misconstrued.  LVMH and Kering, the two big conglomerates in French luxury, declared a holiday on the day after the Paris terrorist attacks.  Some brands like Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Carven and others posted solidarity messages on the House Instagram account. But beyond that, the French luxury community (if there is one) mourned in private.  Is this the right approach? You could argue it both ways, and I—at least this time—am arguing that it is time that French luxury brands speak up.  Why? Because this is Paris—the home and heart of the luxury business.  The place where storied brands like Cartier, Moynat, Boucheron and Balenciaga began their story. This is the city that has nurtured many of the iconic brands of the world; where they have flowered and thrived. Why go silent at a time when their city needs them most?

There are a few good reasons. The biggest is the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Facebook–a baby brand, relative to these guys, reacted to the Paris terror attacks and got both bouquets and brickbats. Its “safety check” feature in the wake of the Paris and Nigeria terror attacks was hugely useful. At the same time, the company was criticized for allowing users to change their profile picture to match the French national flag but not doing the same for the Beirut bombings that happened a day earlier. Mark Zuckerberg, the 31-year-old CEO of Facebook, made things worse, when he said that the company couldn’t respond to every crisis because “unfortunately, these kinds of events are all too common.”  What Zuckerberg said unfortunately happens to be true.  Brands are a commercial business and not in the business of messaging, condemning, criticizing or reacting to every global event.  But critics were miffed.  Why this selective outrage, they screamed. No wonder luxury brands want to stay out of controversy. They have seen more wars and calamities before Zuckerberg was even born.  Which one do they react to?

The second reason for staying quiet is the belief that it is not their place to react. Luxury brands are in the business of curation and selection.  They are arbiters of style, beauty and sensitivity. The reason for their existence–they believe–has to do with “an incessant quest for quality, innovation, and creativity.”  How to deploy these brand values in a time of war? To come up with a message that is appropriate, sensitive, and in character with what their brand stands for?  John Galliano tried with his “Dior not War,” T-shirts in 2005, but it was at best, an insipid response.

The default mode is do things quietly; to donate a portion of profits to the victims of the attacks; to set up foundations; or simply donate to relief agencies like the Red Cross, French Secours Populaire, or the Friends of Fondation de France Inc.  Brands do this during natural disasters.

The luxury business gains over 40 percent of revenues from travellers, says Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.  Anything that disrupts global travel – primarily epidemics or terrorist attacks – would be a major negative for luxury goods.  The terrorist attacks on Paris, says Solca, “are a clear negative on what was already a difficult market for luxury goods.”

The luxury business is also a victim of that fickle variable called “mood of the customer.”  One executive wondered aloud if customers would buy a €2000 handbag in times of terror attacks. The wise approach was to hunker down and soldier on, he said.  And yet…..  Could a business case be made for doing the opposite? Would it make commercial sense for a brand to take a stance against global terrorism? Certainly, such a contrarian approach would be a clear differentiator; help the brand to stand out in the minds of customers. It could even broaden the customer base– and make fence-sitting customers buy that €2000 handbag as a symbol of the fight against terrorism.

When I asked Solca what French luxury houses could do at a time like this, he was cautious.  “I believe everyone is shaken and feeling close to the victims, their families and their friends – in Paris, in France and the world over. The luxury goods industry – so important in Paris and so central in defining French culture and attitudes – is no exception,” he said.

Agreed, but what can a brand actually do?  “Beauty, sensitivity, care and wisdom will be vital to balance the horror we have witnessed,” said Solca. “This is the role the industry can fulfill.

Tough call, and a daunting list, for sure. How does one meld “sensitivity” and “wisdom” into an anti-terror message? Then again, the vast marketing and PR tools that are available to these brands could be deployed to craft just such a message.

What about a more public role, even if it is a symbolic gesture—somewhat akin to lowering the flag to half-mast in times of mourning? Is there some gesture that a brand can make to show solidarity towards the city that has nurtured it?

Even if I manage to convince top luxury executives that that they should craft an explicitly political message, what would it be? A Singapore-based CEO suggested a “unity in diversity” type message.  “When a French designer, Algerian leather processor, Tunisian embroiderer, Albanian supply chain manager, English merchandiser and Chinese store manager work together to deliver a great hand bag to its customer, we send a message that integration creates beauty. And it should be that way in every walk of life— we need to reject messages of intolerance and promote integration,” he said.  Unity in diversity, or in this case, unity in adversity.

Another choice could be a variation of the French proverb: “Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir,” which means, “It is better to prevent than to heal.” In such a time, it is better to prevent and to heal. Or what Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

Would you buy such a message if it were crafted into a Stella McCartney handbag? Or an Hermes scarf? Or a Celine dress? Statements like this may help a waffling customer rationalize her spend on a luxury product. Love in the time of cholera— or terror in this case, to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book.   One reason to buy something beautiful and unique during difficult times is if it is a message that helps the greater good; if you can view it as a retaliation to the fear and horror that has been wreaked by the terrorists. There are endless options for what the message can be for there is the will to commit; to take a stance.

Crafting such a message, either by one brand or a coalition of all the French luxury brands, is explicit, no doubt.  Brands may think it uncomfortable and out of character.  but the results, both in terms of goodwill towards the brand and commercially in terms of customers buying your product or remembering your brand could be tremendous. Coming up with a common message is hard to do but would reduce single-brand risk. It would be somewhat akin to musicians coming together to sing, “We are the world,” still remembered after all these years.

Perhaps it is time for the top French luxury brands to stop playing ostrich. Perhaps it is time for them to speak out in unison against the carnage that global terrorism has wreaked on their home ground. Perhaps it is time to stop worrying about the risks of saying the wrong thing and speak from the heart: authentically, emotionally and fearlessly. Why? Because it is Paris. Because it is the way forward. Because, “Qui n’avance pas, recule”


Shoba Narayan agrees with Arthur Rimbaud that Paris has “shed more tears than God could ever have required.”

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.

Would you wear a garment without a blouse?

This piece was a reaction to seeing a room full of amazing black and white photos by Sunil Janah of women who were topless. Like the below photo of a Hill Maria Woman from Bastar.  Courtesy of the Swaraj Art Archive, as are all the images here.


The free women in Sunil Janah’s photography

Scurrilous as it sounds, it was the breasts that stupefied me—and I might as well warn you now—this is a word you are going to read a lot in this column—and if it makes you uncomfortable—well, that’s the point. I had entered Tasveer art gallery in Bengaluru to cultivate the sagacity that comes with viewing art—or so we hope. Instead, my thoughts were salacious.

Sunil Janah: Vintage Photographs, 1940-1960, contains a selection of black and white photos of tribal women. Janah’s images are well known and venerated by the cognoscenti. Knowing little about him beforehand except that he was Bengali and that the images in the exhibit were from the Swaraj Art Archive, I entered Tasveer tabula rasa, which arguably is the best state of mind from which to view art.

Janah’s photos are disorientingly intimate—as great photos are. He captured tribal women and courtesans in their natural milieus. The photos look as if these women were going about their daily rituals—pounding rice, picking fruit, dancing, gossiping and laughing. They glance casually at the camera; and boom—Janah just happens to be there to click the picture and capture the moment for posterity. Yet, great art doesn’t happen by happenstance. A casual pause or pose does not a great photo make. Great photographs offer a sense of being a voyeur. They give us the feeling of having been at the scene. So how did he do it?

Many of the tribal women have towels wrapped around their waist. That’s the extent of their clothes. Didn’t these women find Janah and his camera intrusive? Were they self-conscious? How did he get them to agree to pose? How did they allow him to capture them half naked; bare breasted?

Ah yes, those breasts. We live in a time when breasts are over-sexualized. Of all the female organs, they are the ones that arouse—literally and figuratively. They are the stuff of ire and fantasy; fashion lingerie and erotic fiction. Agent Provocateur has built a business around sexy bras that fetishize this body part. Looking at these images showed me that breasts weren’t always viewed this way; at least in India. That gave me hope and hopeless nostalgia.


One image riveted me. She was a tribal woman from Bihar, staring at the camera, her head cocked to one side, her torso bare and beautifully shaped. She just stood there, staring at the camera. Fearless. Free. With just a towel wrapped around her waist. Stuck in hot Bengaluru, clad in a stifling full-sleeved salwar-kameez, I felt pangs of envy. You know what the weirdest thing was? This woman; this beautiful woman clad in a simple loin cloth was wearing multiple necklaces around her neck. It was as if the breasts that she revealed, the body-part that is the fetish and focus of our time, was just a functional organ to her, no different from a heel or elbow. She needed jewellery beyond that—to decorate and ornament. Her clothes were appropriate for the place and climate. Today, we just ape the West.


Art inspires. It makes your thoughts fly unbidden to corners of your head and heart, provoking surprising and occasionally shocking thoughts.You know what I thought when I saw Sunil Janah’s photos? I thought of Sundari-paati. She was my neighbour’s grandmother (Dadi). A widow. She went around Madras (now Chennai) in the 1980s—not that long ago—clad in a soft beige nine-yard sari, worn without the constraints of a blouse or the added layer of an underskirt. Her attire made eminent sense in humid Chennai, just as the tribal women’s attire made sense in India. Malayali women used to go topless in scorching Kerala until the 1900s. What happened? When did we become so prudish and don clothes that are inappropriate for our climate? When did a certain female body part go from being a functional organ to an object of prurient fantasy? They wore jewellery, you see; beyond the bare breasts; those tribal women. They didn’t think that going topless was enough to stop traffic. They needed the lipstick in the form of necklaces. And this wasn’t so long ago.


Two Bengaluru women, Ally Mathan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, have started a Facebook project called the #100sareepact. They plan to wear the saris they own 100 times at least in 2015, and tell stories about it. It is rather wonderful; just as Tasveer’s photo exhibits and lectures are. But the six-yard sari that we wear today is less than 150 years old. Before that women in India wore nine yards of unstitched cloth without the British-imposed petticoat and blouse. It made sense for our weather. We had glorious regional variations. Anyone who loves Indian textiles should look at Janah’s photos. They should listen to literary critic Ganesh Devy’s lectures on the colonial mindset. I love the #100sareepact because it encourage PLUs (People Like Us) to wear saris. I wonder though, will the pendulum swing back far enough for women to give up on blouses entirely, like the women in Janah’s photos, or during my grandmother’s time. It is not logical for us to be wearing thick jeans and tailored layered long-sleeved clothes. The women in his photographs were more scantily clad than Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram. But they exude authenticity and a spirit of the land. There lies the hope and tragedy.


Shoba Narayan wears nine-yard saris sans petticoat within her home. Not always but on special occasions. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

I found some good blogs on this topic on Pinterest here and here

Ally Mathan’s sari project on Facebook here

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

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.