In Conversation With An Authority: An Interview With Sabyasachi Mukherjee

The recently concluded Vogue Wedding Show 2015 witnessed a bouquet of fashion designers, stylists, wedding planners and jewelers under one roof. Touted as one of the most exquisite bridal shows in India, the Vogue Wedding Show in partnership with the Taj Group set the perfect stage for the brides-to-be to interact with their favourite designers and for the others to absorb in the richness and vibrancy of the collection and the atmosphere. This interview is part of our series that covers the biggest names in bridal fashion.

In a world of Indian fashion, where a movement towards minimalism is cutting out on opulence for the sake of conservative decoration, the character of Sabyasachi Mukherjee is almost an anomaly. He seems almost out of place as a designer whose aesthetic has always one of regal majesty, one of celebration where the traditional extravagance of our hand-crafted textiles is unapologetically romanticised and almost worshipped.

Wrapping his muses, literal and otherwise, in a rainbow tapestry of vibrant hues and classic examples of embroidery, he also dabbles in asymmetric designs that explore a range of achromatic colours. Unabashedly unconcerned about the opinions of critics and fans both, Sabyasachi’s clarity in his own vision is vividly clear, as is evidenced by talking with him for even 5 minutes.

Sabyasachi-at-Day-1-of-the-Vogue-Wedding-Show-2015

A little dismissive of the notion of modernity, and indeed most of the people that seem to live in it, he is a man who understands his market and how to best cater to its myriad needs and desires. As a designer, he doesn’t go over and beyond the line, but makes his own definition of a line. As an artist of crafting expectations, this silver tongued intellect will beguile you.

Join us in experiencing a conversation with the wickedly delightful Sabyasachi Mukerjee, who has a clear agenda and isn’t afraid to tell anyone about it.

Q: How did your story begin? We’re more interested in Sabyasachi the person rather than Sabyasachi the label.

A: I always wanted to get into design; I didn’t want to do a desk job. And my father wanted me to be an engineer, because that’s what he was. And in India, you know a career is like an arranged marriage; because you don’t have a say in it, and your parents decide what you want to do. And I didn’t want any of that, I wanted to something where I could speak about myself, where I could talk about my opinion, where I could do something where I could utilise my mind as well – beyond being an engineer. And I didn’t know what that vocation would be, but I knew it wouldn’t be another 9-5 desk job.

Q: Fair enough. So is it true that you sold your books while applying to NIFT or …?

A: It’s true, I had no money. It’s true.

Sabyasachi collection

Q: What about your mother, a professor in the Government Arts College, who practices a lot of handicrafts? We’ve heard you designed your first saree for her, how has she been an inspiration in your life?

A: She was absolutely zero inspiration, because she never wanted me to get into anything artistic, because she said that you’re a man, and that you’ll never make any money and you need to support a family, you need to support everybody etc. She wanted me to do something in the science vocation, but my mother was very bohemian, very artistic. She used to collect old sarees and cotton clothes, and I think that when there’s an artistic streak in your family, it boils down to you as well. And I think for both me and my sister, whatever we learnt about design, our first push was because our mother was an artist.

Sabyasachi collection

Q: Right, so if not for your professional inspiration, she was the inspiration for your artistic proclivities?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Speaking of how national clothes can actually foster nationalism, you once said that if you want to build something global, you have to build something indigenous in context. So, how does your label support Indian textiles and handlooms in that context?

A: See, I’ll tell you something very importantly, I’m not a fashion designer, I’m a person who’s into the business of clothing. I’m a businessman first, and I make no bones about it. I’m not here for charity, I’m not here to make beautiful things, I’m here to create a livelihood for myself, and the 19,000 people who work for me. I’m very committed to the craft in that every year, I give my HR a mandate that, in West Bengal we need to hire about 15% more people every year, annually. Which means more people get better jobs, which means more parents will let their children go to school to get educated and also get the respect of doing handicrafts. Because what happens, people look down on handicrafts as something that is unsustainable, something that is indigenous and cheap. But I think these people have hundreds of years of parampara and craft, and that craft needs to be preserved with pride. So whatever I do – whether through my art foundation, whether through my culture foundation, whether through my clothing, whether through my films – I always try to promote artisanal crafts so that a hundred thousand people can get work every year. Every time I do a couture show, I don’t care what people write in the reviews; I don’t care if people say he’s too blingy, or same-old, same-old, or this man doesn’t have an artistic vision, or that this man doesn’t have a sense of fashion. I know that every time a girl is buying an outfit from me, I’m being able to rescue five or six families for about a month. And that is the mission of the brand; you know we call it the People Tree movement: that you grow, as you create an inclusive growth of people who work for you. And that is the only mission that I care about, and nothing else matters to me.

Sabyasachi Bridal collection

Q: That’s beautiful. Speaking of the bridal collection in front of us now, how does it reflect the concept of Sabyasachi?

A: Well at one point of time, I used to do only traditional clothing, but I’ve just realised that there are many more functions that have come into the wedding sphere – so there is mehendi, there is sangeet, there is reception and there is cocktail; and I was only catering to one or two particular looks, I was not someone who would do cocktail clothing, I was not someone who would do reception clothing, but I‘ve realised that even reception clothing and cocktail clothing is something that requires a lot of handiwork. Some of my pieces would take 1,400 hours of labour, which means jobs for many people. So, I’ve decided that we will extend our sensibilities of Indian handicrafts to different genres, so what we’re trying to do is modernise the craft by modernising the silhouette, but the core essence remains the same, it’s still handicraft; which means people can get jobs. I’m just trying to make the label more and more popular commercially so that I can sustain a very strong ecosystem of craft that would have otherwise become obsolete in West Bengal.

Q: Earlier in the evening, when you were faced with so many negative comments, you obviously being you pulled off a very suave and comprehensive response, which is also mature, where you don’t give two ‘whatevers’ about what people have to say because you just don’t. But when you are collaborating with artists like this, at the end, you also see an artwork by Sabyasachi, so how do you defend your artwork in such collaborations? Because you have to restrain yourself in the public domain, how does that go for you?

A: Well, I would just like to say to you that, whenever you do a collaboration, and this is something that I’ve learned in my life, you should do collaborations with people who have the same intent and mindset that you have. And as far as Vidya (you know, Balan) is concerned, and is people ask me how I would dress her up for Cannes again, I would say exactly the same thing.

Q: That’s wonderful for me to hear; because, and this is a personal opinion, when I see how she or anybody dons a Sabyasachi, you are painting a portrait. This brings me to the question of how you have fictitious muses in your brain, who are characters with their narratives. So, we want to know if your designs are born out of narratives or with narratives?

A: They’re born out of narratives, and I’ll tell you the reason why. I think the single biggest thing that creates aspiration is hope. People are hopeful of beautiful clothes from me, and I am hopeful of beautiful customers to dress. And, sometimes, if the customer doesn’t exist, you create a mythical customer inside your head. But, by doing so, you are creating an idea in the universe that other people can aspire to, and will try to live up to it. I put out a very strong visual narrative into the universe, and it was so addictive for a lot of people that they imbibed it within their daily lives. I remember a lot of A-lister actresses who normally wear short skirts, but when they start wearing a Sabya, they’ll put a bindi and they put a gajra in their hair; and I don’t tell them to do it, but they do it, because they also pay homage to the mythical creature that is a Sabyasachi woman. For me, it is an extremely bubbled, idealistic existence in a world that has gone completely haywire.

Q: So you spoke of a ‘Golconda Princess’ once, is it a repetitive reference that you go back to in your mind, once in a while, or was it a onetime thing?

A: If I were to give you the source of the Golconda Princess, I think it would be Saritha Choudary in Mira Nair’s Kamasutra. I was visually enthralled by the strength of that character and how Mira portrayed it, and in my head that is what a Golconda Princess would be. The reason I say Golconda Princess is that I’m very fond of old jewellery and I’m very fond of all the diamonds that came out of the Golconda Mine; and that is also a fictitious princess inside my head.

Sabyasachi Bridal collection

Q: Speaking of profiles, you’ve said the most aspirational look in India is the royalty. And you’ve specifically demanded for culturally evolved royalty over stereotypical royalty. What is added by the cultural revolution to the personality of royalty that your couture represents?

A: I’ll tell you something very simple, in India people hanker for a few things. Fashion is bought by people who have ne and fast money, which is not a new germinating point for culture. The nouveau riche. People always hanker for what they don’t have, and what the nouveau riche hanker for is social respect. That’s why they’ll have lifestyle coaches who will tell them what paintings to buy and what books to read, and which school their children should be sent to. Why I talk about culture clad royalty, which has an intellectual aura around them, this is the same sense of sophistication that the nouveau riche desperately tries to look up to. It’s the same method that Ralph Lauran has probably used in promoting his brand, because he knows in America, old money is a very aspirational thing. That’s why all his advertisements are created around that. In India, after money has given you everything, the first thing that people try and get is culture and education. And that is what I weave the inspiration stories around.

Sabyasachi-with-a-bride-to-be-trying-out-the-jewellery

Q: The show Band Baajaa Bride has become intensely popular with the Indian audience. So did you predict that popularity because of your label, or what Sabyasachi stands for? Or was it an intentional conscious effort to be a household name?

A: I did it purely for the business, and while it was happening, I just realised that television has become such an important method, an important platform, to be able to reach out to the audience in the way you do. What we try to do, is to try and bring confidence back in a very fragmented society; because there is so much corruption, and there is so much of dichotomy, so much double faced hypocrisy in the wedding market in India, that I thought that I could use this show as an instrument of change to demystify certain things. Whether it’s about abuse, domestic abuse; whether it’s about women who are too educated being kicked out of the marriage market as non-marriage material, or whether it’s about divorces or second marriages, Band Baajaa Bride is a makeover show, and the reason it is popular is because of the clothes. The show is popular because of the content, because of the fact that we speak of common human emotion that can touch a chord with everyone who watches the show.

Q: You said that you were inspired by food, and that we can expect a food show from you soon. How is that dream coming along? Give me your top three favourite examples of Kolkatta street food.

A: I want to bring food to the television because I think it is a very elemental pleasure, and it’s important to keep it simple. I want to make a food show to celebrate the basic food of India, and I think food gives me so much joy. I’m beginning to realise that I have a bit of an infectious personality, and I can convince people easily. So I wanted to use that show to spread joy. I am very partial to puchkas, biriyani and masala muri; and fish fry with mustard sauce, yeah.

Sabyasachi Bridal Collections

Q: You involve India’s cultural heritage heavily in your works. But how do you respond to the word Indian? Can you profess a singular ‘Indianness’, so to speak?

A: See, Indian could be used very loosely or very tightly, but when I say Indian, I talk about a certain mindset; I talk about a certain way of being. I talk about a certain set of philosophies and value systems. I do not really mean made in India. You know, when people talk to me about the Indian way of life, I say it’s a way of life where the heart is always placed higher than the head. That is truly Indian; everything that you see in India that is spectacular, the heart has been placed above the head.

Q: One last question, to the youngsters who haven’t heard of Matisse or Monet, who have been amongst some of your greatest impressionist inspirations, for colours or anything else that makes up art, why do we need art?

A: I think we need art for hope; we need art to tell each other that every thing of beauty doesn’t have to have a context, or an economic or financial undertone. Also we need art because when we you live your life by the rules, it is very important to understand that frivolousness is equally important. It helps us to gain perspective in a very mechanised world.

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