Interview: Woolmark Prize 2016 winner Suket Dhir


Success to Suket Dhir came the same way that bankruptcy came to Ernest Hemmingway’s character in The Sun Also Rises: “Gradually and then suddenly.” Dhir had never competed for anything in his life, stubbornly laid-back through his formative years, until in his mid-30s, when out of relative anonymity in the fashion universe, he shot like a meteor to global renown and a blitzkrieg of media attention in the wake of the 2016 Woolmark Prize, considered the ‘Oscars’ of fashion. Psychologists would call Dhir a ‘late bloomer’, a term that catches him by surprise and makes him nod in some wonderment. “Perhaps I am,” says the menswear designer who came into the limelight for a second time this year when he suggested changes to the new uniform of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). From khaki shorts, sevaks will now sport melange-grey trousers.

A child of the Insurgency in Punjab, Dhir’s memories of childhood dwell on the sleeping arrangements he had with his loving grandparents in Banga. The small town lies in the district of Doaba, the ‘land of two rivers’ that gave India one of its most legendary sons, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary who was hanged by the British at the age of 23. Suket’s grandparents alternated bedtime duty: for one week Suket’s granddad would put him to bed, making him recite the Gayatri Mantra before sleeping, and the next his grandmom took over, narrating tales of the gods and legends from the ancient epics. Decades later, after moving to Delhi and watching Hollywood movies showing glamorous mothers reading out bedtime stories to their children on screen, Dhir would feel both envy and content; as a child he didn’t have those books but he never went to sleep without a story either.

Life in Punjab in the early 1980s was precious but precarious. The political turmoil often threw daily existence out of gear. Dhir’s grandfather, Deshraj Dhir, was a cloth merchant who grew to affluence in the mid-20th century. The family was well respected not just for being the first to own a car in the neighbhourhood but also for their community service. Everyone shopped at their ancestral cloth store – a landmark in its heyday, when Bhagat Singh’s mother would drop in for material for her salwar-kameezes and a bit of chit-chat over chai, and where the poor could buy their dhotis at a zero-profit price point. “My granddad stocked pure Merino wool, mulmuls from Dhaka, silk saris from Benaras, the finest suit materials from OCM and Raymond. It’s only now, after all this acclaim, that I have begun accepting and internalizing that I had in fact grown up immersed in the knowledge of quality fabric and exquisite textiles all my life,” says the designer, whose award-winning collection for Woolmark was inspired by his grandfather’s own clothes and the mango orchards of his childhood.

The Dhir patriarch was an opinion leader for the community, a Punjabi Khatri from a lineage that typically ‘gave the eldest son to the Gurus’ (to become a Sikh), an old practice that held far more meaning than modern-day political secularism. (“When my grandfather passed away decades later, nearly 15,000 people turned up at his funeral,” Suket recalls.) As an Arya Samaji, Deshraj Dhir would discuss the practical aspects of philosophy and encourage questions on religious ideologies.The children in the joint family were brought up to respect all faiths and beliefs, bowing in reverence every time they crossed a place of worship, whether it was a temple, mosque, gurudwara or church.

But being the wealthiest and most visible Hindu family in an inflamed territory came with its downside – a constant threat to their lives.

The year that little Suket turned eight years old, 34 Hindu bus passengers in Haryana were killed by suspected Sikh militants who later claimed they were from the Khalistan Commando Force. It was one of many communal incidents to rack the region in those years. Suket’s grandfather discovered he was on the militants’ target list, and he took a desperate decision – his son would move from little Banga to big-town Delhi, his grandson would go to boarding school.

And so Suket joined the rows of little boys at Colonel Brown Cambridge School in Dehra Dun, developing the independence and team spirit of a hosteller over the next five years. He was a ‘teacher’s student’, a child who veered towards an inspiring coach no matter what the subject was.Always in pursuit of the creative, he needed a spark to fire his imagination, and a supportive school system allowed him to turn in his biology exam papers in class 10 with diagrams across the page instead of words, and still earn a top score for getting it right. But after that, the Indian education system failed him.

Compelled to move to Delhi to complete his final two years of school, Suket’s academic performance plummeted. His father Suman Dhir had by then started his own business manufacturing children’s garments, but struggled with finances for over a decade in the 1990s. He took his initial steps into community serviceby joining hands with the Ekal Vidyalaya, a non-profit that trains teachers in rural India and is part of the Ekal group of organisations that are associated with the RSS. Suket’s mother ran her own beauty salon at home. In that decade of personal and financial struggle for the family, the senior Dhir taught the teenage Suket and his younger sister Stuti about the value of serving one’s nation, of being useful to one’s society, of acceptance contrarian views, and of pride in one’s cultural identity. “RSS is a bad word in Delhi these days,” says the striking looking designer with a serious expression on his bearded face. “But for us in childhood, it meant literally rashtriya seva, national service. We were taught that Hinduism is secularism and Hindutva is an all-encompassing, tolerant life philosophy that produced sages like Buddha and Guru Nanak, and one that had room for all kinds of gods,” he says, adding, “We never talked about politics at home.” He regrets that ‘fringe elements’,such as those who organise anti-Valentine’s Day protests, have now sabotaged the image of the RSS in the minds of the general public. “Bracketing all these groups under a term like ‘saffron brigade’ blurs the line between the truth and the hype,” he avers.

Suket’s father was devastated to see his son’s final school report card. The boy who scored 98 per cent in Maths in class 10 only just pulled through in class 12. “What will my son make of his life,” despaired Suman – whose name written backwards later became the title of Suket Dhir’s design studio, Manus.

In a system that holds board-exam marks above all else, Suket struggled to find a career path. He joined B.Com through correspondence at Delhi University but failed in his first year. He joined B.CA from IGNOU University and scored well in his first year, but dropped out in the second one. He then joined up for a multimedia course but left it again in a year when the intricacies of web design became too much to handle. His father would have kicked Suket out of home if his beloved grandmother hadn’t intervened.

Bereft of not just a place to study but pocket money from his dad as well, Suket took up a call centre job in Gurgaon, fielding calls from AT&T customers late into the night. He earned a respectable Rs 11,000 a month but within a year, he lost eight kilos of weight, and the working hours began taking a toll on his health. He quit his job and travelled with his friends for a year, blowing up the money he had saved. But soon, he began to question his existence. His friends had fancy jobs, the economy was booming, and he was direction-less. Then, in 2002, National Institute of Fashion Technology happened. “I wonder why I hadn’t thought of it before,” says Dhir, who turned 37 on September 14 this year – the same day his son Zoraveur turned three.

Dhir took to fashion like a fish to water, swimming through his fashion-design degree with ease. After graduation in 2005, he chose menswear as his forte, developing an eco-friendly minimalistic line using natural fibres, sustainable techniques and traditional motifs. “I design what I like to wear myself. Indians need fabrics that breathe – cotton, linen, wool, silk, mulmul, bamboo – and men in particular need clothing that is low-maintenance, which they can throw in the wash without worrying about damage or colour bleeding, and which grow softer and more interesting with age,” he says, pointing to his trademark cotton shirts and jackets with surprising peekaboo details on the collar, lining and pockets featuring parrots and umbrellas. He speaks of nazakat, a word that refuses to be translated: “This is what delights the man wearing it, this is what attracts the woman buying the garment for her man.”

Dhir spent the next few years after college exploring menswear manufacturing, including working at Arvind Brands in Bengaluru. He also met the woman of his life Svetlana on Facebook, and married the 22-year-old Indo-Russian risk analyst after a year of dating. Dhir was 29 and still clueless about his career then. “She was the one who brought home the money,” he reminisces with a smile. A year later, in 2009, Dhir borrowed money from his father to set up his own label, Suketdhir. “I was racked with self-doubt. I was vulnerable to all sorts of insecurities,” he says, sitting in his sunny second floor studio, a stone’s throw from the Qutab Minar in south Delhi. With his wife as business partner,in 2010 he began retailing out of Good Earth, a luxury store with a similar aesthetic, and built a loyal, niche clientele with an eye for comfort and an urbane, Indo-western taste in clothes.His label’s ‘less is more’ ethos also ties up with the importance of longevity – the longer you can use a garment, the less often you will buy new ones. Soon, he was also retailing out of Taj Khazana stores and on

Unexpectedly, in 2014, the Woolmark Company invited him to participate in the award. At that point, Dhir was still struggling to make a profit and had not presented at a single fashion week due to the high costs involved. He even considered winding up operations. But the invite got him thinking, and a pep talk from his mentor, Professor Asha Baxi, former dean of NIFT, triggered him to action. The award – which was won by fashion greats Karl Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent in 1954 – requires contestants to come up with a unique use of Australian Merino wool, and takes almost two years from the invite to the finals with regional rounds in between. Each regional finalist receives 50,000 Australian dollars cash sponsorship, and the overall winner for each category gets 100,000 Australian dollars and also has their winning collection sold in the world’s top department stores such as Saks in New York, 10 Corso Como in Milan, David Jones in Australia, Boon in South Korea and Isetan Mitsukoshi in Japan. Rahul Mishra was the first Indian to win the award for womenswear in 2014.

For his concept note, Dhir dug into his childhood, his grandfather’s genteel style and baggy pyjamas worn under a jacket, the colours of the sky and the mango fruit he loved, the easy fit of Indian silhouettes marrying the structure of western cuts. He got his own special yarn handwoven by Raymond – for whom he had developed a new linen collection – and travelled to southern India todye his wool; Svetlana’s paternal Telangana roots and knowledge of Telugu helped too. Dhir also explored textures, embroideries and crafts from regions in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. His final six looks, comprising 20 separates including a 10-shaded ombre Ikat jacket and super-baggy pants, were shown at the finals at Pitti Uomo in Florence, Italy, where he travelled with Prof. Baxi. It was the second ‘foreign’ trip in his life after a summer holiday he had taken as a teen to visit his aunt in the UK, and he was excited more about the travel and opportunity to meet new people than the competition itself, which was being judged by the likes of designer Haider Ackermann and fashion editor Suzy Menkes. “Within minutes of arrival, I was chatting away with the other five teams and everyone had let their guard down,” he laughs in recollection. The six finalists spent the next few days in camaraderie and mutual support. Dhir especially became close to USA’s Siki Im and London’s Agi & Sam.

“What struck me is the way this award really brought out the best in Suket – he put in a lot of dedication and thought into the designs,” opines Prof. Baxi. Dhir had developed an elasticated waistband for the models’ trousers so he had no issues during the fittings while other designers ran about in panic fixing their final looks. “Fit is important but feel is most important,” he believes. “I am okay with ease.”

When Dhir’s name was announced as the winner, the other finalists went up to Prof. Baxi and confessed they could not even feel bad about losing because it was Dhir who had won. “It was not just a testimony to his amiable personality but to the spirit of his work. Though all collections were excellent in their own ways, it was quite obvious that Suket’s had soul,” she says.

The award changed his life in more ways than he’d expected. “I am getting awards because I got an award,” he grins as he explains the sudden spate of attention he has garnered in the past few months. He was approached to be on panels and boards, and has been featured on magazine covers. Then came the offer to redesign the RSS uniform, for which he was happy to suggest changes in keeping with the times. He jokes that he may soon have enough money to wear clothes made by designers other than himself.

Dhir was urged by well-wishers to make 2016 ‘his year’ and to amp up his production and scale. “But why fix something that isn’t broken?” he asks. “I have achieved success for a certain ethos I stand for, including its slow pace. Why change now?” The monies from the award have been ploughed back into production, and as this interview goes to press, Dhir is neck deep in work, putting the final touches on consignments headed to international stores where he hopes they will find a permanent place. He’s busier than he’s ever been, but he worries that old associates may think he’s snubbing them. “I miss the spontaneity of my old life, I have to think before I speak, I am afraid of inadvertently offending someone,” he says, his eyes clouded with his old self-doubt. In the next moment, however, they sparkle as he describes a new lining motif he is developing inspired by René Magritte’s painting ‘Son of Man’, featuring a mango instead of Magritte’s apple and a man with a beard under the iconic hat – a quirky imprint of himself hidden in his clothes.

As one who struggled to find his calling in his youth, it is a moment of triumph for Dhir when his former professor testifies to his talent and deservedness: “It’s not just about winning; it’s how you win, and how you take it from there.His is a remarkable victory.”

Dhir downs his Rooh-Afza sherbet and rolls up his ribbed sleeve cuffs as his wife nudges him back to work. “This is just the beginning,” he says in parting.

This article was first published in Open magazine

From Inspiration to Cultural Appropriation


Elie Saab Couture Spring 2016

When British rock band Coldplay released a music video earlier this year, it made news for everything but the music. Set in India, the video featured lead singer Chris Martin doing ‘Indian’ stuff, such as playing Holi on the streets armed with a full band, singing on top of a terrace in the old part of the city, riding a black-and-yellow cab driven by a sardarji, and hanging around in old forts dreaming about peacocks and Bollywood stars. It also featured pop icon Beyonce wearing an Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla anarkali gown, a dupatta on her head, a matha patti (jeweled headgear) and hennaed hands, and a three-second cameo by Sonam Kapoor playing a mysterious, dark-eyed village belle.

Almost immediately, the backlash began. “Cultural appropriation,” clamoured the critics, a buzzword in pop culture these days. Denoting the adoption of elements of one culture by another, it’s controversial when a dominant culture uses symbols of a minority or dominated one and takes on – as author Greg Tate puts it – ‘everything but the burden’. What got the critics’ goat was the liberal dousing of Hindu religious symbols and Indian cultural identity through the video of Hymn for the Weekend as an exotic backdrop to the (white) hero’s journey without perspective or insight into their real meaning. How often does a little boy paint himself blue, dress up as Shiva and sit on a porch alone with his trishul? How many saffron-robed sadhus really roam the streets of Mumbai? Do Bollywood actresses have dark skin, light eyes and blonde hair? Do Indian women wear outfits with necklines that plunge down to the waist? And come on, who wears a matha patti on the face?

In Coldplay’s defence, the video was far better directed than Lean On made a year ago by Major Lazer and DJ Snake featuring Danish singer MØ in the lead. It was one of the biggest pop sensations of that year, and the video – featuring, you guessed it, Indian dancers, old forts and elephants – went on to become one of the most watched videos on YouTube (1.4 billion views and counting). Never mind that the brown-skinned dancers were wearing the Malayali kasavu sari draped in the Maharashtrian nauvari way, or that people were dancing on top of colourfully painted buses as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Those are just details. Both videos were miles ahead of Australian rap artist Iggy Azalea’s 2013 Bounce, which featured her in a red lehenga at an Indian wedding, and – hold your breath – dressed like a gold-plated goddess on top of an elephant.

A little exaggeration in the name of art is okay, isn’t it?

Except, for some, it isn’t. In all three songs, the videos were contextually unrelated to the lyrics or music, and merely provided hypnotic visual entertainment for their millions of online viewers, without any depth or understanding of Indian culture. If anything, critics warn, they further stereotyped India as the land of ‘slumdog millionaires’, where poverty lies easily with colour and mystique and where snake-charmers abound at every corner. Urban, internet-savvy global desis did not like the idea. In retaliation came online anti-appropriation rebellions such as one hashtagged ‘reclaim the bindi’ by Indian women who argued that white pop stars like Madonna and Miley Cyrus (or black, in the case of Beyonce) who used bindis as a stage prop, and high-street brands like Claire’s who sold it as regular fashion accessories, were doing a disservice to the ancient symbol. “My culture is not your aesthetic,” they insisted.

When it comes to fashion, however, where does inspiration stop and appropriation begin?


Look east

Let’s face it. India is a mind-boggling land, a rich culture with a heterogeneous identity and a nuanced past and present that is bound to attract any western artist’s fancy. Fashion designers are no exception, and western fashion has been inspired by Indian aesthetics for decades without sloganeering and hashtagged rebellion. Is it appropriation when French haute couturier Jean Paul Gaultier uses the Sikh turban in a menswear collection atop suits with paneled sailor’s trousers, and horizontal-striped tees paired with vertical-striped pants? Or when, in the same season, spring 2013, New York-based label Marchesa also sprinkles a liberal dose of India in their brocade fabrics and sari-inspired one-shoulder gowns? How about when Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld decides to create the ‘Paris version of India’ and comes up with ‘Paris-Bombay’ set in the Grand Palais featuring metallic saris, floral motifs, maang tikkas and kohl-rimmed eyes?

Certainly nobody would raise an eyebrow if a western brand were to evoke a certain culture for a limited-edition, locally available collection – such as when French luxury giants Hermes created saris for Indian buyers, and Louis Vuitton came up with a Diwali collection featuring Benarasi brocade dresses. No one seemed to mind when the Italian label Dolce & Gabbana made abaya-gowns for their substantial Middle Eastern clientele either – business is business, after all. But such instances are few, and – contrary to the exclusivity of geography in the past – the bulk of luxury marketing is about global availability now. When a designer creates a collection, it must appeal to an international audience; it must clearly communicate its inspiration while evoking a strong desire to reach out for a credit card. Like a smile, it should transcend language. It has to be both exclusive and universal, both exotic and aspirational.

A benign, colourful culture like India happens to fit the bill sweetly.

One look at the latest collections worldwide would throw up gorgeous examples. Spring 2016 in Milan saw the iconic menswear designer Ermenegildo Zegna throw in a bit of madras checks and baggy pants not unlike the Indian pajama along with suave suits and exquisite cashmere. Around the same time, Europe-based haute couturier Elie Saab came up with a collection dedicated to the land of one of his best-known clients, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. With a few elegant strides up the Cannes red carpet in his clothes, the Bollywood diva has single-handedly given the 51-year-old Lebanese designer more publicity in the world’s largest democracy than any marketing blitzkrieg ever could. Duly inspired, Saab’s couture 2016 collection saw embellished, glittery sari-draped gowns, a salwar-kameez and even a pallu worn on the head of the showstopper. The effect is so stunning, it would be a shame to write it off as appropriation.

The same season, adding weight to the ‘haute Bohemia’ mood, French label Isabel Marant also came up with a chic collection inspired by Rajasthan, featuring block-prints, harem pants, billowy tunics and metallic leggings reminiscent of the churidaar-kurta Indian women wear. For autumn-winter 2016, the young, dynamic New York based label Altuzarra has just presented an India-centric line, with flower patterns and paisley prints on flowing dresses that have supposedly been inspired by India of the Raj.

One could argue that these clothes are globally relevant, that the mere addition of a foreign aesthetic – a print or an embroidery or silhouette – does not make them ‘appropriation’, that fashion is all about inspiration after all, and that designers are only getting better at it. Dolce & Gabbana’s spring 2016 menswear show was a vision in chinoiserie, conjuring up Chinese dragons, bamboos and peacock prints with hints of geisha silhouettes, and no one in China complained. At the same time, young American designer Christian Siriano dwelt on the hues and flavours of Morocco, with drapes evocative of hijabs and flowing silk gowns in bright pastels. Chanel’s cruise 2017 collection presented last month was not only inspired by Cuba – panama hats, Cuban cigars, berets, wide-leg pinstriped pants, 1950s Cadillac prints, candy-coloured organza frocks – it was even set in Havana soon after US president Obama’s first visit, making Chanel the first European house to stage a show in Cuba after Fidel Castro took over in 1959. The show hosted 600 (mostly celebrity) guests flown in from around the world, and presented 86 looks on Havana’s main thoroughfare. Forget appropriation, it was a complete takeover of the colourful old Caribbean city. And since business is business, the event was appreciated not scorned, and Chanel’s contribution to the local economy and Cuban tourism was appropriately ooh la la’d over.


Hemant and Nandita presented a collection reminiscent of European gypsies

Look west

But inspiration is a two-way street, and if western designers have been looking east of late, Indian designers have been looking west too. Indian fashion’s most famous fashion export Manish Arora has liberally sprinkled his wildly colourful creations at Paris Fashion Week with foreign inspiration — from Native American feather facegear in his winter 2015 collection to gypsy silhouettes in spring 2016. There are simply no passport-controlled borders for his kaleidoscopic imagination. Also inspired by Navajo Indians and the Burning Man festival, Indian designer Pia Pauro came up with a zany collection called ‘Riders of the Storm’ in winter 2015. It featured feathered war bonnets, equine motifs, and traditional savannah tiki applique prints and patterns. But no one revolted against her use of the ceremonial headdress and she got away with it, unlike global lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret, who had to apologise four years ago for their similar use of a war bonnet worn by supermodel Karlie Kloss in a show after activists labeled it cultural appropriation and disrespect to an ancient tradition.

Last year, ace Indian couturiers Hemant and Nandita, who have a global presence and a sizeable celebrity clientele, presented a bohemian collection with poncho-capes and tapestry-inspired florals, fringes and felt hats reminiscent of European gypsies (ironically, gypsies began their journey from India before settling across the Middle East and Europe a thousand years ago). The same year, luxury label JJ Valaya presented an Indo-Russian collection called ‘The Bolshoi Bazaar’, which was an exotic confluence of brocade lehengas and czarina headdresses for women, and sherwanis with ushankas for men. The spectacular show was set against the backdrop of a snowy Russian forest, and it’s not the first time that Valaya has looked beyond India for inspiration – the 48-year-old was inspired by Morocco and Madrid in the past.

For spring 2016, it appeared that good ole’ England gave Indian designers food for thought. Gaurang Shah – a designer known for his rich silks and heritage saris as well as his famous Bollywood muse Vidya Balan – took a detour from his usual traditional silhouettes and came up with billowing gowns and ruffled sleeves reminiscent of the Elizabethan era, using Indian fabrics and textures. Upcoming designer Chhaya Mehrotra borrowed Victorian inspiration for a look that featured crinoline under an ankle-length skirt and a fitted bodice with a lace collared blouse, but made with Indian fabrics and weaves.

In fact, Indian fashion can be held guilty of making an entire industry of appropriation – except we conveniently categorise it as Indianwear and westernwear. Traditional Indian silhouettes and drapes, along with wedding and occasion wear, go into the former; everything else goes to the latter. Indian men do wear suits, trousers and shirts, and Indian women do wear pants, gowns and dresses, and so designers must cater to all their tastes, not just traditional needs and culture-appropriate dressing. We even have a beach category, including slick resortwear saris by swimwear mavens Shivan and Narresh, and sexy printed sarongs and kaftans by several others, so that Indian women do not make a fool of themselves by the poolside or the beach.

Ultimately, there is a fine line between inspiration and appropriation, and it is lined with wads of currency. When it works – when it offers return on investment and keeps an industry and economy going, or simply when it knocks you off your feet with its sheer beauty or art – then society deems it okay to take a little from here and a little from there. If it doesn’t work, or if it’s just not good enough to evoke a revolution of thought, then it is written off as appropriation. Fashion is business, after all, and the buyer has the final word.

This article was first published in Open magazine

Doll, Diva, Digital Whiz – Will the Real Sunny Leone Please Stand Up?

Being the most Googled name in India is a double-edged sword, as Sunny Leone would well know by now. As possibly the world’s most famous porn star and definitely the only one to be a successful Bollywood actress and reality TV star in India, the 35-year-old is the only Indian woman who can claim to straddle the universe of the sleazy and the respectable at the same time. Is this the fairytale ending success stories are made of?

Notwithstanding the scathing moral policing she has faced in her rise to fame, Sunny’s porn-star past has been a stepping stone on her path to Bollywood success. In fact, she does great business off both till today – her porn site is easily available to anyone who wishes to view her body of work (with several other non-desi actresses as bonus) and going by her own estimates, she has a reach of about 100 million people across her digital universe.

To put that in perspective, that’s almost twice the readership of the Bhaskar group, which is read across 16 Indian states in 4 languages. Of course, sex has no language or literacy restrictions.

Indeed, it would be hasty to assign Sunny to the titillation hall of fame for her jaunts on the Internet and in adult Bollywood comedies. This lady’s much more than eye candy.

By the time Canadian-born Karenjit Kaur Vohra made her entry into the Indian glamour industry through the reality TV show Bigg Boss, she was already an established name in internet porn along with her husband and fellow adult entertainer Daniel Weber.

Being on Indian television only gave her a greater boost to her online business. “Our research showed that majority of the traffic that came to my website or different social media sites was from India. We were not capitalising the traffic. Nobody made it to the ‘join’ page or purchased anything. Bigg Boss was my chance to break into a market that I had never been able to tap into,” Sunny told Mint in an interview.

When Bollywood film offers came along – ‘R’ rated ones like Ragini MMS 2, Mastizaade, Jism 2 and the latest One Night Stand – Sunny was only happy to sign up. The femme fatale roles were perfect for the real-life bombshell image she had cultivated.

Soon, Sunny launched a perfume – predictably named ‘The Lust’ – and a gaming app ‘Teen Patti with Sunny Leone’. With her husband Daniel as her business partner, she also buttressed her online investments with others in real estate, mutual funds and stocks in the US. By now, she had a formidable social-media following – 18 million on Facebook, 1.5 million on Twitter and a whopping 5.3 million on Instagram.

As the Kardashians would tell you, any social media fame brings with it much fortune – brand mentions are chargeable, photos are strategically taken, locations are carefully selected. The more one’s following and ‘engagement’ on social media, the more one can charge for brand endorsement. Every time a lusty teenager comments, “Look at that booty,” on Sunny’s social media, it has a snowball effect, leading to support or arguments, ending up with another ka-ching in Sunny’s cash register.

Sunny used her superlative, carnally motivated command over the nation’s youth to huge profit. The more people Googled her, the more valuable her time and social media became. Nature had bestowed her with bombshell looks. With her brains, the combination was nuclear.

On the other side – away from the cleavage-baring, lip-smacking image that wooed the masses with its elusory aspiration of unbridled lust – was another Sunny, an articulate, well-dressed desi diva. She favoured Indian designers, showed up at fashion-related events and posted images in trendy garments that rivalled Cannes-trotting fashionistas like Sonam Kapoor. She appeared on TV talk shows as the ingénue with a past trying to shed her old image and make her way in the big, bad world of Bollywood.

And such was her wide-eyed charm that even heavyweights like Aamir Khan tweeted their support when an interviewer challenged her on TV if she was ‘respectable’ enough for a mainstream Bollywood film role. Out of a controversial interview came a huge payback: the interviewer was called out for his male chauvinism; Sunny’s acceptance in the Hindi film industry was complete.

Then came another benchmark in the glamour story: Sunny launched her own calendar this week. It was sponsored by a condom brand and shot by Dabboo Ratnani, a Bollywood photographer whose main claim to fame are his Bollywood besties and his annual calendar that features them.

The parallels between the Manforce calendar, Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher calendar, and the world-famous Pirelli calendar are inescapable. All are shot by well-known photographers, and all feature sexy women in bikinis. But while the others feature 12 different people – even Dabboo’s annual calendar features 12 top Bollywood stars – Sunny is the only one in hers.

The writing on the wall is clear: we can’t get enough of Sunny even if we see her undressed 12 different times.

And yet, the question remains: Is this a fairytale ending? If you look carefully, you can spot the derision on her face during her own calendar launch, a fake smile, a forced laugh for the cameras, distaste perhaps for the mediapersons and brand representatives of the condom company who had paid for her to be there. Maybe being every Indian man’s ultimate masturbation accessory isn’t so pretty when it’s in your face.

The double-edged sword of erotic fame cuts not just Sunny but all Indian women. On one hand, there is empowerment envy: we can’t help admire a woman who can make millions out of men’s lust for her body. Like the buxom 13-year-old character in an Elena Ferrente novel who charges money to show her breasts to her pubescent classmates, there is something wondrous and even courageous in Karenjit’s ability to rake a living out of other people’s weakness by doing nothing much herself except shedding her own inhibitions.

On the other hand lies Sunny’s dubious association with porn, an industry that is time and again proved to be detrimental to women’s safety and empowerment – both for the victims who are forced into it, and the hapless others who are targeted for sexual violence out of it. Sunny is part of the system, even if admittedly on top of it.

Sunny’s story – bad girl gone good – could have been a fairytale ending if only it did not further promote women’s bodies as a commodity that lines millions of pockets worldwide. As of now, it’s just another cliché.


10 Lessons Today’s Fashion Journalists Can Learn from Bill Cunningham

The fashion world mourned the death of famous photographer Bill Cunningham at the age of 87 this month. A legend in fashion media circles, his portraits of real people wearing real fashion on the street of New York became a regular and most-loved section of The New York Times, where he worked for over 40 years.

A recipient of several photography awards, Bill was loved and cherished by the fashion fraternity as he cycled about town looking for fashionable people to immortalize with his lens. “We all dress for Bill,” said Anna Wintour, the famous editor of Vogue US, adding that the worst thing to happen to a New York fashionista was being ignored by Bill Cunningham.

Bill served in the US Army in the Korean War, and later became a milliner designing hats under the label William J. He then turned into a fashion writer, working for top New York dailies and magazines. In the 1970s, he began taking candid street style photos, which later went on to become his signature and indeed spawned a whole new genre of fashion journalism.

Be true to your calling: Bill was never interested in celebrity status or other people’s definition of ‘fashionable’. He believed in fashion democracy, and did not give extra points to star power. He was more interested in honest personal style rather than professionally styled red-carpet looks.

On winning France’s L’Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres in 2008, he famously said, “I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the silhouette, the color. It’s the clothes. Not the celebrity and not the spectacle.”

Don’t follow the crowd: Bill Cunningham once ignored French actress Catherine Deneuve even though other photographers were crowding around her to take her photos. “But she isn’t wearing anything interesting,” he explained. He wasn’t taken in by magazine-defined trends. For him, the fun was in documenting real-life style on the streets, how people actually wore their clothes, how they expressed themselves through them.

He stuck to his passion, and nothing else mattered.

Your reputation is more valuable than the money you earn: The fashion media is infamous for accepting gifts and perks in return for good reviews – who wouldn’t sell their soul for a Dior bag or a pair of Fendi sunglasses? But Bill Cunningham never fell for it. He would not accept free gifts, food or drink from the people he photographed. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid,” he said.

He lived a frugal life and had a fuss-free lifestyle, a small home, and a single-lens reflex camera. “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive,” he said.

Inspiration is everywhere: Bill Cunningham did not believe that fashion runways were the birthplace of fashion. According to him, fashion was everywhere, and it was a mirror to its time. He said, “The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been. Always will be.”

Spending hours on the sidewalk, he would come up with full-page trend reports just based on his obvservation and clicks of street style.

Do what you love and love what you do: As a young man, Bill said he could never pay full attention to services in church because he was busy looking at women’s hats. He later made a profession of it. Till his dying day, he only ever did what he loved best – following fashion, on and off the streets of his favourite city New York.

Bill worked over four decades in his last job. He could have changed jobs for the money — he was, after all, one of the most sought-after photographers in the fashion industry. But he wasn’t chasing fame or fortune. He was only ever chasing a good picture.

Make your joy your job and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

Work it: Bill was famous for working despite all odds. Once, he broke his kneecap in a biking accident, and yet he covered a gala event using a cane. In another instance, while accepting an award in Paris, he photographed the audience, saying, “He who seeks beauty will find it.”

Fashion editor Paula Reed, who called Bill “a thorough gentleman”, recalls an incident when, due to rain, other photographers had huddled under shelter during a fashion week, but Bill didn’t stop. He was out there with his umbrella, doing his job, she narrated.

“You have to let the streets speak to you,” Bill said, describing how he stands on the streets of New York, day after day, looking for interesting fashion. “There are no short cuts.”

Keep it simple: Bill Cunningham never needed the paraphernalia that today’s fashion photographers usually demand before they sign up for an assignment. He had a personal uniform of black sneakers and a blue workman’s jacket that he wore daily, as he traversed the streets of New York on his bicycle, his only accessory being his camera. He never needed much to make his point.

Carve your own path: When Bill Cunningham began photographing real people on the streets of New York, there was no such thing as ‘street style’, and celebrities could not be photographed without their permission. With his singular passion for capturing fashionable moments, he sparked off a whole new field in fashion photography and journalism.

Instead of waving him off as paparazzi, celebrities craved to be photographed by him – and he wouldn’t relent unless he liked what they wore.

Your life is your message: Bill Cunningham was unique in his work and his vision. He stuck to what he did, day after day, and became so good at what he did, he was unbeatable. As martial arts expert Bruce Lee once said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bill mastered his art like no one else ever could.

Have a personal project: Your passion is more than your profession. Fashion journalists could take a leaf out of Bill Cunningham’s personal project which culminated in a book called ‘Facades’ published in 1978. For eight years (from 1968 to 1976), he worked with fellow photographer Editta Sherman on a series of photos of models in period costumes posing against historic sites of the same era. The collection of photos was later donated to the New York Historical Society.

You are more than your job. Aim to leave a legacy, not just a byline.

The husband who couldn’t stop buying books and the wife who couldn’t stop reading them

Love for the written word brought my husband into my life, and soon after we began seeing each other, he introduced me to his favourite author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I suspected, in fact, that it was a condition before we could move ahead in our relationship – if I couldn’t love ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, which he knew backwards, then we were probably not made for each other.

Luckily for both of us, I loved the book.

A fan of authors like Elizabeth Gilbert, Orhan Pamuk and Khaled Hosseini, my literary world back then was more poetry than prose, more hopeful than realistic, showing me beauty more than grime. But then my husband came into my life and changed all that.

After Marquez came Milan Kundera – I read three of his books in a row, and they became benchmarks in our intimate journey together. After ‘Slowness’, I told my man, “That’s the way love works. Slowly. Hurried love isn’t worth it.” And we took it slow.

Then came Mario Vargas Llosa and Roberto Bolano. I felt like I’d got a glimpse into my husband’s head, his motivations and loves. I was satisfied with what I saw. We got married.

Like every good wife, I began to nag my new husband about expenses and budgets. I downloaded the Kindle app and bought him a few e-books but his real-books shopping continued unabated. I grumbled, but then got used to sleeping with books poking me under the blanket and falling out of shelves. I went back to my own kind of books – Eckhart Tolle, Philippa Gregory and Zadie Smith. Gradually, our mutual love for reading tossed us into each other’s worlds in unexpected ways.

More than fiction, my husband reads tomes on politics, philosophy, even medicine. The kids laugh when they see him read books on history that they’ve been prescribed for school reading – “You read that for fun?” His thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, and against my will, it has begun to grow on me.

I started exploring his non-fiction collection, starting with Katherine Boo’s award-winning ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ about life in Mumbai slums, which left me heartbroken. I read ‘Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World’ by Jack Weatherford with wide eyes, and soon asked the husband for more. He gave me Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ‘One Night in Winter’, the first novel of an established non-fiction writer — the chilly white Russian landscape has stayed with me till today. Recently, I picked Tabish Khair’s ‘Jihadi Jane’ from the husband’s bedside table – it was the only book I have read twice on loop (it’s that brilliant).

For our anniversary this year, the husband gifted me the complete four-book set of the ‘Neapolitan Novels’ by Elena Ferrante. I quarreled with him about the unnecessary expense, but then, four books, countless tears and smiles, and a month of late-night reading later, I told him it was the best gift he’d ever given me.

And all this while, I noticed a change in myself – this willingness to try a new genre of reading. If it wasn’t for the husband’s gentle guidance into autobiographies, I would never have picked up ‘Proof of Heaven’ by Dr Eben Alexander, a book I now buy every time it is available online only so that I can gift it to people. I wouldn’t have cried my heart out at the autobiography of Paul Kalanithi, ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, a book I coincidentally finished reading on the first anniversary of the author’s death. By opening up my mind to reading different kinds of books, I am becoming a different kind of person.

For the past couple of months, the husband has taken me on a new journey: crime fiction. I have never been much of a fan of spy thrillers and violence-rich reading, so he first got me a handful of Henning Mankell novels, more about small-town Swedish life than about murder. I fell in love with Kurt Wallander so much that I fought with the husband when one of the books – ‘Kennedy’s Brain’ – turned out to be one of the few non-Kurt Wallander books that Mankell had ever written. “You cheated me!” I mourned after Kurt didn’t show up three chapters down.

Then he got me Wilbur Smith, and now it’s Stephen King. For a bit in the middle, I was hooked to the debut novel by screenwriter Terry Hayes, ‘I Am Pilgrim’. I am now facing an existential dilemma – do violent books give us more violent thoughts? Do they add to our ‘tamsik’ (lower) tendencies? I am observing my own state of mind carefully. (So far there is no noticeable change but I am alert.)

Most of all, the books bring my husband and I closer as a couple. We discuss what we read, and it is gratifying when we happen to love the same books. I give every book of his a chance – if I like the first chapter, I read it to the end. Today I even apologised for nagging him about all those expenses on books. If it wasn’t for his splurging habit, I would never have discovered these worlds. He has led me through new heavens and hells. Without knowing it, he is my library and my guide.

But better he doesn’t read this. I am pretending to be angry about a medical book called ‘Migraine’ he bought yesterday (no one in our family even has it). I’ll get round to nagging him about it, as soon as I’m done with the other one, Shirin Ebadi’s ‘Iran Awakening’, that I also found in his bag. There’s never a dull moment around here.

This article was first published on

Clothes in motion

athleisure-trend_14522455In 2012, when Paula Reed worked as fashion director at Harvey Nichols in London, she noticed curious things taking place on the menswear floor. “Our buy of Givenchy, Kenzo, Raf Simons and (Alexander) McQueen sweatshirts, T-shirts and bomber jackets were being snapped up as eagerly by the girls as they were by the boys,” she recalls. Her team took the obvious next step: they shifted a selection of the menswear stock to the fourth floor where contemporary women’s wear lived. “And it has gathered momentum every season,” says Reed, who now works at luxury e-commerce retailer Boutique 1. She affirms, “I guarantee that this decade will be defined by athleisure.”

Equated with sporty casuals, ‘athleisure’ is the coming together of activewear and leisure clothing, and is predicted to be one of the most pervasive and longest lasting trends our generation will see. It’s everywhere—from the catwalks, with couture and ready-to- wear collections blending sophisticated tailoring with sportswear detailing; to million-dollar popstar collaborations with sports brands; and down to our daily lives.

Half the time, it has nothing to do with sport: the Indian working woman with leggings replacing the churidaar; the bachelor preferring track pants to jeans while stepping out to buy bread and eggs; the college student in gold-glazed keds; the wannabe socialite who picks up her kids from school in a Juicy Couture bomber jacket and tracks; the fashion editor in a little black dress worn with sneakers instead of high heels at the front row of fashion week; the young executive in a chic polo with formal trousers. Like falling in love, the coupling of sport and fashion is a result of various forces at work, from chemistry to biology to social aspirations. Athleisure is irresistible.

Unlike other mainstream fashion trends that start from the silver screen or the most prestigious catwalks in the world, this movement is defined by street cred and an emphasis on individual comfort over obligatory social codes. Driven by selfies on social media and paparazzi- shot images of film stars in their casual avatars, its icons range from Instagram sensations like Kylie Jenner—the youngest of the Kardashian clan is usually seen in a sports bra and leggings accessorised with a designer bag and sunglasses—to Bollywood stars like Kangana Ranaut who pairs sneakers with cocktail dresses, and Ranveer Singh who made printed trackpants legit daywear.

Even Russian strongman Vladimir Putin isn’t immune— he was photographed in a cashmere- and-silk sweatsuit by Loro Piana estimated to cost around $3,200, having post-workout tea with his prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev.

This year, athleisure even finds place in the Merriam-Webster dictionary with the definition ‘casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use’. “The top searched fashion item last year was ‘jogging pants’,” says Reed, who was one of the panelists at P&G Future Fabrics 2015 in Barcelona, where the world’s authorities on fashion, textiles and fabric care came together to discuss how athleisure was changing the dynamics in their fields. Reed refers to surveys that say roughly half of the buyers of activewear buy it for non-active use.“Today, entire wardrobes are built around upscale sportswear for day and knockout cocktail wear for the evening. Wearing high-end sports clothes is the new status symbol,” she says.

Menswear, Ungendered

Prescience is a wonderful thing. The fact that the fashion industry showcases trends several months in advance means that you have no excuse for not being ‘with it’. Men, especially, need to take note this year. Whether you like it or not, this season’s biggest movement in fashion is going to not only redefine your wardrobe but also perhaps your notions of what it means to be a man.

Androgyny is certainly not a new word in fashion circles, but so far, it’s been mostly bandied about in women’s wear. Decades ago, women adopted pants and blazers. Then came boyfriend shirts and jeans, and today you can see aspects of masculine dressing in nearly all areas of women’s clothing, from the shirt-dress to dungarees to jacket saris. It is completely acceptable for a woman to wear a suit and tie for a board meeting, and the Indian police force abounds with women officers wearing unisex khaki shirts tucked into sexless pants.

But hints of feminine dressing in menswear have, so far, been something of a joke. In 2003, when the undoubtedly macho action-movie star Vin Diesel wore a leather skirt for a performance at an awards show, it was all taken in good humour. The same happened when in 2008,iconic American designer Marc Jacobs took to wearing ‘skorts’ (skirt + shorts), and hunky pop star Kanye West began sporting feminine garments such as a Celine blouse and Givenchy skirt— which ended above the knee, naturally— for his performances. Male superstars Gerard Butler, Ewan McGregor and Sean Connery have also been seen in skirts, except they’ve called them kilts—the most invaluable Scottish contribution to male comfort after malts.

But these men will now be called ‘early adopters’, for androgyny has decidedly become a two-way street. Gender- neutral clothing has been sitting pretty in mainstream menswear this past year, and it’s getting serious. From lace shirts to feminine bow-necks to even dresses, major fashion houses presented gender-fluid collections all through the year, the world over. The Prada fall-winter 2015 show— which featured both male and female collections at the same time—made its creative head Miuccia Prada’s manifesto clear: ‘Gender is a context and context is often gendered.’ Colours and cuts were unisex, the keywords being ‘uniform, severe, elegant’.

At Gucci’s menswear show, the new creative head Alessandro Michele—he of the multiple vintage rings, hippy-long hair and 320 pairs of shoes—presented male models (and some female) with long, straight locks wearing pussy-bow blouses, girly berets, blazers with piping, plenty of finger rings and a scarlet crochet top. The show created a flutter in the fashion world—until his spring 2016 show came along with even more risqué womanly elements: crochet shorts, three-fourth shirt sleeves, lace pant-suits, and embellished strappy sandals. Saint Laurent offers high-heeled boots for men. New York-based Hood by Air, a cult label that has broken several style barriers, had male models walk down the ramp in dresses and wedge heels, and women in baggy pants and puffed jackets. One couldn’t even tell whether the clothes designed by its creative head Shayne Oliver were for men or women. And let’s not even talk about the eccentric Rick Owens, whose winter garments were designed with ‘penis holes’ and displayed the models’ genitals for all to see.

For India, where androgyny is as old as the epics, the male-female divide in clothing has never been as marked as in the West. Practically every garment has been used and modified by both sexes over the centuries—the Maharashtrian nauvari sari drape is similar to the male dhoti; the Rajasthani matron wears a masculine shirt with buttons and collar over her traditional ghagra; the Malayalee man wears a skirt-like lungi folded up—to end above the knee, naturally. The ancient dances of India depict gender-fluid garments and postures; kings wore earrings and necklaces; queens wore turbans; grooms still wear henna; Sufi dancers wear anarkalis withdupattas. You’ll find variations of kurtas- kurtis, churidaars, salwar-kameezes, pyjamas- palazzos, shawls-stoles and Nehru jackets-bandis in both male and female wardrobes even today. Indian clothing has been a product of class and social function rather than any gender-specific role.

Once Western culture made inroads into the Indian closet, however, our fashion tastes and choices became as vulnerable to global fluxes as oil prices. The shirt and trouser became the uniform for the working man across India, a sign of professionalism and manliness. Shapes, fabrics and colours changed with the times, but the idea of the collared, button-down shirt, tailored trousers and formal suit remained intact. To be a man, you had to dress like a man. But what do you do when the idea of men’s Westernwear is changing at its very roots?

Read the rest of this article on Open magazine.


Retouch Me Not! Kate Winslet and 8 Other Celebrities Against Photoshop

Everyone knows celebrity images are Photoshopped before being published or released online. Some celebrities even hire their own personal Photoshop artists to ‘fix’ their so-called spontaneous Instagram pictures. But award-winning actress Kate Winslet’s new stance against Photoshop has brought the topic to the fore, and has ‘retouched’ an old conversation.

The 40-year-old Oscar winner recently signed a contract with beauty giant L’Oreal, in which she included a clause that forbids them from Photoshopping her advertisements. The star has spoken against retouching earlier as well, notably when she was ‘touched up’ for a ‘GQ’ magazine cover. “I think we have a responsibility to the younger generation of women. I think they do look to magazines, they do look to women who have been successful in their chosen careers. I want to be one of those women who are telling the truth about who I am,” she said.

Well, Kate is not alone. Here are other celebrities who have spoken up against excessive retouching in the past.


BEYONCE: Queen Bey once hit the roof when an H & M advertisement showed her body excessively retouched. She refused to give permission for the pictures, and they were eventually published in the original form (above). Well, when you’re Beyonce, you can do things like that.

BRAD PITT: He’s not just a gorgeous, brave man and a fabulous actor, he’s also for real. Brad chose to go ‘untouched’ for his ‘W’ magazine cover, shot by Chuck Close, in 2009.

COCO ROCHA: The 27-year-old Canadian model was upset when ‘Elle Brasil’ Photoshopped her body-suit out of the picture they used on their 2012 cover, giving the impression that she was almost naked, when in fact she has a well-known ‘no nudity’ policy when it comes to her work.

She said, “As a high fashion model I have long had a policy of no nudity or partial nudity in my photo shoots. For my recent Elle Brazil cover shoot I wore a body suit under a sheer dress which I now find was photoshopped out to give the impression of me showing much more skin than I was, or am comfortable with. This was specifically against my expressed verbal and written direction to the entire team that they not do so. I’m extremely disappointed that my wishes and contract was ignored. I strongly believe every model has a right to set rules for how she is portrayed and for me these rules were clearly circumvented.”

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: When the award-winning star’s breasts were enhanced for a poster for her film ‘King Arthur’, the actress threw a fit online. In fact, she went so far as to pose topless in a magazine shoot in protest, to show people what her real body looked like.

LADY GAGA: The pop icon – who is known for her out-of-the-world ideas on dressing up – spoke up against her touched-up ‘Glamour’ magazine cover at an awards event hosted by the magazine itself! “I felt my skin looked too perfect. I felt my hair looked too soft,” she said. “I do not look like this when I wake up in the morning,” she said, while encouraging young people to “fight back against the forces that say you have to be beautiful.”

LORDE: The 17-year-old Grammy Award winner tweeted a picture comparing her touched-up version with her regular acne-scarred self. The New Zealand singer and songwriter suggested that readers ‘remember flaws are ok’.

NICKI MINAJ: The pop sensation took to Instagram to express her displeasure at her ‘ESPN’ magazine cover with NBA star Kobe Bryant. She put up the cover image with the words, “When retouching goes wrong.” The new face of luxury brand Roberto Cavalli also added an untouched image from the same shoot with the caption: “I love my personal un-retouched photos where my forehead doesn’t mysteriously grow in length.”

ASHLEY BENSON: One of the foursome in the TV show ‘Pretty Little Liars’, Ashley Benson was pretty upset when she saw a poster of the show floating around. “Way too much photo shop. We all have flaws. No one looks like this. It’s not attractive,” she wrote on Instagram.

Luxury Fashion Now in Hindi at a Store Near You


“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Several eyebrows shot up when launched as India’s first and only multi-lingual fashion website, available in English, Hindi and Gujarati. “Is the Hindi- or Gujarati-speaking mass market interested in fashion?” was the question on several skeptical minds.

Despite the naysayers, we of course went ahead with our vision of making India fashionable. It hasn’t been easy. Much is lost in translation – how do you describe an outfit’s ‘silhouette’ in Hindi? How do you translate ‘cleavage’ or ‘trousseau’ in Hindi while still being politically correct? How do you explain ‘androgyny’ or ‘couture sari-gowns’ to a new audience that may not be familiar with such terms? The challenge flummoxes us. But then, if something doesn’t shake you out of your comfort zone, it’s not worth doing.

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Eina Ahluwalia Show Review: Jewellery That Opens Your Mind

eina-2_1441084770To my left is a 40-plus woman in dangerously high Louboutins and a short designer dress, her face caked in professionally done makeup, her highlighted hair stiff around her face in textbook curls. Her body is taut, her bust appears unnaturally large for her age, and her diamonds scream of Bentley cars and five-bedroom apartments in the poshest locales of Mumbai and London. To my right is a junior reporter from a fashion magazine I once worked with, an ingénue turned femme fatale wearing five-inch high platform heels, her face done up with statement eyes, straightened hair, wearing a maxi gown with a low neckline, and holding a designer bag she must have begged her working parents for. She reeks of perfume and ambition.

Both are in line with me to attend Eina Ahluwalia’s conceptual jewellery installation called ‘Pilgrimage’ at the Palladium Hotel during Lakme Fashion Week.

It is dark and the first sight we see is the gold bust of a fat woman. At the base lie jars of hair removal creams, tweezers and razors, along with flowers and candles. It is an altar for a Venus statue discovered several thousand years ago. The sight appalls and shocks you momentarily. Venus, fat? The death of hair removal? (A subconscious aside comes to mind – isn’t Philips, the epilator brand, one of the sponsors of this fashion week? They won’t like this. Uh uh.)

The next installation is another gold Venus, another altar with flowers and candles, this time for a huge, chaotic pile of makeup – from lipsticks to eyeshadows. (Poor Lakme.) This Venus has bulbous breasts and a bulging abdomen. A cloud in your brain begins to clear – was this the ideal of beauty 20,000 years ago? Does one not really need makeup to look pretty?

Another comfortably plump Venus from 30,000 BCE with droopy breasts; another altar, this time for push-up bras. Then another rounded Venus bust, and an altar for exaggeratedly high heels. An urge to giggle overwhelms me – this is comically liberating. I love these Venuses who have bodies like mine. Where have they been all my life?

We turn a corner and confront a challenge.

eina-1_1441084768It is a row of models facing us, six on both sides. They have on precision makeup, red nails, coiffed hair. They appear to be wearing Eina Ahluwalia jewellery, a glint of gold hits your eyes but you cannot pay attention because – oh, my – they are all looking at you rather judgementally. They whisper to one another, their eyes fixed on your clothes, your shoes, checking out what you’re wearing. Suddenly, roles are reversed. The viewer becomes the viewed. The observer becomes the subject. You hold your breath and want to rush past; high-school bullies and peer pressure rear their ugly heads in your heart. One of my companions avoids them altogether and sneaks past behind them instead.

But the next step is a row of mirrors – ‘beauty filters’, touchups, makeovers. Yes, we have all tried at least one. We have to duck past, our heads forced down in shame.

And then comes the grand finale, our redemption. We put on headphones to hear whispers by the mythological Sirena. She tells us in a staccato hypnotic drone: ‘you are perfect’, repeated in different words over and over. I linger just a little longer. The voice is comforting, soothing; a supreme relief after the turmoil of the past few moments. On the screen in front of us is a screen showing Eina’s face in various stages of Photoshop, with increasingly unnatural contours and makeup. I notice my companions have exited long before I have.

eina-ahluwalia_1441084774I come out into the light and laugh. I feel amazing, uplifted. And there I see Eina, her eyes lined with kohl, her body language relaxed, unpretentious. Her curly hair is beginning to grey but her face glows unlined. In the sea of Botoxed beauties, she appears to me like a breath of fresh air.

The entire glamour industry is out on a war footing to sell impossible ideals of female beauty, from super glossed images in magazines to Photoshopped figures on billboards across town. So what is Eina Ahluwalia trying to do here? As she puts it, “The installation speaks of our collective consciousness, our shared understanding of the social norm for beauty, which is so narrow and restrictive that almost no one feels beautiful. It is a pilgrimage to the never-attainable altar of Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, an altar that is always growing higher, and a Goddess that keeps changing shape, so as to always stay out of our reach. We hope that the installation will remind us that there can never be one fixed idea of what is beautiful, and instead of chasing these ever-transient, impossible ideals, we need to find a comfortable acceptance of our own perfection.”

In the world of touched-up glamour and fleeting fashion, Eina is almost anti-fashion. She isn’t out to make trends. She’s out to make a point.

Who noticed the jewellery?