The Sufis of Style

“Design is more than a profession. We instead see the regeneration of beauty as something of a religion.” This is the philosophy of iconic designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, who were the cover personalities of G2’s June-July 2015 issue. It is a philosophy that has taken them to the vanguard of India’s fashion industry

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All our ancient arts and crafts still exist, nothing is dead. It is just a question of knowing where to look,” says Abu Jani. We are seated in the elegantly appointed fitting room of Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla’s factory-cum-office located in a run-down old industrial estate. The contrast couldn’t be more telling. A decaying remnant of a not-so-distant past, housing the grandiose, the flamboyant Maharajas of Indian haute couture.
“India was famous for its textiles, for its design, for its kaarigari. For example, Lucknow was famous for its chikankari. There are many fables about Bengal muslin. How it was so fine that an entire saree could go through the hole of a ring. As children we heard stories about how the British chopped off the thumbs of these workmen, in effect destroying this industry. Turns out that this is not entirely true. The weavers who can do this still exist. It is a question of knowing where to look,” says Abu.

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Sandeep Khosla elaborates, “The mid-to-late eighteenth century was also the time when the industrial revolution was taking shape in Europe. In order to keep the machines in Lancashire and Manchester churning, the British needed cotton. They could hardly allow raw materials to be diverted, certainly not towards local industry! Cotton fields, particularly in Bihar and Bengal, were also destroyed to grow opium which was sent to China. With mechanisation, production levels increased. It was imperative that sales also kept up. The idea of machine-made was made to look sexy, and sold. Creating, in effect, a self-perpetuating cycle. All working beautifully in tandem to keep the wheels of the Raj turning.”
Abu continues, “If you think about it, perhaps it is this historical aberration that PM Narendra Modi is trying to address with his ‘Make in India’ campaign. India was never a hub of manufacturing. No! In fact, it is manufacturing that destroyed India, that led to its colonisation, to its exploitation. India was a great centre of art and craft, of textile, jewellery, architecture and design. It still is! We have all heard that the architect of the Taj Mahal had his hands chopped off. But every day artisans in Agra are creating replicas of the Taj! Agra was, and is, a mecca of inlay work.”

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Says Sandeep, “Abu and I came together in 1986. Ever since then, we have been striving to revive India’s rich textile tradition. To revive the old so that it is relevant in today’s context. Chikankari was introduced by Noor Jehan. It thrived in Lucknow, under the patronage of the Nawabs of Awadh. By the 1980s, it was decaying. It was not dead, but instead it had morphed into a bollywoodesque ‘evil twin’ and was festering. Cheap, machine-made chikan was flooding the market. Chikankari is a very evolved art form. It requires generations of dedication, of understanding, of passion. After we took it up, everyone wanted to do it. Suddenly chikan was sexy. Cotton was back. We had similar experience with zardozi. Most of our arts and crafts still exist. One simply needs to seek them out like we did.The challenge is no longer in finding them. We have already done that. It is about having the means to take them out there for the world to see.”
We wish Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla all the very best as they seek to enter the next phase of their arts quest. Abu Sandeep you make us all proud. May your tribe increase…

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