Like Saleem and Shiva, heroes and anti-heroes of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Abu and Sandeep are both actors and witnesses of India’s quicksand.
‘Top Notch’ is a bi-monthly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to the elite and club of fashion scholars.
What can we say about Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla that has not already been said? In their 35th year of collaboration, the duo are unmistakably older than the organized fashion industry in India as we know it.
They are renowned fashion designers, couturiers, costume designers, revivalists, national award winners, confidants of the most arrogant posh Bollywoodians, peerless revelers, nastiest spirits and, most recently, stalkers of Clubhouse.
And yet, 35 years is a very long time. They have seen the rise, fall and rise of Indian sartorial traditions. They have witnessed the opening of the Indian economy, the arrival of international luxury and the triumph of local traditions. Like Saleem and Shiva, the hero and anti-hero of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight children, Abu and Sandeep are both actors and witnesses of India’s quicksand.
It may be by chance that one is a Hindu from northern India and the other a Bohri Muslim raised in Mumbai. Sandeep, the son of a wealthy industrialist from Kapurthala, went to fancy boarding schools before finding his job in Bombay. Abu was born in the city, slowly cooked in his multicultural cauldron with Parsis, Gujaratis, Madrasis, Anglos and Sindhis, like his mother’s famous sheep. khichda (still the biggest draw of their evenings). They met, fell head over heels in love and started a label with nothing but Rs 50,000 each.
It was a time when the idea of an Indian fashion “designer” was taking shape. There were several others – Rohit Khosla, James Ferreira and others – who wanted to break away from Indian clothing and wanted Indians to dress like a global consumer would. The embroidered clothes were made by housewives who employed a local master ji, without much design intervention and certainly no formal training or regulation. Besides Ritu Kumar, Abu-Sandeep (the two became a collective name) were solely responsible for steering Indian craft techniques towards luxury status at the time.
Was it a risk, or where was it safe to play? “It was a very big risk,” says Sandeep. “Waking up is not cheap. One could get cheap wedding outfits made in Chandni Chowk or Bhuleshwar, but quality work costs a lot of money. Embroidered lehengas, made with only one type of naqshi point, were made at Bareilly and Lucknow but they were circular skirts and not panels. We had both worked for export houses in Bombay, and above all we wanted to rid India of the image it had of the manufacturer of sequined butterfly-sleeved blouses and harem pants, ”he laughs. -he. “We wanted to bring the greatness of Indian fashion to the world, we wanted to show the greatness of the stitch. The Indian fashion narrative had to change.
“Handicrafts are dead all over the world, but in India we have access to any type of art, be it weaving, embroidery, inlays, Tanjore paintings, sculpture. It would be foolish not to use them, we are blessed to have our artisans, ”Abu echoes.
So began their romance with crafts. Abu-Sandeep never thought about the end consumer, they just focused on the poetry of their clothes. One item had 100 snakes on its neck, part of their first Mata Hari collection. They never thought someone would buy it, but it got them on the cover of a magazine. They started making expensive embroidered jackets and taking them to the West, finding favor with celebrities like Shakira Caine, Princess Michael, Liza Minelli. “We were just two creative minds, neither of us had the brains for business,” says Sandeep.
The first embroidery style promoted by the duo was zardozi. Called “zar-douzi”, this gold and silver seam has its origins in Iran, Azerbaijan and Central Asia. Zardozi reached its peak in the 17th century at the court of Emperor Akbar, but the arts and crafts first stopped under Aurangzeb, then industrialization. Then the two dove into the bandhini, Kutch’s tie-dye knots, and crushed the fabric in an attempt at modernity. This, they say, was copied from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. They began to apply mirrors to the clothes after the wedding of Rima Jain, the daughter of Raj Kapoor. It wasn’t the Kutch abla, or tiny mirrors held together by colored threads. They were large mirrors embroidered with gold and silver zardozi.
And then came the chikan, their signature and their leitmotif. It is said that no one in the country makes the chikankari more beautiful than Abu-Sandeep. Chikan, or shadow work on muslin, mostly white on white, dates back to the 3rd century BC and came to India as part of the Persian culture of Mughal rulers. He thrives in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, home to his 32 stitches.
“Chikan was an old love. I have an aunt, Sita Sondhi, who has lived in Lucknow for 50 years. We brought our own fabrics to him and started making big dupattas, like the Muslims chadors. Seema and her friend Shenaz Kidwai took us to a printer called Mohammed Ali who had the oldest printing boards we have ever seen. No one was using those prints anymore. He was surprised to print on chiffon, as the fabric kept moving. We made 30 blocks on one item, and each block had its own type of embroidery. We played old Hindi music and Shenaz sang, and we created some magic. Mohammed Ali thought we were frankly crazy, he was probably right, ”laughs Sandeep.
The duo said Lucknow was so beautiful that they wanted to settle down there and buy an old haveli. But these were decrepit, with only pigeons living there, and were not accompanied by proper papers. “It was a bit of the Wild West,” they say, happy to make do with it. kakori and tunde skewers instead.
The duo recognize that India’s sartorial traditions depend entirely on its Muslim artisans. “Handicrafts are entirely in the hands of minorities. The best tailors and cutters, the marquetry artists, the best sculptors, they all come from minority communities, ”says Sandeep. In Lucknow, the two threw parties for young girls who embroidered chikan for them. They offered them shawls, blankets and utensils. The girls began to earn money, were empowered and found new respect among their families.
In Bombay, the Abu-Sandeep Diwali celebrations are famous. Bagging an invitation for one is much more difficult than for a Bachchan party. The Juhu duplex, already brimming with fine art and sculpture, has more movie stars than a movie magazine. Most of them are their generational friends and clients. Jaya Bachchan with daughter Shweta and granddaughter Navya Nanda, Dimple Kapadia with Twinkle Khanna. And Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Boney and the late Sridevi, Arjun Kapoor with Malaika Arora and Varun Dhawan.
But their Eid iftaars are where they really celebrate with their family, their team. Most of them have been part of the duo for 30 years. “We usually rent a restaurant where we go out of our way for the feast. Our young design team performs a dance or a skit for the artisans, ”they say.
Abu-Sandeep became the embodiment of India and its fashions, in its rich tapestry of multicultural apotheosis. As Abu sums it up: “None of the traditions have divided. They came from all over the world, from Persia to China via Indonesia, we Indians made them ours.