In some circles he’s known as Mr Calico. Subrata Bhowmick was, for many years, the design director of the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad—a city in which he still lives and works. In Japan, he’s known as a master designer who carries within him the DNA of the Indian textile heritage as naturally as one of the shawls that he wears.
In Chennai, he’s known as the person who launched a brand named RmKv silks. It was the most recognizable ad campaign the city has seen. The girl was as fresh as the jasmines in her hair. The award-winning RmKv sari was called Hamsa Damayanti (lady with a swan). It was a masterpiece of the traditional Kancheepuram weaver’s craft, combined with French tapestry techniques and a colour palette so subtle that it reproduced all the richness of the original painting by Raja Ravi Varma. The pallu, draped over the girl’s shoulders, floated across the entire width of the hoarding. Was it the girl that caught the attention? Or was it the product, showcasing the weaver’s art? Or, was it Bhowmick’s own genius at creating a new brand. It is difficult to tell. Today, of course, everyone will recognize the young woman—Deepika Padukone—of the wide set, doe-like eyes, high cheekbones, tender mouth and Audrey Hepburn jawline.
Early muse: Subrata Bhowmick
“It’s strange that we should be talking about her now, when Om Shanti Om is making waves,” admits Bhowmick. When he chose her for the RmKv shoot, she was just another face. They worked in a small, cramped, 10X12 ft space in Bangalore, where Deepika lived with her parents. “There are no preconceived notions when you work with a fresh young face. I did not ask myself whether she had ever worn a traditional sari or not, or whether she was part of the ‘Now’ generation. There is something charming about that very process—the somewhat ungainly way in which a young girl might drape herself in a sari. It’s like giving a pencil to a child and allowing it to draw something. Or, when you ask someone who is not very familiar with a set of ingredients to cook something for you—and something wonderful gets created just by chance. There’s a spontaneity that’s unmatched. I think that’s what happened with Deepika.”
“Some years later, I saw her again at an airport and, do you know, she did not recognize me at all. That also happens. Do I mind that? Not if I think about it. Does anyone know who has prepared a great dish from a traditional kitchen? No, you just enjoy the food that is placed in front of you. This is true about our traditional artists, our folk artists, the people who built our temples and painted our murals. There was no question of a brand then, so why should there be one now?”
Deepika Padukone modelling an RmKv sari for their ad campaign
“You don’t create a brand. It finds you. It’s there, waiting to happen.” The RmKv people already had their saris, when S. Viswanathan (the older brother of the clan, who died in a car accident two years ago) decided to launch their product in Chennai with Bhowmick’s help. Viswanathan was an IIT graduate with expertise in textile manufacture. He also knew that with the latest computer enhanced technology, he could experiment with dyes and colours in a way that might not have been possible before. One of his creations involved, for instance, a sari with 50,000 different shades and another used the 108 poses from the repertoire of the Bharatanatyam dancer. He was determined to upgrade the family business from its base in Tirunelveli, where they had grown in four decades from a small shop selling cotton to a new one stop showroom for the entire family.
He also had a phenomenal visual memory. He remembered the ads Bhowmick had created for Calico Mills in the 1970s and the range of shops that had been launched across the country, carrying a dramatic signage spread across the top of their glass panelled shop-fronts. The “O” resembled a bindi.
The Calico ads are still Bhowmik’s favourites. It showed the saris that he had designed in bold dramatic colours, reds, yellows and blacks, wrapped around two young women, whose heads stand out in stark relief, as beautiful in their own way as the famous Dancing Girl from the Indus Valley. Or, as modern as Brancusi or Paul Klee, yet as rooted in the tradition of the Gujarat landscape as the colours painted on a mud hut wall by a peasant woman. “I always like to use women in pairs,” he says, “In Indian poetry, we have the tradition of sakhis—friends. Women walk together, that why you see them in pairs across my ads.”
In a sense, his RmKv ads are an extension of the original images he created in his Calico ads for, as he says, the family was still very traditional. There was no question of showing any skin, or exposing any part of the body, more than strictly necessary. Indeed, as anyone who has gone to one of the famous sari shops at Chennai, whether at Nalli, Kumaran, Pothys or Sundari Silks, will tell you, the salesmen who display the silks are most often tiny wizened men who manage to drape the material over themselves in a strange parody of the coy behaviour of a film heroine. Bhowmick’s Deepika is all beautiful head and no body, and appears in multiple images. You are not even sure it’s the same girl. She could be the Swan or the Lady that has been woven onto the pallu she is displaying.
It’s when Bhowmick starts talking about his intense involvement with textiles that he becomes animated. He used to sit in his father’s cloth shop in Kolkata, where the family had immigrated from what is now Bangladesh— when was just a small child. His learning, he says, was acquired while walking through the market from his home to the shop. The intense colour of the spices, the sound of a knife sharpener, the hammering of the copper-vessel maker—all these form part of Bhowmick’s imaginative repertoire.
“Why should we walk only in branded shoes?” he asks. “Have you ever tried wearing the wooden footwear that we used to be able to walk in at one time? Can we not learn about our own erotic language from the Kama Sutra? Can you sing a Tagore song in any other language; is there a leela, a joy in doing that? Is that what you call a brand? When I create a new type of weave for RmKv and describe it as “nagasu” (a Tamil word associated with nagai, meaning jewellery), then I am creating a new sound for it—a new brand if you like—one that is both visual and sensual. You have to feel it. You have to touch it. You have to experience it.”
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