It would be accurate to say that Rahul Mishra has made full use of his education. But not in the way you might imagine.
The 29-year-old’s background in science (he has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Kanpur University) helps when he’s working on new techniques such as reversible and seamless ensembles. To create tags for the garments and visiting cards for his new company, The Apple Tree, he applies what he learnt about graphic design while doing his masters at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and the Istituto Marangoni, Milan, Italy.
But what influences the young designer the most aren’t the institutions he’s studied at. His prime sources of inspiration are the weavers of traditional Indian fabrics and the art they’ve been practising for centuries.
One side of the reversible dress showcases the handloom Kerala cloth woven by Hindus in south India, while the other shows rich Banarasi silk woven by Muslims in the north. Photographs: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Mishra’s design philosophy revolves around traditional weaves and fabrics such as Banarasi silk, chikankari and Kerala’s cotton handloom cloth (traditionally used to make the mundu neriyathum). At Indian fashion weeks in the past, he’s showcased these crafts, but in never-seen-before ways. At his first Lakme Fashion Week show in 2006, he used the Kerala handloom fabric to make dresses and trousers that could be worn inside out—the garments had different coloured borders and styles on both sides. Earlier this year, inspired by animal hides, he used chikankari and mashru (a fabric from Patan in Gujarat) to make dresses without seams, meant to fit the body like skin.
Mishra—who showed at Rosemount Australia Fashion Week for Spring Summer ’08—gave our idea a lot of thought. He got cracking immediately on his first, self-appointed task—a flow chart of his idea of freedom. The white sheet had criss-crossing lines connecting our fundamental rights, strengths, problems and the economic, cultural and social scenario in the country.
“In the backdrop of communal and urban-rural divides and debates over regional identities, the two faces of India seemed enormously important to me and I was tempted to build the bridge between them,” Mishra says, seated in his central Mumbai workshop, in the erstwhile mill area of Lower Parel, sketching his reversible dress. He’s aware of the irony of his present location—the mills which led to the decline of the handloom fabrics he’s trying to revive interest in. Mishra wanted to create an outfit—a cross between a dress and a sherwani—that bridged religious and geographical boundaries.
“There are differing opinions on whether the villages have been left behind in our pursuit of an urban India. But the independent India of my vision is one where there is no urban-rural divide. There are no boundaries of religion, region and culture that separate. This outfit is a physical embodiment of my vision of independence in India,” says Mishra.
It was natural that nothing but handwoven—essentially Indian— cloth would do. He chose his favoured off-white handloom fabric with coloured or zari borders from Kerala and a jewelled Banarasi silk with a bold floral motif. “A Muslim weaver in a village on the plains of the Ganges in north India has created this Banarasi silk, while the Kerala fabric has been woven by Hindus in south India. I wanted to make something that brings together the best from the past, adapt it to the present and create a dream for the future,” says Mishra.
The designer wanted to keep seams in the fabric to a minimum, “to create an undivided look that flows effortlessly on the body”. Mishra and his “master” spent the first four days creating new prototypes on pattern-making paper as there were no existing patterns for his reversible, seamless dress. After that, it took almost 12 work hours to cut, and 48 hours to stitch the garment.
Interestingly, the master who cut the cloth, Shashikant Sawant, is Hindu, while Rustam Ansari, the tailor, is Muslim.
Both sides of the ensemble display individual personalities— three layers of diaphanous Kerala fabric have been quilted together for the yoke, with a panel of pleats which fall from the waist. Turn it inside out, and the other side, with rich fabric, has a straight cut.
Mishra’s task was made difficult by the fact that both the fabrics were as different as could be—one was pure silk, the other pure cotton. “They have individual characteristics and they fall very differently,” he explains. Still they come together as a seamless whole; different, yet the same.
Mishra is deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of a self-sufficient village economy.
It took Mishra and his team more than 60 work hours to create the outfit;
Rahul Mishra retails out of Ensemble, in Mumbai and New Delhi.