National Treasure6 min read . Updated: 02 Dec 2011, 03:17 PM IST
Buoyed by prosperity, maturing retail expertise and well-travelled, well-informed consumers, the Indian luxury sector is booming. For brands across segments, from Swiss watches to French champagne, India is slowly turning from a market of great potential to one of serious business.
Yet in this headlong rush to buy and sell, it is easy to forget that India has a stellar tradition when it comes to luxury consumption. A tradition that not only witnessed the birth of Western brands, as we know them today, but also sustained them, and ultimately, moulded the way the world made and enjoyed luxury.
The Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London has a spectacular collection of Mughal miniature paintings, one of which, a portrait of Emperor Shahjahan painted by Abu’l Hasan in 1619 when he was still a prince, is considered a classic of the genre. The Indian Portrait, a book published in 2010 by the National Portrait Gallery in London to accompany a massive exhibition of Indian portraits that year,describes it like this:
The aigrette that the prince wears in the picture is arguably one of the earliest identifiable Indian luxury objects of European provenance.
Shahjahan, while still a prince, is believed to have been impressed by the jewellery of King James I of England as depicted in paintings carried by English envoys. Not only that, one historian, Hans Nadelhoffer, even traces back the design of the very turban ornament in the painting to the sketches of Danish designer Arnold Lulls from around 1610.
So, it is little wonder that when Amin Jaffer is asked to tell the story of Indian luxury, he starts with the Mughal court of Akbar:
“It is a misconception that luxury consumption in India starts with royalty or the maharajas. In fact, it starts well before that. We know that Akbar was fascinated by the art and manufactures of the West. This includes mirrors, sculptures, paintings, musical instruments and all kinds of things. But all around his court, there was this fascination, even amongst his noblemen."
Jaffer is director of Asian art at Christie’s International, the storied auction house, and, before that, has worked as senior curator at the V&A Museum. A PhD in British Indian furniture, Jaffer is also the author of several books including Made For Maharajas: Designs For Princely India, a sumptuous visual history of how Indian royalty consumed.
By the early 17th century itself, Jaffer explains, agents, or traders, in port cities such as Surat, Masulipatnam and Kochi were beginning to seek out these Western curiosities. The best objects, of course, were reserved for the emperor and his inner circle. But appreciation for these objects and for the technology behind objects such as mechanical clocks, unknown in India, trickled down into the merchant classes as well, says Jaffer.
Trade flourished between the East and the West, but it would be almost two centuries before we would see brands such as Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Osler and Boucheron that are today synonymous with luxury in preindependence India.
“This preference for certain brands and workshops really takes off in the 1880s and the early 20th century," explains Jaffer, as the nobles begin to travel to the West.
Even then, he points out, the brands were chosen somewhat differently from the way they are today. “Today we choose brands for their external appearance, to show people what we own. But back then, customers simply chose workshops that made the best objects."
Anna Jackson explains that some of the earliest consumers to warm up to Western tastes were nobility such as the Nawabs of Arcot and Awadh.
Jackson is the author of Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts along with Amin Jaffer, and a senior curator at the V&A Museum.
Jackson says that some of the early nawabs sought Western objects not just because they liked them, but also because they wanted to distance and distinguish themselves from their overlords at the Mughal court. Later, with the establishment of the British Raj, this cultural exchange intensified and became more widespread. With British representatives relocating to and building homes in local kingdoms, the nobility had an even better opportunity to observe their lifestyles.
Jaffer explains in his book one other way in which the establishment of the British Raj helped boost luxury spending. Now that the British formalized and secured state borders, kings and nawabs no longer needed large, standing armies. So the money saved was spent either on large public works or, as was often the case, private treasures.
While it is difficult to determine how much of early branded luxury goods flowed to India, there is plenty of documentary evidence to show that India was a market of supreme importance. All major brands had agents and representatives in India who made periodic circuits of the houses of the noble and wealthy.
F&C Orsler, the British crystal and chandelier makers, had workshops in then Calcutta to assemble imported items and service local customers.
However, the Indian market began to really dominate the business with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. “When the Western economies collapsed suddenly, the maharajas became much more important as consumers," says Jaffer. “Buyers in American and Europe vanished, China was still far from being an important market, and the Middle East as we know it today simply didn’t exist."
This gave the cultural melting pot another resounding stir. Soon, while goods flowed to the East, designs and design inspirations began to flow to the West. One lasting example of the Indian influence on Western tastes, Jaffer points out, is in the emergence of what is known as “tutti-frutti" jewellery.
Soon Indian styles of setting stones, with small colours intermingled into swirling, floral shapes, became wildly popular. Perhaps the greatest piece of “tutti-frutti" jewellery is the “Hindu Necklace" made by Cartier for an American client, Daisy Fellowes, based on a piece for the Maharaja of Patna.
(No one would do more to establish this trend in the West than Ambaji Shinde who, in the 1960s, became Harry Winston’s chief designer in New York. Turn to page 26 for a brief profile.)
Jaffer’s book, Made for Maharajas, is a catalogue of both beauty and eccentricity. The same Indian clientele that inspired the “Hindu Necklace", or the astounding Cartier Patiala Necklace, also placed orders for the Maharaja of Gwalior’s silver and glass miniature train, that made circuits of a banquet table dispensing beverages.
Of course, the pre-eminence of Indian royal patronage was shortlived, and largely concluded with the establishment of fre India after World War II.
Yet it is hard not to notice that once again, after six decades, the great brands of the West are beginning to turn eastwards. Customers from China, and increasingly from India, are all that stands between prosperity and penury for many houses of fashion and luxury.
In the introduction to the latest edition of the Wristwatch Annual, Peter Braun writes, “So whether form should follow function and ornamentation be a crime, as functionalist Adolf Loos suggested in 1908 is ultimately irrelevant. The industry as a whole has to follow the money, and that is in the East. While the deindustrializing economies in the West sputter on, hyper-industrializing China has taken their place in the driver’s seat."
But, in addition to repeating history, there are also new elements to this new boom in the East, and that is of eastern brands swinging westwards.
On 8 November, Amrapali became the first Indian brand to feature in the Fine Jewellery Room at London’s iconic Harrod’s department store.
The same day the brand unveiled a new two-storey flagship store in the city.
About a fortnight later, Tata group’s Titan Industries announced that it had signed a deal to acquire the 300-yearold Swiss premium watch brand Favre- Leuba. Thus adding to the group’s existing luxury international marquees: Jaguar and Land Rover.
Does this mean that new Indian designs in jewellery and watches will again energize the Western markets? Or, will Indian consumers eagerly embrace Western craftsmanship as they have for centuries?
Chances are that both will take place.
Though the probability of seeing a business tycoon from Mumbai ordering a frog house in gold and carbon fibre seems remote.
But who knows?