Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  India Couture Week: Caving in

Designer Anju Modi’s couture collection Manikarnika, shown on Day 2 of the ongoing India Couture Week in New Delhi, didn’t give us goosebumps. Can we blame Deepika Padukone’s sexy ethnic costumes in the film Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela for the reaction?

Let me explain: Modi is a veteran designer with a distinct design voice of her own when it comes to interpreting craft revival and textiles. She has been quietly pushing the trajectory of her work to newer dimensions. None of them have been far-flung deviations from her chosen path (and that’s why her brand ideology is so clear) but they give the respite an artist needs to return to the centre of one’s sensibility. The way she styled and designed for Padukone in Ram-Leela, with a contemporary use of the indigenous crafts of Kutch, proved that she has a populist nerve. In other words, her costumes for Padukone proved that she can approach a very old idea (a privileged and hot-headed village belle from Kutch) through a modern inroad by costumery twists that are possible only for designers.

Comparing that work to Manikarnika is probably not fair. Or is it? After all, an Indian couture week where Hindi cinema stars walk as show-stoppers every day is as populist as Bollywood itself. Kangana Ranaut walked for Modi this time. But hold that thought for a moment. Let us also compare the collection to Draupadi, Modi’s couture collection last year. Also inspired by mythology, it had some extraordinary garments. In that comparison too, Manikarnika (it’s the name of a goddess but for most people, evokes images of the famous ghat in Varanasi) falls a little short.

Of course, Manikarnika did have an Anju Modi feel to it. The white thread embroidery on the garments was delicately patterned in floral details. The finish and cut of the ornate full-sleeved blouses was lovely in some instances. The ghaghras in slate grey looked charming, as did the pairing of net with silken textiles in some ensembles. Embroidered, high-heeled peep-toes for women were a better part of the line. But some of the dhoti silhouettes looked uncomfortable and complicated; they didn’t have the elegant ease that couture demands. Most instances of menswear were forgettable. The deep maroon velvet jacket styled over a kurta-dhoti with wan pink socks and lace-up shoes looked too laboured. As did the multilayered pairing of shirt, tie and waistcoat with dhoti.

One of the segments, with the dull blue, gold, black, beige, old rose palette, was refined but the other, which employed deep ruby, burgundy, earthy ochre, had nothing to write home about except a couple of lehngas.

The collection wasn’t an expansive idea of couture, it was a narrow idea of Indian bridal in silhouette, crafting and content. Unlike Draupadi, where Modi had sleek silhouettes and finer interpretations of craftwork with whimsical motifs, this one was more on the lines of what we have seen on the larger canvas of bridal wear.

There is also a growing tediousness shaped by the repeated excursions of Indian couturiers into history as inspiration for bridal wear. “Manikarnika is a woman in the past, reborn in the present," writes Modi in her collection note. “With revival at its crux, Manikarnika is an exploration of the age-old craft and ancient techniques. The embroideries are derived from the architecture, with the paintings of the Ajanta-Ellora caves as perfect muses to the artwork and details."

These historical sites, I feel, are a trap for the modern designer’s mind. Someone as dexterous with revival and technique as Modi may have hit a higher note if she had used “ancient" inspirations in smaller doses; in humorous and unexpected ways. In thinking beyond the goddess and beyond the bride. In looking more closely at the couture customer who is perhaps bored of the past. By making embroidery a game rather than the playground. By endowing smugness to the dhoti through better construction. Without caving in to Ajanta and Ellora in terms of set and mood, there may just have been a way to rescue it from the shadow of the has-been.

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