The India Story (TIS), a design exposition that concluded in Kolkata last Sunday, did not borrow its cultural arsenal from an urbane and techno-savvy Durga Puja. Nor was it like the old art and craft fairs organized by the government at which women would come wearing Kantha saris and buy Balucharis. This wasn’t an ennobling get-together by a fading colonial Calcutta Club to hold on to its circle of influence. And it certainly wasn’t a cricket or football event with jhalmuri sellers lining the stadium’s walls.

The What’s Next section at ‘The India Story’.
The What’s Next section at ‘The India Story’.

When Kolkata hosts a national design event, you could begin to conjure up a predictable event map in your mind. But TIS didn’t do the predictable and piggyback on the city’s cultural identity. Instead, it told a new story while remaining rooted in Calcutta’s maati (earth). Weaving together the city’s culture of organizing large-scale events, its long-lasting comfort with handicrafts and carpentry, and its passion for aesthetics, TIS encompassed, in one swoop, music, food, sculpture, art, photography, architecture and fashion. Design, of which there is an explosion in India, was the binding idea.

The event mascot.
The event mascot.

TIS, a Neotia Arts Trust initiative, is in its second edition and was held at Swabhumi, The Heritage Plaza, in Kolkata’s Salt Lake area, over four days. Entry was free. The moment you set foot inside, an artsy, buzzing vibe enveloped you. There were outdoor sculptures and art installations, including some by artists Narayan Chandra Sinha, Rohit Barman and Abin Chaudhury; a transparent modern haveli by Obeetee, makers of handwoven carpets; booths by art galleries such as Latitude 28 and Nature Morte; innovative furniture sellers; street foods of states ranging from Gujarat to West Bengal; an “Urban Zone" to host shows; 12 music bands playing over the course of the four days, with the event theme music composed by musician Shantanu Moitra; and dozens of stalls by fashion, accessory and decor designers from all over the country.

The audience at the opening night fashion show.
The audience at the opening night fashion show.

TIS was a contemporary space that did not allow itself to be boxed into either the traditional or modern category. A perfect example of its flavour was What’s Next, a fashion, jewellery and art section curated by creative artist Anahita Kayan. It had small, smart booths run by young designers. Through its clever assimilation of merchandise and minds, looks and beliefs, What’s Next captured the essence of the otherwise hard-to-define youth culture in India. It also sold wares that could easily be adopted by other subcultures anywhere in the world. “We invite designers and artists who work to please themselves, not others. Art and architecture get neglected in the public sphere; TIS, then, is also an educational platform. It may have the characteristics of a typical Bengali adda, but it is really about connecting the dots of art and fashion talent from Pondicherry (Puducherry) to the North-East," says Nil (Navonil) Das of the designer duo Dev R Nil, a member of the TIS core team.

A look from Rahul Mishra’s fashion showcase.
A look from Rahul Mishra’s fashion showcase.

With the tag line “Revive, Reinvent, Relove" (a rethink of these terms may be in order given their overuse), TIS assimilates new design in fashion, revival in architecture and food as well as inventive experiments in music and other arts. The Karthick Iyer band from Chennai, known for its IndoSoul music, played during a fashion show by a group of designers.

It completely eclipsed a group fashion show by some designers with a segment by Rahul Mishra on the opening night. It was mesmeric and powerful. That, though, was not the only time when mainstream, dressed-to-kill fashion on the ramp found a competitive peer at TIS. At the What’s Next street, with stalls by barely known labels, including 431-88, Anaam, Ishana, Doodlage, Door Of Maai, Maku and Brandless, fashion looked way more relaxed and self-confident (rather than obsessed with impressing the “other") than some of the fashion at established fashion weeks. Gender fluid, anti-fit clothes, made from the weaves of Bengal, including some in Khadi and other non-flashy textiles and experimental jewellery made by pairing unconventional materials gave the fashion here a certain Kolkata Cool, an unlisted genre so far but full of potential for a wider resonance. Just the kind of physical experience the world of Indian style needs to resist the onslaught of online retail and fast-fashion brands.

“We go wrong when we try to ape and please the West. Instead of creating a spectacle of our ethnicity or poverty, it may be time to layer the thought with newer ideas that resonate Indianness," says Madhu Neotia, co-founder of TIS. Like Das, Neotia believes that TIS isn’t just an entrepreneurial or exhibition hub but a conversion platform to educate the young and convert them to local influences they could be missing out on.

Headquartering it in Kolkata is germane to the vibe that TIS has rustled up—minus swagger, yet full of verve.

“People in Kolkata understand style, they take to it naturally. I have participated in other fashion fairs, but the vibe here is different," said Sumiran Kabir Sharma, the young Delhi designer of Anaam. Dressed in a jumpsuit with a hat and flaunting a septum nose ring, he emphasized that he made garments for people, not separately men or women. “Even two years back, it was a rare sight to see Kolkata girls in anti-fit textile dresses worn with white keds, but this is now aspirational dressing," said Ishana Rai Sethia, of the label Ishana.

Curiously, these new design labels weren’t just peddling individualism but were abuzz with entrepreneurial activity. “The future of any enterprise is aggregation and access. It holds true from cabs to cellular services. TIS is just that. It aggregates talent from across the country and allows it to be easily accessed," says advertising whiz Swapan Seth, also the convenor of the advisory board for the first edition of the TIS design awards. These awards were given to recognize talent in product design, arts practice, textile, craft and fashion, indoor and outdoor space.

Overall, TIS could certainly do with some thoughtful editing that resists the domination of fashion over other forms of design. Even so, the Kolkata cognoscenti deserve an ovation. In stark contrast to the Frow in Delhi and Mumbai, which clamours for attention and hustles to find a place in the sun, the fashion elite of Kolkata at the opening night fashion show espoused a particular cultural idea with conviction. Some had to be nudged to occupy their front-row seats. They arrived in beautiful saris, deconstructed kurtas with handkerchief silhouettes, gold and ruby ornaments, wedge heels, fine silks and elegant dhotis that were tasteful, expensive and consummately Indian without any trace of ethnic dressing. No sleeveless garments, not a single pair of bare legs in form-fitting dresses, yet not the slightest hint of conservatism. They dispelled the hauteur around logo bags and fashion obsession with trend forecasts by just omitting them.

Which is why, even though TIS founders have been invited, as Das said, to take the event to New York’s Madison Square Garden, it may need to grow stronger roots in Kolkata before it becomes a travelling bard. That’s where it belongs organically. The triumph of TIS is also a triumph of place-ness

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