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Home >Opinion >Blogs >UNDERSTATEMENT: Indian fashion and Padma Shri awards

By honouring Goan designer Wendell Rodricks with a Padma Shri this year, the government of India has taken step number two towards acknowledging the role of the fashion industry in the idea of India. Step two because last year, veteran designer and crafts revivalist Ritu Kumar was conferred the same award. That honour went to Kumar, who has been working relentlessly since the 1960s, 59 years after the award was instituted. I remember writing a blog on the occasion in this space titled Too Little, Too Late.

Thankfully, Rodricks’ honour comes in good time when he is in the thick of multiple projects. It also reflects what must be read as the government’s slowly opening outlook towards mainstream fashion—a field saturated with glamour and glitz and thus seen by way of slanted implication by those in political leadership as elitist or insignificant. Mainstream fashion was seen (still is by many) primarily as a playground for the rich and the famous as its customers or for the self-indulgent as its designers. I am not sure if Rodricks’ award changes that entirely as yet.

Because just as Ritu Kumar is applauded as a crafts’ revivalist and the very first designer associated with giving an aesthetic and commercial definition to Indian fashion—thus elevating her above fashion’s everyday personalities, Rodricks too has the distinction of being a revivalist and historian. He wrote Moda Goa: History and Style (Harper Collins)—an important book from an academic and a costume history perspective. He also revived the Goan Kunbi sari. His work has long-term relevance, not to mention the museum of Goan history and costumes he is in the process of shaping and setting up.

At the same time, as a popular designer and a passionate voice who speaks up for the welfare—both social and environmental—of his home state, he has been happily walking the populist track. He has dressed up the bold and the beautiful for the ramp and for commercials—Aishwarya Rai included, was the one to discover Deepika Padukone, has been a mentor-stylist with Lakme Fashion Week for many years tutoring young generation designers, Malaika Arora Khan is one of his muses and he creates resort wear, a high selling segment in designer clothes.

The question we should ask the government of India officials who sit on awards committees is if in the future too, they will only seek senior revivalists like Kumar, or designers like Rodricks who form a Venn diagram between scholarly and popular work. Or do they agree that it is time to view and review fashion as fashion—with or minus revivalist work. Like that of the blazing Rohit Bal (if someone needs a socialist justification, his support of Kashmiri craftsmanship is a strong case in point); the rooted Abraham and Thakore who have been taking abroad a holistic aspect of India through textiles for more than two decades; the quieter but consistent exponents of Khadi like Neeru Kumar and the minimalistic Rajesh Pratap Singh and in the future the toast of the classes, masses and celebs—the younger Sabyasachi?

I have another question that I should ideally reserve for next year but my impatience is getting the better of me. What does the fashion industry mean as an ecosystem to those who award its influence? Will it include an iconic makeup artist in the future, a costume stylist who changed how we view clothes, a path-breaking fashion photographer whose images tell the story of our times?

This fortnightly series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words. Shefalee Vasudev is the author of Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion Articles, videos and blogs at Livemint.com

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