Bling. Read that word, slowly, again in your mind. Does it make you squirm? Golden squiggly worms that remind you of the gauzy sequinned kurta, chandelier earrings, snake-like armband, gold necklace and diamond-studded bindi you once saw on a woman at the multiplex? Did she look like she’d lost a bet (and her good taste)? Exactly!
But why should we? Didn’t our mothers always urge us to buy all the gold we could? When did the hallmark of royalty, the epitome of opulence, become the badge of bad taste flashed by those who don’t know better? The entire country is obsessed with bling. Surely it can’t be all that bad?
Giving Bling A Bad Name
It isn’t. Even the staunchly anti-bling brigade of designers Kallol Datta, Arjun Saluja and Gaurav Jai Gupta agree. “The connotation is not positive today,” says designer JJ Valaya, India’s first brand ambassador for Swarovski in 2001. “Bling now means overdosing on glitter and sequins.” Suneet Varma, who’s used bling in each of his collections, says that the term is now derogatory and doesn’t evoke beauty and luminescence anymore. “It doesn’t speak of the culturally inspired gota, the delicate tissue or iridescent zardosi,” Varma says. “That is real bling.” For designer Gaurav Gupta, the five-letter word is all about aesthetics and conveying the right thought through the right medium. “Look at Comme De Garçon’s black crystal collection many years ago,” he says. “It was full of crystals yet looked so elegant. Or the way Balenciaga does bling in a controlled sophisticated manner.”
PS I Hate You
Between a superbly crafted zari sari that design house Marchesa gladly copied for Spring/Summer 2013, and a polyester, two-toned dress bursting with sequins of every size and colour, what went wrong? “People went ballistic with bling,” says Valaya. “Glitter cannot be used irresponsibly. There has to be a sense of proportion and contrast. Some bling is so bright, it can’t be looked at. It completely takes away from the wearer.” As with every trend that dies an instant death the moment it enters the muddy waters of mainstream, bling’s downward spiral began around the time our TVs began to feature women sleeping, waking, cooking, scheming and weeping in embellished saris and fake jewellery.
Designer Raakesh Agarvwal, who is known to be unabashedly market driven, blames TV for the popularity of shimmering eyesores. “Bling became popular when the masses saw the likes of Komolika of Kasauti Zindagi Kay wear everything glittery at the same time, each look more garish than the last,” he claims. “As shocking as it sounds, everyone wanted to copy that look. I still have customers who bring cut-outs of TV vamps and leading ladies and ask us to copy it exactly!”
And what designers couldn’t provide, enterprising karigars supplied, happily – in bulk. Last year, Manav Gangwani, the big daddy of bling, had a couture week collection so sparkly, it probably temporarily blinded the front row. “Most people can’t afford a garment by Tarun Tahiliani or Rohit Bal,” he says. “So there are several low-quality copies that don’t have any knowledge of cut or design. These look cheap and their bad image rubs off on everybody who uses bling. One doesn’t become a designer by simply adding Swarovski bits. Without research, it looks tacky.” Bollywood designer Manish Malhotra, who made the original net sari that coloured every copy-cat store’s dreams, agrees. “High quality bling takes time and effort. When it’s reproduced on a mass scale, it’s not done the same way.”
And it insults our own design heritage along the way. “We’ve always had a tradition of surface embellishment,” says David Abraham, of the clever mirror-work, embroidery and inlay label, Abraham & Thakore. “Royalty embroidered rubies and emeralds onto their clothes. But there was a sense of subtlety that is lacking in today’s loud, demonstrative bling. And it’s that showing off that makes bling ugly and a turn off.”
Designer Anand Kabra, who has championed saris paired with golden jaali jackets at least once every collection, says that people want to return to simpler tastes. “It’s everywhere, in our décor, on our gadgets... There is a demand for a fresh, cleaner look that has less shine.”
Pomp and Circumstance
Could it be that Indian fashion just hasn’t grown up enough to look, well, grown up? “No one understands fashion very well; it’s still very new in India,” argues designer Gaurav Jai Gupta, who blended textile and handloom with an embedded Swarovski theme, not to a very popular response, recently. “People want to spend their money where it’s visible and then put it all together at once,” he says. “If they spend the money, they want it out there.” Manav Gangwani blames this on people’s tendency to believe that more is always better – even if it’s glitter. “We can only advise people about what to wear; how they do it is their choice. If they want to pair a blingy gown with a diamond necklace and a studded bag, how is the designer to blame?”
People do, in fact, pile it all on. And when they do, the effect is not far from that of a rap-star who’s just signed his first record deal: huge dollar sign pendants, diamond grilled teeth, chunky rings on every finger. “Most rap artists started from ghetto neighbourhoods and came into a lot of money. So their bling is an assertion of them having arrived. Much like many Indians,” says Kallol Datta. “If it was subtle, it wouldn’t be bling,” points out social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. Think about it – you can’t say you’ve arrived with the quiet charm of zari or the hushed tones of gota, when there is the glitzy sparkle of Swarovski. Nikhil Mehra of Shantanu & Nikhil, who extensively use crystals as a part of their evening wear, sums it up simply. “It’s hundreds of stones in different colours saying just what you want it to: ‘I’m rich since I can afford this’.” This shiny new marker of status is actually less labour intensive than, say crafting a French knot, he explains. “All you have to do is add it to the garment. It’s easier and shinier. Why wouldn’t it sell?”
Faster than we could say “My eyes! My eyes!” the puny crystal has replaced the trusty threadwork on India’s
bridal lehengas. The trend began ten years ago, covering the clothing market in a crystal haze. JJ Valaya, Suneet Varma, Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Arora began to embed crystals in their designs. This was followed by partnerships at fashion weeks, like the Pearls Delhi Couture Week in 2010 (where they decked The Grand hotel with over four lakh crystals and eight installations) and partnering with the India International Jewellery Week. But what really set the shiny stone into the Indian consciousness was when the collaborations extended to traditional design houses like Nalli, where drapes like the Kanjeevaram, Pochampally, Thanjavur and Ilkal were encrusted with Swarovski elements.
Loud and Proud
But let’s not be too hasty in blaming Swarovski for the ‘Bling Indian Turnaround’. Our obsessive-compulsive relationship with the shiny stuff has a backstory spicier than Fifty Shades of Grey. And it didn’t take long for Sanjay Sharma, the former head of Swarovski Elements, India, to see that. “India always wore embellished apparel. It’s been a part of our cultural heritage. While earlier only royals could afford it, bling sort of democratised shiny, glittery objects,” he says. Perhaps we’re magpies at heart, for these objects celebrate our tastes and underscore our loud, celebratory nature. “We even celebrate the change of seasons,” states designer Anand Kabra. How can that celebration occur without loud, colourful clothes? It’s a part of our DNA, we’re not Paris, and we can’t look morose in black if there’s a festival on. “And we’re not Japan or Scandinavia either,” adds Gupta. “You can’t expect our kind of boisterousness [in the West] because they’re a minimalist society. We’re maximalists; a country filled with people everywhere. We need to make a statement to stand out and bling does that with ease.” Our culture in fact urges us to be as loud as we can. Jewellery designer and party-page regular, Queenie Singh points out that in Italy women wear white with gold accessories, while the Arab women pile on every brand at once under their abayas. “We on the other hand love to accessorise,” she says.
Just a Gilty Pleasure
We might not be Japan or Paris, yet. But we do want to get there, soon. The clean, minimalist lines of Yohji Yamamoto are discussed with reverence in fashion
circles, and owning a little black dress is every Indian fashionista’s number one ambition. Bling being our own, like everything desi, is no match for gamine Parisian charm. Cultural commentator and columnist, Sunil Mehra says that as Indians, we’re made to feel ashamed about everything, be it eating with our hands or having a thousand gods. “We’ve internalised the colonial shame which is why we’re easily tricked into bling-shaming. The light here is harsher and the colours are brighter. What the West considers bright are mere pastels for us,” he says. He reminds us that we’re the only country that has an ornament for every part of the body, be it haath-phool or the choti-chains. And that’s not just the women, our men have equally loved covering themselves in diamonds, gold and pearls, be it the kings and courtiers or the modern man with his rings and pierced ears. The India International Jewellery Week this year even had Abhay Deol walking the ramp wearing an ornate brooch, while designer Raghavendra Rathore has launched his jewellery line for men in Punjab. And all said, bling does add instant sparkle to a drab fabric. That’s why even the addition of a cheap gota border almost doubles the price of a length of material. “It’s like red, not everyone carry it off. You need personality to make bling work and we have it,” says Mehra.
Okay, we admit it. We love bling with every gold-covered fibre of our body. And it kills us to see it reduced to such a repugnant form. David Abraham offers a way out. “Return to tradition,” he suggests. “The way the banjaras of Kutch and Rajasthan use it or the manner it’s displayed at in the Sheesh Mahal. The use of Swarovski is not defending tradition, which is why it doesn’t work so well.” Valaya adds that we need to combine aesthetics with craftsmanship. Manish Malhotra, on the other hand, just cries out for a little more subtlety. “The trick is for the designers to move to a gentler use of antique bling. It’s time to reinvent it and move away from the current form.” Amen.
This story appeared in the Brunch Quarterly, the new lifestyle magazine from Hindustan Times. Out on stands now.
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