I still have crystal clear recollection of my first encounter with that strange beast known as a fashion designer. I was just out of college, working on my first job at a weekly magazine (now sadly defunct) called Sunday, when I was sent off to work on a story on the burgeoning design revolution in India. This was in the late ’80s when fashion design was a concept largely unknown in this country. But there were a few early pioneers who were trying to sell us the concept of designer lehengas and couture kurtas.
So, there I was, on a hot summer day, at the south Delhi house of the late great Rohit Khosla. I entered his office – set up in the garage of the family home – to find him hard at work behind his desk. “Ah,” he said, looking up to greet me, and flashing the most dazzling smile that has ever been bestowed upon me, “I’m glad to meet a girl who is not afraid of colour!”
Quite frankly, until that moment I hadn’t realised that colour was something to be afraid of. But as I looked down at my parrot green kurta, paired with a bright orange churidar and a psychedelic dupatta that took in all colours of the rainbow and some that didn’t even exist in nature, I had to concede that the man had a point.
I was a girl who was not afraid of colour.
But that was not some act of conscious bravery. It is just that, growing up in India, I had never seen colour as something to be afraid of. It was just a part of life, and I embraced it as matter of course as I went about my daily business.
On that day, however, I realised that this was something of an Indian peculiarity. We were the only ones who were not scared of wearing something in searing red or brilliant yellow. Or, as Khosla explained kindly to me, quoting the legendary fashion doyenne, Diana Vreeland, “Pink is the navy blue of India.”
Or, to put it less pithily, just as the West regards navy blue as a safe colour, a neutral shade that works best in all circumstances, we, in India, regard bright shocking pink in much the same way.
Vreeland apparently made this observation based on the clothes worn by the women of Rajasthan, they of the bandhini ghagras and lehriya dupattas coloured in shades of crimson, saffron and, yes, magenta. But frankly, this is as true of the rest of India as well.
Wherever you travel in our country, you will find men and women who are not afraid of colour. Who, like me in more innocent times, don’t even realise that colour is something to be afraid of. They just routinely pick up that turquoise sari or that orange shirt in the morning as they are getting dressed and go about their business without worrying about how brightly coloured their clothes are.
Travel in Punjab and you will find that the turbans of the men are as colourful as the salwar kameezes of the women. Go down south and you will be blown away by the brightly patterned lungis and the high contrast saris of the women on the street. Both Gujarat and Rajasthan use the most colourful dyes in their bandhej techniques. And then, of course, there’s Bengal, with its jewel-hued tants, Tangails and Dhakais, where all the women seem to believe that red blouses go with everything (Hey, what do I know? Maybe they’re right!).
These sights are so common, the colours so much a part of our daily life, that we don’t see them as something out of the ordinary. Colour is something that we do quite effortlessly and without giving it much thought. We will pair a red churidar with a purple kurta. We will wear a green sari with a pink blouse. We will wear purple from head to toe. We will stick on an orange bindi for good measure. We are not afraid of colour.
Which is why I am always surprised when I come across fashion features in foreign publications titled: “Scared of the bold colour palette of this season? Here’s how to wear it!”
The feature nearly always dispenses mealy-mouthed advice like “just stick to one strong statement piece and pair it with a neutral shade” (which roughly translates as “if you’re wearing a bright yellow jacket, make sure you pair it with cream or black trousers; or maybe blue jeans if you are really pushing the boat out”). Or even “start off with an accessory and then gradually ease yourself into the big-ticket items” (in other words “buy a green pair of shoes or an orange bag if you’re too much of a wuss; and then try and work your courage up to get into that stonking pink overcoat!”).
Well, if you ask me, these colour cowards should just take a leaf out of our brightly-coloured book and go the full Monty. Ditch those dark trouser suits and go in for a strong burgundy. Throw out the safe monochromes and explore the possibilities inherent in strongly-contrasting shades. Eschew those pale pastels and embrace the strength of reds, blues and pinks. Go on, do it already. You have nothing to lose but your boring beige and grey.
Pink may or may not be the navy blue of India. But colour certainly is the very soul of India.
From HT Brunch, January 29, 2017
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