A Rohit Bal spread: Fashion, fame, love, drugs, and a ghagra
The designer skirts no question and gets up, close and personal and even admits to his Devdas-like romantic intensitybrunch Updated: Sep 10, 2017 11:40 IST
“Let us settle ourselves and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice and tradition and delusion and appearance…till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality.”
Astute words by American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, they may just describe the current state of mind of India’s most famous couturier, Rohit Bal.
Cloaked in projections as a hedonistic celebrity who parties with boys, a designer allegedly on designer drugs, Bal, who is usually thin-skinned about personal questions, agrees to separate rumour from reality, opinion from fact.
Drawing a line between his mad passionate self in love and loss, his masti and diwanapan from his distaste for aggression, his intensity in intimacy from control, he argues against a monastic attitude as well as a narcissistic one. His pet words currently are “blessed” and “balance”, the latter also the name of his prêt label.
Admitting that he was always treated like a charmer from his growing up days in Kashmir long before he found fame in fashion, Bal says that as the years wore on, he became uncomfortable with judgments drawn from his looks, skin colour and profession. “People are excessively curious about me. I know they find me interesting and want to be with me. I may be glamorous but do I look like I am on drugs?” he asks incredulously. He emphasises that he is a recluse in the making, who barely eats at restaurants or watches movies in theatres.
I meet Bal a week before he opens the 10th edition of India Couture Week in Delhi with his collection – Shan-e-Khas – inspired from Indian garments in museums across the world. Contrary to his die-hard reputation of taking liberties with punctuality, Bal saunters into his menswear store in Defence Colony quite on time.
“I could have been a wild child. I am the youngest of seven siblings from two marriages of both my parents. But I’ve turned out to be the exact opposite.”
High time too for raw musings. Bal reminisces fondly about his “glorious childhood in Kashmir” but admits that he has no words for the angst that Kashmiriyat evokes in him today. He is 55, has been a leading designer for more than 25 years, has survived a heart attack and amidst his spectacular shows and awe-arousing (and prohibitively priced) couture, he now seeks quietude.
Bal’s tone is punctuated by spikes of easy laughter. “I am impulsive, instinctive, spontaneous and a really bad planner. I can’t even plan a holiday and I am not good with time but I manage to do a lot of diverse work,” says Bal as he sits back, in the shadow of carefully dimmed lamps for questions he has never answered...
So much is said about your personal life, why don’t you clear the air if there are misconceptions?
I haven’t shielded anything or been secretive, but it is irrelevant to speak about one’s private life or to clarify judgments. That’s the moment you become the person that everyone knows. I want to run away from that. In the last few years I have started becoming withdrawn and reclusive.
Why do people find you so interesting?
Perhaps because I don’t drain people’s energies. I’ve been extremely sensitive to personal auras right from when I was a child. I let people be without any kind of pressure. I don’t judge. I could have been a wild child, a brat with all the attention I got, especially after my father passed away when I was 11. I was spoilt and protected as the youngest of seven siblings from two marriages of both my parents. But I turned out to be the exact opposite. I am caring, emotional, sensitive and gentle. Whether that gentility has something to do with a certain sexual orientation, I don’t know.
Is that also the feedback you get from lovers, because temperaments can be very different in intimacy?
Lovers and friends, yes. I don’t judge.
Given your looks, did a lot of men and women fall in love with you when you were young?
Men more than women! (laughs). But in Srinagar where I grew up there was a lot more interaction between men and boys. It is a conservative society and fairly male dominated. Obviously there were more boys than girls in my life.
Was it difficult coming to terms with your sexuality?
Not at all, no trouble with family either as they were extremely progressive. I am not saying it was smooth as butter. But when I compare it to 95 per cent people around me, I had little challenge.
“I haven’t had many long-term intimate relationships. I’ve always wanted a balance between brawn and brain.”
Given your liberal upbringing and education, have your lovers been intellectually compatible?
I haven’t had many long-term intimate relationships. I haven’t really found someone. The person I loved the most has not been in any way similar to the way I am and I am not just talking about the socio economic aspect. When my friends ask: why do we see you with this kind of person, I try to explain that I have enough intellect to deal with in the day, at work. At home, I don’t want constant intellectual stimulation. I want balance between brawn and brain. Also, people assume that someone who is an author or an academic would be automatically intelligent. That’s a flawed idea. In our country the first standard of judging a person is whether they speak in English. But someone who speaks in a vernacular or local accent might be able to recite the Bhagwad Gita backwards. Once they know me better, people are taken aback that I am a backslapping, Hindi speaking guy. Love is simple for me. I don’t expect it to eat with a fork and knife.
Are you very intense in love and grief?
Oh my god, yes. I love very intensely and grieve intensely too. The saying: “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” is for me a complete statement of life itself.
So are you Devdas-like intense?
Yes, I might have been Devdas-like intense. When it is love, I cannot be in control. Love can’t know control, limits. It is boundless. Completely all engulfing. If you don’t give yourself completely, you are not in love. Grief is the same.
How do you feel about Kashmiriyat in the current socio-political situation?
I don’t want to talk about it. I delete the messages people send me about Kashmir. I can’t do this one.
Are you an atheist?
Agnostic, no, atheist, no, superstitious to an extent, yes, now that I am getting older. Religious, no, but I go to a temple every week. Fanatic, no, but I am a firm believer.
With all your philosophical balance, how do you explain your heart disease?
It is completely hereditary.
So do you look after yourself?
Yes. I exercise every day. I am health conscious. My diet is fabulous. I don’t smoke. When I tell people I have never done a line of cocaine in my entire life, they don’t believe me. People have assigned these parameters to me.
Where do these rumours about you partying with boys come from then –memes about Rohit Bal by day and Rohit Bal by night?
I have been there and done that. But my disco duck days are over. I go to a party, am surrounded by some people briefly, then I leave, but that photograph or anecdote sticks. When people meet me, they find me normal and are surprised, which means they expect the opposite. It’s such an irony.
What do you think about the current state of the fashion industry?
Our fashion fraternity is completely bastardised. Some people who have become designers, new designers, or even the relatively older crop, feel that fashion is about hobnobbing with the right kind of people; they make a mockery out of the profession. Today, anyone and everyone has become a designer. That’s sacrilege.
The next two questions were asked and answered via email after Bal’s show that opened India Couture Week 2017.
No one in the media critiques a Rohit Bal line, even when ideas of sameness pervade. Is it because of your persona or your power?
I’ve never considered myself powerful. My persona is who I am. If that spells power, then so be it. But it’s a power I’ve never used. And as far as critical reviews are concerned, it’s the same with every designer in India. For me, my work is my inner sanctum, it is sacrosanct and precious.
It is difficult to rationalise your yearning for reclusiveness when one sees the predictable Delhi society as your showstoppers. Hardly the choice of a recluse.
The society you mention happen to be very close friends of mine. These are real women who I’ve always considered beautiful and effortlessly stylish. The same goes for the guys. This is a completely different aspect of my life, when my life becomes a stage, where I become a showman. It is also a natural part of my character traits. I am a recluse in my personal life. I am me in both these situations.
P.S. After the recorder is turned off, I succumb to predictable curiosity and ask Bal about Arjun Rampal. The rumour that they were lovers keeps coming back every season Rampal walks as his showstopper. “I laugh about it. Arjun does too. He is my brother. I love him,” says Bal.
Shefalee Vasudev is a senior fashion journalist, author, and is currently Editor, Digital Content with IMG Reliance
From HT Brunch, September 10, 2017
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch