HT Brunch Cover Story: Khanna & Sons
As millennial artist Viraj Khanna closes his fourth solo show to applause from the art world, we present creative banter with him, his fashion designer mum Anamika Khanna and twin brother, Vishesh
For artist Viraj Khanna, life with his mother, the fashion designer Anamika Khanna, and twin brother, Vishesh Khanna, has become the perfect example of the Hindi proverb, ghar ki murgi dal barabar (home-cooked chicken tastes as ordinary as dal).
Viraj’s art has not only been critically lauded, but sold out at gallery shows in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. He has been praised by revered painter Jogen Chowdhury, who gushed about how interesting, unique and mature he finds Viraj’s work. But the story back home is different.
“Vishesh and mum [Anamika] constantly criticise everything I do! Their brutal honesty about my work is very humbling,” Viraj laughs. “People might really like a certain work, but mum and Vishesh will literally say ‘burn it’ if they don’t like it!”
Life in a household of creative people can sometimes, honestly, be a bit nuts. But until the lockdown of 2020, at least one of these three people had never claimed to be creative. This person is Viraj, who is genuinely an accidental artist. When all work stopped in the lockdown, but Anamika’s Instagram page still had to be updated, Viraj thought it might be a good idea to create and upload collages of the magazine coverage of Anamika’s couture. Though he never claimed to be creative, Vishesh has always been interested in art and photography; Viraj then asked Vishesh to create the collages.
But in the pushback common between siblings, Vishesh refused. “He said, ‘Why should I do it? You do it!’ And I thought, let me give it a shot. That was my first stint with art,” shares Viraj.
He enjoyed it so much that he spent days making these collages, which he shared on his personal Instagram as well. “Gallerist Somak Mitra from Art Exposure saw them and messaged me. Before I knew it, I was confirming a date and venue for my debut show in Kolkata with him,” Viraj recalls.
One solo show led to another and then a third and now a fourth (a booth with Mumbai’s Tao Art Gallery for the forthcoming India Art Fair in Delhi), leaving Viraj stunned. “The fact that I am an artist now is shocking to both me and my family,” says the 27-year-old, Kolkata-born boy.
Shocking may be an understatement, because Viraj’s future, as he had seen it before 2020, was supposed to be in finance. He holds a B.Sc in business administration from the University of Southern California and had been working with his mother at her company, overseeing the embroidery unit while slowly getting into the finance and accounting side of the business, when art suddenly hit him in the face.
When you’re literally surrounded by creativity at home and at work, career paths can sometimes twist to other tracks altogether. Vishesh learned this little fact of life long before Viraj did, long before he even first started working at his mother’s design house.
“By the end of my undergraduate course, I realised I wanted to get into the family business, but the University of Southern California did not have a fashion design programme,” Vishesh explains.
So, when he returned to Kolkata after college, Vishesh—who by then had understood that he enjoys meticulous work, ideally done in isolation—worked with a master tailor and cutter in the city and eventually went on to work with a Savile Row tailor to refine his skills and earn a certificate in pattern making and cutting. This gave Anamika the confidence to launch a menswear division, which Vishesh oversees.
The core designing and vision is given out and discussed by mum, and my team and I take that forward to the sampling and experimenting phases,” says Vishesh. “While I eventually want to get into design full time, I don’t want to take up the full design process till I understand the technicalities of garment construction, so I can actually create something meaningful. If I were to design right now, it would be more Vishesh Khanna than Anamika Khanna.”
Vishesh is only partly regretful about not having studied fashion design because the training he gets on the job now puts him in a space where his imagination is given a solid foundation and his thoughts can grow to be original.
“I am happy that I didn’t get a formal education in the creative process, because that can confine you within a mental framework that is hard to break away from,” he says.
Now that Viraj is partly occupied by his art, which he calls contemporary figurative and which encompasses sculpture, collages and works in textile, the twins juggle work at the office, Vishesh sometimes picking up where Viraj has to leave off.
“The full family works together, so if someone is busy doing something else, the others take up the extra work,” says Vishesh. “All of us look at work in a very positive light and enjoy the process, so no one feels that there is more to do and that something isn’t his/hers to do.”
When art has not taken over his mind, Viraj does what he always did: finance, embroidery and overall management/growth.
“There isn’t any balance between my two jobs, so my social life does get affected,” Viraj laughs. “But I look on moderation as a kind of lukewarm tea. The devil’s brew. My life is Spartan or nothing!”
Anamika Khanna is definitely pleased to see her sons thriving in their own creative environments. “Both are creative in their own ways and always have very interesting ideas that influence me. Being creative every single day requires a lot of hard work and discipline. I know the struggle I’ve been through to reach where I am today and I see what the boys will need to do. As long as they are happy and passionate, I think they will be fine,” she asserts.
The boys too are appreciative of their mum always giving them the freedom to do what they want.
“She only suggests, and offers advice, and leaves the rest to us,” says Vishesh.
Viraj adds: “Mum always struggled with the business aspect of everything. Realising the importance of this, she wanted us to study and expand the fashion line with a business background and mindset. But only if the brand was something we’d be interested in. This was just a suggestion, but we followed her guidelines. We get so much freedom with everything that we feel obliged to listen to her. She is okay with us doing anything in life as long as we work hard and are disciplined.”
Mother and sons are always (indirectly) collaborating, since working together in the same office brings about a natural overlap of ideas and thoughts.
“I am very open to their ideas and experiments and really value their opinions. It helps me grow constantly. There is a generational difference, and the boys infuse their energy into the brand,” says Anamika.
The veteran designer isn’t often seen in the media, but claims that she doesn’t intentionally maintain a low profile. “My time is completely consumed trying to create new designs every single day. I am always thinking fashion and watching fashion, even when I’m sleeping,” she laughs. “If I have to go to work in the morning and be totally creative, I don’t think I can afford to be tired from late nights.”
The boys on the other hand are never on time for work. “We play golf every morning at 5.30 am, so we are always late to office. On days when there are tournaments, we get to work by 11-11.30 am and mum is always complaining,” chuckles Vishesh. “Our argument is: ‘you can’t call us lazy, we’ve been exercising since 5.30 am!’”
In her footsteps
In 2007, Anamika was the first Indian female fashion designer to display her collections at the Paris Fashion Week. While the Indian media hoped that this at least would get her to open up to them, Anamika remained reticent.
“I don’t know if reticent is the right word for it, but I express myself through my work. Every garment and every show is an expression of what I feel. I know I am not in the limelight; I also live in Kolkata—it’s a very good place to hide—and I may not be physically present in the big fashion world, but I feel that I’m very much part of everything in my own way. I let my work speak,” she states.
Her work is speaking very loudly these days. In fact, it always has. Anamika was recently nominated for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and was featured in the Business of Fashion (BOD) magazine’s elite list of 500 people shaping the global fashion industry. A repeat name in lists of style icons in some of the best magazines and publications in India, she was on the panel at a student-run conference at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School and for five consecutive years, she featured on the BOF500, an index of people shaping the global $2.4 trillion fashion industry.
Aside from that, Anamika was also invited by the Queen of England and the Duke of Edinburgh to Buckingham Palace at the official start of the UK-India Year of Culture in 2017, and had signed an exclusive contract with Harrods following her participation in London Fashion Week in 2010. She also collaborated with luxury label Bvlgari for its launch in Delhi in 2014, and curated an exclusive show for them in Singapore.
Does she worry about who will carry such a legacy forward?
“I don’t think so. We are all co-dependent and from the very beginning I’ve given my sons the freedom to do whatever they want in life. The fact that they are creatively inclined anyway makes me more confident,” Anamika says.
In fact, she has never needed to express that desire, adds Vishesh. “We have always been interested in the business and since we see so much opportunity to grow, we are very happy doing what is required,” he says. “Our stores are always sold out and this is very special to see. The way people speak about mum is crazy. It seems that the demand for the product is unlimited.”
From HT Brunch, January 14, 2023
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch