A Culture Steeped in Aesthetic
Acclaimed fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Sadhguru discuss the culture of India, which has always been steeped in aesthetic.
During his stay at the Isha Yoga Center on the days of Yaksha and Mahashivratri 2016, acclaimed fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee met with Sadhguru for a conversation on beauty, design, fashion and yoga. Here is the second excerpt of their exchange of thoughts.
Arundhathi: In this country, we have had quite a magnificent heritage of design – the visual arts, the plastic arts, the performing arts. But somehow, modern India doesn’t seem to be necessarily able to access a particular heritage with the ease that it ought to be able to, for various historical reasons. How would you respond to that, and what do you think one can do? What has been your own engagement with reviving certain traditions, but also making them alive without turning insular in some way? How can one be Indian and global, which is something that you mention in your design statement?
Sabyasachi Mukherjee: I come from a background where my father was a chemical engineer and everyone from my mother’s side of the family were doctors, so I was the black sheep as a student wishing to become an entrepreneur in the fashion industry. In Calcutta, where I started, there were no benchmarks of success in fashion. When I decided to start a line of my own, I looked at what would be my singular point of view. The first thing that came to my mind was color. At that time, all the other designers in India were doing lavender, pale pink and lemon yellow. And here, we had these beautiful colors from all over India, and especially from the South, which really flatter the skin tone of our country.
If you look at architecture, flora, and fauna – I think everything just looks beautiful if you keep it the way it should be and in the environment it should be in. For instance, in Dubai they have European architecture in an arid desert, and it somehow looks a bit out of place. Likewise, when Indians are trying to wear European clothing, it looks rather strange in an Indian setting. Fashion is a very unkind industry. We try to raise the bar so high that it is beyond the reach of human beings. Today, we talk about something called “size zero,” which is an unattainable body image – that of a person who doesn’t eat.
The reason why this is done is because it is very difficult to achieve. More and more women fall victim to it and they spend a lot of money trying to attain what is almost unattainable. Similarly, those who were the purveyors of luxury in this country when I started my business, all tried to do something that was in a way alien to the country, and they thought that was luxury. But to me, luxury is really about being comfortable and coming home, which is why we started doing an Indian line. People have written many theories about my success, but all I can say is that I just used common sense.
Textiles & Architecture – A Glorious History
Arundhathi: Sadhguru, would you like to say something about our Indian heritage, which we don’t seem to find enough evidence of in our outside world? We seem to be reduced to a heap of ruined monuments and besieged textile weavers.
Sadhguru: When it comes to textile, there is no other place on the planet that has as many weaves and as many ways of dying and preparing a cloth as this culture has, though much of it has died due to neglect and intent. The British wanted to destroy the textile industry in India because they had Manchester. At one time, Coimbatore was called the “Manchester of India,” unfortunately. They should have called Manchester the “Coimbatore of UK,” because we have been growing cotton, making cloth, and exporting it for thousands of years. Indian textiles have clothed the world – you can still find evidence of that at ancient sites of Syria and Egypt, for example.
One thing is we have been an occupied nation for so long, and the last 250 years have been a systematic demolition, particularly of the textile industry, which was the main industry here apart from agriculture. The entire strategy was to destroy the industry here, take the raw material from here and pump their products back to India, because it was all about their economy. Having said that, in terms of architecture in the subcontinent, the simplicity of aesthetic was such that with the material available here – with stone, mud, and brick, what we created was phenomenal.
One incredible example of this is Bhaktapur in Nepal. Unfortunately, earthquakes have taken a big toll, but I think they are going to restore it to some extent. It is a thousand-year-old living city. Almost the whole of ancient India was like that. There is aesthetic at every step. Just a water place is designed like a temple. Everywhere on the floors and walls, there is a small motif. And everything had to be done by hand. You can imagine the sense of aesthetic that must have powered them, and what it must have taken in terms of money, effort, and time, to create all this.
If you look at the Kailash temple in Ellora and the Tamil Nadu temples, they will make you proud of being human. The design and perfection of geometry, the aesthetic and the engineering are phenomenal. It is incredible that all this was done by human hands. It is important for us to see that hundreds of years ago, people were capable of creating something like this. Today, in India it is all about utility. Creating something beautiful is considered not worthwhile. If it is all about use, I have to ask you, what is the use of your life? If you think your life is useful, you are a fool. Even if you were not here, the world would still spin; everything would go on. You will realize this when you fall dead.
Everything will be perfect without you. It is not that we are useful in some way. If human beings did not exist, the planet would flourish. The question is not how useful we are but how beautifully we live. No other creature destroys the beauty of nature. As human beings, our lives and our requirements are such that we destroy so much of natural beauty. When that is the situation, it is our business that whatever we create is truly beautiful. Whether it is a building, any other structure, your body, clothing, or anything else we create, we must replace the beauty of nature to whatever extent we can.
Today, our aesthetic sense has gone out the window. If you drive through Tamil Nadu and especially Kerala, you will see half of the houses painted in all shades of acrylic paint. This is a consequence of hundreds of years of poverty. To reestablish a sense of beauty and aesthetic, there has to be economic wellbeing. A large segment of the population is still living from hand to mouth. But actually, in the villages, there is so much beauty in little things they do. The in-between segment, people who have come out of poverty but not yet reached affluence, are the worst enemies of aesthetic.
Sabyasachi Mukherjee: That’s true.
Taking Pride in Being Indian
Arundhathi: In this context, Sabyasachi, in order to create design, what have been the sources of inspiration for you?
Sabyasachi Mukherjee: I think the biggest source of inspiration is empathy. And when I look at India, also a little bit of pride. Besides, I take a lot of inspiration from children’s films. One of my favorite movies is the Disney film “A Bug’s Life.” There was one colony of ants and one colony of grasshoppers. The ants were about a million, and the grasshoppers were only about six or seven. The ants used to systematically collect food and take it to their anthill. And the grasshoppers used to come and, by force of intimidation, since they were larger in size, take the food away from the ants. One fine day, one of the baby grasshoppers told his father a little loudly, “Papa, we are so few and the ants are so many. Why is it that we still manage to take their food away?” The father said, “Keep quiet. They still don’t know that they are that many.”
The point with India is we have a lot, but – probably because we have been ruled by forces from outside for such a long time – we have lost our spirit to acknowledge what is truly ours. Let’s use Bollywood as an example. It shapes the way the country dresses. Yet every time an actress or an actor goes outside the country to receive a major award, they mostly wear Western clothing. Luxury has to be created from a point of leadership, not subjugation. When you are going to the West and wearing something that is theirs, you can never really make a statement. When we start taking pride in our heritage, automatically the entire country, the way we look at ourselves, everything will change. I think if India took a little more pride in being Indian, we would truly be a fantastic nation, and we would easily make people look at us differently, in terms of aesthetic.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published in Isha Forest Flower in November 2016. Download as PDF on a “name your price, no minimum” basis or subscribe to the print version.