14 February 2017

Heritage, after a fashion

Relative Value: The youngest of the Kotwara royalty weaves her way into the family business. 

(My first-ever 'fashion' story, and one that allowed me to meet a director whose work I have admired: Muzaffar Ali. Published in the Mumbai Mirror's 'Relative Value' slot last Sunday.)

The home shared by Muzaffar Ali, his wife Meera and their daughter Sama is very much a reflection of them. Kotwara Farm lies at the end of Rumi Lane, just off the Gurgaon-Faridabad Road, a graceful amalgam of the contemporary and traditional — much like the clothes that emerge from the Kotwara fashion label that Muzaffar and Meera created in 1990, with Sama joining in 2014. Their latest collection at the recently concluded Lakme Fashion Week (Aditi Rao Hydari walked for them) was well received by critics and fashionistas alike. The line was what some described as “Indian with modern touches”.

We meet the family in their plush but comfortable drawing room, off an arched courtyard that would be stately if it weren’t for a slender stone frog that rises, as if to welcome you, one leg raised off the ground. Muzaffar’s quirky artistic touch (paintbrushes embedded in glass doors, leftover tiles crafted into a striking floor) combines with a studied elegance — yet the farm is a relaxed domestic space, with space for a cow called Gomti and Rough Collies called Drogo and Sansa (Sama is a
Game of Thrones fan). The house was designed by Meera, who trained as an architect before she accepted a small role in a film Muzaffar was making — and ended up marrying him, six weeks after they met. Muzaffar, a painter, poet and acclaimed director of films such as Gaman, Umrao Jaan and Anjuman, had been married twice already: to art historian Geeti Sen, and then to CPM politician Subhashini Ali (director Shaad Ali, of Bunty Aur Babli and OK Jaanu fame, is their son.)

My parents had no formal training in fashion. But I guess destiny finds you,” says Sama. In 1989-90, dealing with the setback of an aborted film project in Kashmir (the unreleased 1989 Zooni), Muzaffar moved back to his ancestral home in Uttar Pradesh with Meera. Even as a filmmaker, Muzaffar had been fascinated by how clothes and textiles can constitute a milieu, whether it was the khaki he foisted upon Farooq Sheikh’s taxi driver in Gaman, or the attention he lavished on Rekha’s clothes in Umrao Jaan. “For me, soft furnishings were a tactile experience, a layer which preceded the making of any film. 
Costume was the outer expression of a character, a situation, a mood,” says Muzaffar.

That interest, honed by his work with American couturier Mary Mcfadden exploring Kashmiri craft traditions during Zooni, now combined with his desire to give something back to the place his ancestors had ruled for centuries. Meera and he decided to develop Kotwara as a centre for handicraft. Since 1990, they have been training local artisans under their Dwar pe Rozi (‘employment at your doorstep’) initiative. Producing jobs for people where they are, the foundation ties into Muzaffar’s early concern with the travails of migration (think Gaman), producing exceptionally skilled embroiderers who give Kotwara clothes their distinctive quality.

“A mechanisation process had set into zardozi and chikan after 1947: cheap patterns, cheap markets, saris with big-big bootas, being sold in Punjab and Delhi,” says Muzaffar. “When we started, in 1990, chikan was at its lowest ebb in workmanship and aesthetics,” Meera agrees. “It took us 7-8 years to improve the quality of work, and to bring the buyer back.” The Alis are in agreement that the contemporary rich need to be educated into being patrons who recognise quality and are willing to pay for it. “Historically, art has always bloomed under the patronage of rulers,” says Sama.

Meera points out that Kotwara has been a trendsetter with silhouettes and reviving South Asian fashions. “In 1990, we brought in angarakhas and peshwas, which people now call anarkalis. When people only wore churidars and salwars, we brought back the chauda pyjama, the wide loose pants which everyone now wears as palazzos. Culottes have come back to India, where it is now called the Pakistani pyjama. But it were the Awadh Nawabs who took the Mughal style of dressing to the highest level: the gharara, sharara, big farshi pyjamas,” she says. Kotwara ventured into zardozi with thread work, creating “evening wear that’s elegant but not blingy”. “How chikan and zardozi have come together through us is itself a new form: let’s call it Kotwara craft,” smiles Muzaffar. “When you’re working with artisans with a regional legacy, your innovations become organic.”

The Alis are justifiably confident of the quality of their work, and between their aristocratic past (Meera just published a coffee-table book called Dining with the Nawabs) and Muzaffar’s association with Bollywood, Kotwara lacks neither for glamour nor cultural capital. The UP Tourism Department is co-sponsoring Muzaffar’s current pet project — reviving Lucknawi thumri and kathak as part of his Wajid Ali Shah festival, whose fourth edition opens on 14 February in Lucknow.

But they seem concerned about not being cutthroat enough for the present. “I’m hoping that Sama can learn the business end of things, because we get taken for a ride very easily,” Meera smiles ruefully. “My mother didn’t want me to get into this. She said, ‘fashion is beautiful, everything around it is ugly’,” laughs Sama.

“I want to add my own touch to their brand. Right now my focus is making Kotwara more contemporary, [to cater to] the many independent young people with well-paying jobs, who can buy a 30,000 rupee item without asking mothers or mothers-in-law. Papa’s too nice. I’m very open. But being nice doesn’t mean being stepped over,” says Sama resolutely. Muzaffar is accepting of his daughter’s vision for their brand and changing times. “Today’s reality is very harsh,” he agrees. “But we agree on being exacting and being human.”

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 12 Feb 2017.

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