The Indian Fashion: Formidable Soft Power

New Delhi : Given that Indian crafts and textiles are as old as we remember but the organised fashion industry has only been around for 25 years makes the cause of Indian fashion more complex than colourful. The latest edition of Express Adda in Delhi in association with Olive Beach and Reid & Taylor debated the challenges for designers who have given the industry a strong impetus despite little or no support from the government. An informal and intense conversation between veteran designers Suneet Varma, Tarun Tahiliani, Madhu Jain and India’s first supermodel Anna Bredemeyer with Shekhar Gupta, Editor in Chief of Express Group and Shefalee Vasudev, National Features Editor, The Indian Express brought up issues that surround fashion in modern India. Rigourous interjections from an engaged audience that included important members of the fashion industry led to a multi-dimensional discussion.

It all started with an animated conversation on Modinagar shikanji that I overhead at a mall. Shikanji, Hindi for lemonade, is a cultural gem. A summer favourite across India, the cooling drink has dozens of localized versions.

Some spiked with fresh mint leaves, others sprinkled with roasted cumin powder or black salt and a pinch of sugar and most hand-blended with banta to give it a cheery fizz. Banta, which even has a Wiki entry, is the colloquial name for goli soda (goli for marble as each soda bottle is sealed by a marble). Banta is quite a character in our lives as Indians and I don’t mean it as one half of the Santa Banta jokes.

But let me get back to the Modinagar shikanji. Served as a cold drink at Chaayos, a tea café chain, this lemonade apparently had been made famous by the name of Jain shikanji in Modinagar town in Uttar Pradesh. Introduced by a small local enterprise, it grew in popularity over the years as people started swearing by the refreshing quality of the lemon drink. You can even buy the powder mix on the Internet, said the salesgirl at a Chaayos outlet in a Delhi mall, gushing about how it had become a brand.

It piqued my interest enough to spend some time looking up versions of lemonade and assorted summer drinks that are being smartly appropriated by posh restaurants. They never make it to ‘Incredible India’ tourist attractions. The tamarind and berry pulp shikanji—called the shikanji Bin—is in fact a super seller at Soda Bottle Openerwalla restaurant—an urbane version of Bombay’s old Irani cafés.

So, when I spotted a roadside cart selling what else but “Modinagar shikanji” not far from the mall where its fandom was being spread, I stopped to chat with the seller. He showed me his jar of spices, nothing great—the usual white salt, black pepper powder, a pinch of mango powder and cumin. However the “jadoo” (magic), said the 22-year-old Bitoo, who had quit school after the seventh class, lay in the proportion of the spices that his father mixed at home. Bitoo, like the owner of Chaayos, didn’t belong to Modinagar but was making a business out of someone else’s brand. I tried to repeat Bitoo’s magic at home. It didn’t work. My father had never taught me how to make lemonade.

The crucial difference between foods that remind us of home, mother, family, hometown, culture or community and drinks that may do the same is the aroma. Food is about a certain smell, which gets entwined with a thousand memories. A drink may tickle the same neurons in the brain, but you must first sip something to trail it back to an anecdote or the memory of your mom.

Scorching Indian summers can also be about discovering long-buried memories around summer coolers. The Punjabi mango panna, the Parsi Raspberry soda, the North Indian jal jeera (water with cumin powder quite literally), kala khatta—a black-red, sweet and sour sherbet, khus (vetiver) syrup, the terrific thandai (translated as coolant) made from pounded dry fruits to be mixed with milk or water or the heavenly sweet sugarcane juice served with a few drops of fresh lime juice and a pinch of black salt. Most of these can be made with traditional home recipes, yet most of them are also sold in packaged bottles or in powder forms by food and drink companies. Sugarcane juice is a hot seller in some restaurants, but nowhere does it taste as good as it does at an Indian street vendor’s. And no, you can’t make it at home.

What you can rustle up at home is a vast variety of buttermilks or curd-based Indian smoothies that have localized versions from Chennai to Gujarat and Maharashtra, and their packaged versions can’t recreate the original flavours. Or the thick sweet Punjabi lassi—sold in plus-sized, red-clay glasses in Old Delhi. As filling as a large dessert. Packaged drinks may have saved us from entirely losing our cuisine and culture peculiarities but perhaps they have also made us complacent.

Sindhis also make a fragrant homemade drink with jasmine flowers dipped in sugar syrup. Mixed with ice and water, for us it would herald the onset of summers, underline the season of potato chips left to dry outside in courtyards, ripe mangoes and water-based pickles. I wonder where I lost all those delightful little aspects of daily life. Did they just fall off? That loss hurt me in my guts when I heard the girl in the mall gush about Modinagar shikanji.

I shared these scraps of loss with my driver, who belongs to Odisha. What summer drink do you like? I asked. “Bel sherbet,” he said instantly. Bel is a local fruit. “It’s available at roadside carts in Delhi but I stopped having it after you warned me about typhoid. Now my wife gives it to me as a welcome drink when I go home,” he said smiling.


The Change

If I was parachuted down 150 years back into India, I could tell which part of the country I was in because people draped fabrics in different ways. We didn’t have a tailoring tradition; it was lots of layering through fabric and beautiful crafts on textiles. We have gone from the drape tradition towards structure. Some of it we have taken from the West but also our lifestyles have changed and that demands this because we live differently today.


Craft is beautiful, but it’s very difficult to manage and maintain. As we moved towards making clothes, as opposed to just textiles, the government did not support weaver centres to update technology and make modern, versatile fabrics. Look at how poorly khadi was projected. Also, why wasn’t the costumes of royal India exhibition that went to New York and Tokyo shown in India? When NIFT was set up, it took a western orientation, they didn’t have an embroidery course for 15 years. They taught pattern-making, how to export little frocks for big department stores abroad, no one taught about our culture. But now there’s great scope for revival and we should shrug off our socialism and colonialism.

Evolution of Style

People are now beginning to find their style identities to match their personalities or their way of life. There isn’t one thing that can be defined as truly Indian, except maybe the Indian Wedding, that has obviously become completely over the top.

Media on Fashion

It was great fodder for journalists who didn’t have much to write about, to paint this industry as wild. I’ve seen the images myself.

Bollywood in fashion

We use Bollywood because we are guaranteed that you will put it on top of your paper the next morning. It works with NRIs as well. Bollywood is a powerful thing and people are obsessed with stars. Look at the big actresses, they have all used modeling as a stepping stone to Bollywood.



I strongly believe that being swadeshi is a very interesting part of our roots, something we should not deviate from because we have a 2000 year old textile tradition. Cotton and pashma have mention in the puranas as well. Modernity is imposing textiles on us which traditionally haven’t been a part of our culture. Instead of looking inwards, we are doing away with things that have taken years and years to evolve.

Very few understand the making of a craft. Perhaps now there is an awareness about handmade. You have the craft mark, you have various logos that bring attention to what the craft is about. Twenty years ago, this was not there. So it was very difficult to explain to consumers what a particular craft was all about. In 2003, we introduced bamboo fibre as an alternative textile and no one even knew that India was the 2nd largest bamboo producing nation in the world, the north-east being the major centre.

Working with the Government

In last 10 yrs, I tried several times to work with the governement on a lot of projects, and each time, it was nothing short of a nightmare.



Pay and competition is all fine, but is there more professionalism? I’m not too sure about that. In my days we were more committed, had more drive and passion than today’s models. It was completely choreographed, I used to take my cue sheets home, study them at night, it was like going for an exam. Because you miss one cue and one step and throw the whole ship out of balance.

Media and Fashion

Showing a frivolous image of fashion models gets more readership as opposed to work on the ramp. To a large extent, it is about the press. If you have an event, the press will only cover if they know who all will be there. However something’s got to give because fashion shows did happen and were successful when we models (not the stars) were showstoppers. We need to get back to ensuring that the garment become the star of the show instead of the Bollywood. It’s about fashion after all.



After Independence, there was a stoppage on all kinds of imports – a button, a zip or anything – that gave us those 20-30 years to understand the crafts, our only alternative. We did not get highly professional, because we had to do with all the beautiful textiles that we had, and we did a great job unlike in other countries where the MNCs were so strong that they wiped out indigenous choices. Now, after 40-45 years, India has a fairly strong, individualistic, fashion industry. It will face problems in scale — because it cannot grow without support. I don’t think anybody quite understands what the Indian designer is up against. If you have a Zara or a Mango versus an Indian designer who’s selling modern westernised clothes in that price brackets, they’re up against a huge war. They don’t have the finances, they don’t have the infrastructure, and they still exist! That, to my mind is the miracle of Indian fashion!