Nirmala Sitharaman | Luxury must shape and reshape itself


Nirmala Sitharaman | Luxury must shape and reshape itself

The evening lights around North Block in Lutyens Delhi on an October evening look particularly enigmatic. It’s that part of Delhi, or perhaps of India, which doesn’t look like India. Until you spot the details that spring up everywhere—a policewoman with a nose pin and uniform, the large statue of Nataraj in a courtyard inside, and the lemon chai (tea) served to those visiting Nirmala Sitharaman’s office. Minister for commerce and industry in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet since May, Sitharaman is known for her fondness for artisanal Indian creations, firm and articulate views on women’s issues, and dignified outspokenness as a politician. All these converge when she discusses Indian luxury, emphasizing experience above exhibition; technology mixed with tradition and purist principles above price tag.

Dressed in a lilac and beige handwoven Gadwal sari, whose field has been especially block-printed with vintage designs, she speaks with passion. Arguing that luxury is relevant in India, Sitharaman says a new debate on luxury must be constructed outside terms like “consumer” and “market”. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How would you define Indian luxury?

Indian luxury is about experience. It is different from deriving pleasure through exhibitionism. You may wear a beautiful branded perfume with only a few people recognizing its waft. That’s also a luxury experience but a restrictive one. Most Indians, however, even when we don’t articulate it, have had their share of unique luxury. Even in middle-class families—at least in Tamil Nadu—all of us who were married would wear these wonderful diamond solitaires that were Belgian cut and all that in my grandmother’s time and are family heirlooms. But no one questions them saying why are you wearing them for every shaadi (wedding). Tanjore paintings, Kanjeevaram saris, an annual tryst with a vaid for Ayurvedic detox… I would list these as Indian luxury. We don’t have to be yacht-owning millionaires on Caribbean cruises to experience this kind of luxury.

Do you agree that Indian luxury is about authenticity, rootedness, has to do with small things created with human engagement and time?

Absolutely. We had moved too far away in our quest for globally stamped luxury. Now we are coming closer to its fundamental aspects; becoming inclusive of closeness to nature. Even people who belong to advanced societies come in search of such luxurious experiences.

Why else would they come for moonlit nights in an Indian desert, to be served home-cooked food by people wearing traditional costumes? Look at tea, for instance, or Maheshwari saris, or the Pichhwai paintings of Rajasthan…there are innumerable instances. It is the human component, the mastery of hand, the localness that makes them luxury. Machine-made excellence can’t be compared with something that has a human touch.

Should some Indian crafts be chosen and marketed as luxury by the government? Who should make this choice given the diversity of products in India? Design gurus, art and craft connoisseurs, or craftspeople themselves?

If you ask me which ones to prioritize, I would name numerous instances from textiles, rural crafts, coarse iron furniture and tableware, filigree work, even simple wooden toys painted with organic colours. So yes, you are right, it is difficult to simply select or reject. I also think that the words “consumer” or “mart” bring down the debate. Things have to be seen for what they are and how they work in India.

A mall or mart where artisanal creations from different regions are sold as luxury is off track in a new debate. Global connoisseurs have become less money-flaunting, less flamboyant. The person who craves luxury now is not a consumer, but someone seeking rare things regardless of their price tag.

Though Indian luxury has had its audience over the years, its makers have seldom been given fair rewards. So now, with the resurgent interest, we should allow that flow and use technology to popularize it. We must enable those coming from other parts of the world to access our artisans through technology, as most of them don’t want to relocate from the villages where they live. Perhaps through young entrepreneurs, who can crowd- source excellent clusters of creativity, display samples and leave it at that till those truly curious come back and ask for various interpretations of a craft. The contemporary market could decide its own terms of buying and selling. And yes, some products will need to be packaged differently.

So there is a need to mount Indian luxury in an organized way?

Yes, else spurious objects and fakes can unsettle a completely free market.

So many Indian art, craft and cultural traditions have the geographical indication (GI) status, but do you think it really helps?

After I became minister in May this year, a group of Kanjeevaram weavers came to meet me in Chennai. They said that the GI has turned out to be a curse for them. It has restricted what they created over the decades because now they are expected to stick to a certain official definition of a Kanjeevaram sari by way of design vocabulary. Art and craft, however, cannot be restricted by definitions. The GI should not be an albatross on the neck of a craft. It is a great tool of recognition but its definition should be flexible, not restrictive.

As minister of commerce and industry, do you see the Indian fashion industry as commercially viable and industrious?

Our government terminology should not be used to understand and interpret all the entrepreneurship that is going on outside. Indian fashion entrepreneurs have become quite focused. If they continue to shape and reshape themselves like an amoeba, it will keep them relevant. Horse sense must prevail, which is the combination of many different abilities; fashion has to be relevant and fill the gaps. And retract when not.

But is our fashion industry relevant?

It is. Otherwise, how do you take the story out, how do you transmit it? The story may just begin with a costume till it moves on to décor or to an aroma related to food, a structure, a narration, a location. Fashion is a real-time thing.

Globally, especially in French luxury, consistently observed processes, silence, cleanliness, enabling and inspiring ambience, among many other values, are considered non-negotiable for the creation of luxury objects. Should these considerations be disregarded vis-à-vis Indian luxury?

Yes, I think so. Let me give you an example. Once I went to Belgium from Narsapur in west Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh. In Belgium, I saw hand-knitted crocheted lace and exclaimed, but this is exactly what our women do! You have to see the Narsapur pieces, the laces and the bedcovers, to believe their beauty. The Belgian crochet which is so highly priced is no match for the Narsapur laces. We can’t give the women who knit them inside their homes clinically clean, luxurious environments or exceptional ambience but we should certainly strive to give them better pay and higher rewards.

Will this kind of luxury have a place in the government’s Make in India campaign?

This is a very relevant question. We are trying to bring people to come and manufacture here whereas crafts and arts, whether they pertain to jewellery, murals, textiles, are a labour-intensive process. Besides, they are associated with the presence and work of a master craftsperson as artistry is transferred from guru (teacher) to shishya (disciple). We would certainly want to give out such expertise if it can be used to make in India.

Don’t you think the very idea of luxury is redundant in a country so overwhelmed by poverty, disparity, inequality?

Not at all. We must contemplate luxury for ourselves. This country has never been rigid about things. On the one hand, we have had ascetics who have given up everything, including families, to pursue renunciation. We have respected and accommodated them. On the other, this society has given luxurious things to its girls, treated them in a certain way. Neither luxury nor asceticism has ever been decried in our culture. As long as you are not demonstrative of what you own and legitimately earn your living.

What does luxury mean to you as a person?

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