When luxury came home

At the onset of winter, a few days before Diwali, something in the air changed. Two elegant men came from the valley, to our doorstep wrapped in stately jamas.[1] Carrying their finest. Season after season. And the women in the family gathered under the languorous afternoon sun in the courtyard, perched on divans, as the two gentlemen began pulling out their wares from an old steel trunk. Shawls. The finest. Cashmere that was softer than soufflé, some with a whisper of sozni – sheer poetry on pashmina – and decadent jamavars, from what the paisley shawl was to be derived in Europe.

Courtesy: Art-chives India

And then it happened – that moment when they pulled out that one, a natural-colour piece of confection – the shahtoosh. The finest, most precious and warmest shawl from the fur of the now endangered Chiru or Tibetan antelope. And it lay like butter on our palms. The swaddle and delicacy of the shahtoosh remains fresh in my mind to day, as it did forty years ago. Now banned, its magic was such that under the patronage of Emperor Akbar, the imperial wardrobe’s winter staple became the shahtoosh. Its delectable softness allowed the shawl to pass through a ring. And so that shahtoosh shawl made its way home, to my eighty-year old grandmother, albeit for a small fortune. Under the afternoon autumn, sun, as the icy breeze began to nip our chins.  

Courtesy: Injiri

But then India and her love for luxury is now the stuff of legend. One heard of fountains bubbling with Champagne, bets on dashing Bentleys at Bridge, grand palaces euphemistically referred to as ‘home’ and voyages on luxe steamers across oceans with a small battalion of retainers. The lifestyles of the Indian princes and old families could easily outshine their collections of Boucheron and Cartier. Their panache and extravagance was unrivalled. But the good things didn’t just stay with the royals. The quest for beautiful things trickled down society and became a way of life in India.

Courtesy: The Indian Textiles Company

Every Spring and Autumn also marked the stout gentlemen from Banaras coming home. In their crisp white kurtas[2], with potlis[3] of one-of-a-kind, handwoven textiles. To share their loot of treasures with us – gossamer muslins in the summer and glistening silks with pure gold zari[4] in the winter. In a kaleidoscope of colours, fresh from the addas[5] of their small karkhanas[6]. Elegant Rangkats, a textile that was a crossover of yarns colour-blocked with gilded thread, diaphanous muslin Jamdanis, light-weight like woven air, gold zari Brocades in scalding crimson, hot pink and canary yellow with motifs of fruit and flora – a cultural crossover from Persia, and the ultimate, the Shikargah – a handwoven canvas of a complete hunting scene on a saree – in a muted Pewter Grey or English Blue. These weren’t textiles, these were stories painstakingly woven on the finest cottons and silks. There were no textiles akin to these perhaps in the world. Simply tantalizing with their handmade artisanal magnificence of the Banaras weavers.  Opening up to the rest of the world almost half a century later.

Courtesy: The Indian Textiles Company

And their presentation was just as enthralling. The gentlemen took out one saree at a time, draped it on themselves, tucking it into their rotund stomachs over their pajamas, dramatically throwing it over their shoulders to show you the detailed pallu (loose end of a saree). Posing androgynously in their masculine bodies with sheer élan. Nothing short of a performance. And the ladies sat sipping hot tea, gently sighing and swooning under their breath; and you spied that discreet nod, every now and then, to put a piece aside. Or heard detailed instructions on an order, woven to their specifications, with just the right shade of peach they desired.

Courtesy: Amrapali

But then that is how erstwhile families in India lived. As patrons of the finest in art, jewellery, textiles, stone sculpture, metallurgy, carpets, silver, copper and spices. Long before you seeked out stores in Banaras, Jaipur, Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay. Traders from the North extending to the Hindu Kush mountains and up to Iran in Central Asia, cherry-picked old families, patrons of beautiful things and came home to them. With treasures that make auctions houses blush today.  And the relationship between the seller and buyer, became one of warmth, friendship and knowledge-sharing; not merely about a sale. It was one of a true seeker and patron.

Courtesy: Kashmir Loom

And you had Rameshji from Pannalal Jewels in Lucknow who came once a year just before the festive season, around Dasera, or then on request before a family wedding, to show us old treasures from erstwhile stately homes and royal families. An old Golconda ring. A custom order. Which was quietly studied, then kept aside. A navratan necklace. With divine minakari (enameling) on the reverse. The back had to be as beautiful as the front after all. And the pièce de résistance – a rare triple string of Basra pearls, maybe. “For 1,” he whispered subtly as he raised his index finger. And as children spying, we gasped at the idea of “one full thousand rupees”. Not realizing it needed just a few more zeroes to fit the bill. But the deal was sealed over cups of tea and great conversation.

Courtesy: Amrapali

You had spinels from Burma, sapphires from Kashmir and gold from the Jewellery Houses in Calcutta – where Muslim artisans could breathe magic onto just about anything. On twenty-four carat gold,painfully handcrafted by karigars, all made-to-order. Or bespoke as they call it today. It wasn’t about a monogram, but truly made just for you – from concept to design. Your wish was their command.

Courtesy: House of Tushina

Luxury. A word we never used growing up. There were no brands or designers really. And if there were, one didn’t know them.  But true luxury was what we always had. What we lived with, but never really knew. Just beautiful things. Slow. Organic. Artisanal. Handmade. Truly bespoke. Words that became fashionable much later. Words we never knew. But lived with for centuries.

That was luxury. At its finest.

And it came home.

Gaurav comes from luxury pedigree having worked with LVMH and Sotheby’s for over two decades. He is a story-teller and Co-founder of Art-chives, @artchivesindia an artisanal luxury lifestyle brand based in Mumbai. Follow him on @champagneboy75           

Photos Courtesy of Injiri  by Gourab Ganguli

[1] Jama – large shawls typically for men often made from pure Pashmina or Cashmere from Kashmir

[2] kurta – long shirt usually in cotton or muslin worn by men

[3] potlis – cloth cotton bundles to wrap expensive sarees

[4] zari – Thread from beaten gold woven onto cotton or silk in Indian garments

[5] addas – Tables artisans use for weaving by hand

[6] karkhanas – little artisan workshops

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