06 May Most people today are not feeling clothes
Master weaver of stories, clothes, and canvas, Muzaffar Ali shares his thoughts on the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb, poetry, beauty and the tactile sensations of clothes. Wife and co-designer Meera Ali chimes in with her own insightful inputs about marrying modernity with traditions
By Shaikh Ayaz
Muzaffar Ali speaks with a soft and poetic lilt, a voice that could belong to Anita Desai’s Falstaffian Urdu poet from In Custody. Add to it the fact that he has a verse for every occasion and it leads – or rather, misleads – many to mistake him for a poet. “A friend of mine once said, ‘If you get to hear great poetry, it’s wise not to write your own.’” That should set the record straight. Oddly enough, Mr Ali is everything except a poet, though if there’s one art form that has overwhelmingly shaped and informed his worldview, it is poetry. Born and raised in the royal family of Kotwara, Uttar Pradesh, he started out in advertising under the tutelage of Satyajit Ray, the great Indian filmmaker. When he graduated to cinema, his aesthetics owed a debt to Ray, especially the way the two men found themselves drawn to the rooted style of storytelling. Both are also painters who sketched their own mood-boards and storyboards on films.
Ali’s cinema phase was wide but not prolific. He made the critically acclaimed Gaman, Umrao Jaan and Anjuman – they all, he says, “represent human angst.” He considers himself a humanist, aesthete and a man of beauty and his whole life has been spent in rhe pursuit and subsequent balancing and living under the magical shadow of those identities. His films also demonstrate his love for costume. If Umrao Jaan was an ode to the granduer of the Awadhi culture in whose “twilight” Mr Ali was brought up, Gaman, his first Hindi film, was as micro as possible. It’s both fascinating and apt that Ali would go on to become a fashion designer, making him a kind of Tom Ford who both designs excellent clothes and makes critically lauded films. His label Kotwara – that he founded with wife Meera Ali – is dedicated to reviving the traditional arts and crafts of Kotwara, a legacy Ali inherited from his parents.
When we met him for this interview at his Juhu home on a recent February morning, he stood at the door with an inviting smile on his face. Upon entering, he proudly showed us some of his paintings (adorned with a calligraphic ode to Rumi). In the freewheeling chat that followed, he spoke about his films, the tactile feeling of clothes, the pomp of modern weddings, India’s Ganga-Jamuni culture and, of course, the fragrance of poetry. Seemingly sheepish to talk about his cinema at first, Mr. Ali reveals an unparalleled intellect and insight just as the conversation peaks. He kept fiddling with his reading glasses, sometimes dropping it to the bridge of his nose and at others, using it to comb back his wavy, salt and pepper mane. When he finally wore it, the poetry lover transmogrifies into a Sufi Saint.
Can we start with a simple question – what is Awadhi culture?
Muzaffar Ali: Every culture is a product of time, history and influences. It’s also all about things which are coming into shape and going out of shape or disappearing. So, it’s a dynamic kind of a process and one generally has the feeling of celebrating the culture which is fading out. And there’s nothing to do about saving it. You like old things and then in certain cases, they come into fashion also. They become larger-than-life and a few areas where they have become larger than life is weddings. As far as Awadh is concerned, for me, it’s about the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb, the celebrations of different seasons, celebrations of music and poetry, the cuisine, and of course, the clothes. Awadhi culture, in that sense, reached its heights in the 1850s, before the First War of Indian independence. After that, it soared down. Also, a lot of anglicized influences came into being. We have actually been brought up in the twilight of that culture – the abolition of zamindari, the Partition. That also dealt a severe blow to culture. But, as an artist, that gave me a stronger impetus to celebrate culture through my films.
Muzaffar Ali: Every culture is a product of time, history and influences. It’s also all about things which are coming into shape and going out of shape or disappearing. So, it’s a dynamic kind of a process and one generally has the feeling of celebrating the culture which is fading out. And there’s nothing to do about saving it. You like old things and then in certain cases, they come into fashion also. They become larger-than-life and few areas where they have become larger than life is weddings. As far as Awadh is concerned, for me, it’s about the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb, the celebrations of different seasons, celebrations of music and poetry, the cuisine, and of course, the clothes. Awadhi culture, in that sense, reached its heights in the 1850s, before the First War of Indian independence. After that, it soared down. Also, a lot of anglicised influences came into being. We have actually been brought up in the twilight of that culture – the abolition of zamindari, the Partition. That also dealt a severe blow to culture. But, as an artist, that gave me a stronger impetus to celebrate culture through my films.
At Kotwara, you preserve a certain era of craft and culture, which we believe is really important to the Indian culture. Your label is always about a certain culture and values.
Meera Ali: When we started (now we are in our 26th year) that was the time when chikan kaari was its lowest, in terms of skill and marketing. So we spent a lot of effort in upgrading the skill and creating silhouette which were wearable. We brought in a little bit of contemporary feeling into the silhouette. Unless craft has patrons at the highest level it cannot survive, especially now with handcrafts, as you may have seen in this country, it’s just nose-diving. Banaras is dying. All traditional centres are dying. People are looking for value for money so they are not as discerning any more, whether it is handcrafted or machine made. When you are buying with us you are directly supporting a craftsman’s life. So, that was our aim and we did path-breaking work in that. We set up and established many trends which people are still following after 25 years. Like the Awadhi style of wearing chaudha pyjama called the izaar and jaama zeb kurta which has a particular handcrafted neckline and sleeves. We started it way back in 1990. We threw the chudidar, salwar and the pyjama out of the window and just had the chaudha pyjama for women. These trends have become classic because they are rooted in tradition and have crossed over to a contemporary style of dressing. We have always been innovators in what we have done through our craft.
How do you marry tradition with modernity?
Meera Ali: That’s important because unless you understand your traditions you just don’t know where you are coming from and where you have to go. But that doesn’t mean you have to be so steeped in the past that you are divorced from the demands of the market. You have to see what people are wearing, how we are changing and perceiving things, how people are travelling… they have to carry their wardrobe everywhere with them… so you have to bring in a little touch of modernity. Because it takes you forward and you keep innovating and breaking out of the box. At the same time, a lot of bridal is extremely traditional and we enjoy that because that’s the one time where you enjoy being traditional and very few brides have that option anymore. People are contemporarizing the bridal wear to such an extent that it’s very different now.
It’s extremely helpful for brides when they have designers who are steeped into tradition.
Meera Ali: You must understand that tradition is not the same as just copying from the old-fashioned. Tradition is something you understand and take inspiration from and create your own. People confuse tradition with being old-fashioned, therefore they want to divorce themselves off it. People like us take from that but moving ahead and bringing our own.
There’s a lot of mystery about Kotwara. Today, we are living in the age of social media. The minute a designer’s collection is out photos crowds your FB timelines. The media is showing so much. But at the same time, we aren’t really learning enough about clothing despite all the information overload.
Meera Ali: Our philosophy is that people who shop from Kotwara should have the pleasure of wearing it first and showing it themselves to people rather than that ensemble being so publicized that everybody has seen it and there’s nothing new in it. I like to give our buyers that feeling of, ‘I am the first to wear it.’ A lot of people who buy from us are private and media shy. We don’t advertise heavily in magazines. Because we believe that the process of discovery is as beautiful as owning it.
Muzaffar saab, we are fascinated by your films. You are the only designer in the country who is a filmmaker and you have a label. How did the two meet?
Muzaffar Ali: Kotwara itself is a mystery. It’s a legacy of Awadh and of my parents. They were people who enjoyed clothes. For them, clothes just didn’t mean clothes. It meant culture and being connected with people who made the clothes. It was not like going to a shop and buying clothes. It was organically creating clothes and being involved with the lives of the people who made them. So, it had a much bigger story than just clothes as we understand it today. In my films, clothes were a statement of their time and predicament. Through clothing we created mystery and realism, which unfortunately, Bollywood doesn’t do in a direct way. They have got XYZ designer to do this. It’s an indirect way of presenting a slice of visual culture which in my case is not there. My first film (Gaman) was made on migration. Migration meant people from my village or that region migrating to Bombay. The whole city is full of migrants. So, then the whole philosophy of creating employment at doorstep a decade or two later came out of that. We started something called Dwar Pe Rozi. With that, craft got poignancy, social relevance and philosophy. We try to live up to that philosophy, which by being a painter I could add my own aesthetics and detailing. Umrao Jaan became the quintessence of that culture, which had totally gone invisible. It I hadn’t made Umrao Jaan, there would be no point of reference to that kind of Awadh. If you want to understand what Lucknow is you have to see Umrao Jaan. I went into the past, dug up my mother’s trunks and cupboards. Some clothes are there, at least I was living with that nostalgia and patina in my mind of what clothing was all about. And that is what kind of added up to the impact of this film.
Costumes are important in your cinema. However, in both Gaman and Umrao Jaan, you use a contrasting palette.
Muzaffar Ali: As a painter, I create a palette and frame. I create characters and those characters are part of culture and history, so whether it’s a small film, a village film or it’s about a courtesan, it’s all about costumes. Even in Anjuman, the women are all fighters. They are also quite helpless. They represent human angst. Everything that’s happening around us is making us, to a great extent, helpless. Even consumerism, which is taking away your liberty to choose. In Gaman, Smita Patil’s clothes are interestingly monotone. There’s a patina of fading colours. Helplessness is there in the clothes. I wanted to be as organic as possible. For me, the ambience becomes very important. The ethos, ambience and the angst.
Your personal influences as far as textiles are concerned?
Muzaffar Ali: I am very passionate about textile. Whatever I wear I must feel it. I must touch it. It has to have an organic kind of feel to it. And I’ve done that from my childhood. Most people today are not feeling clothes. They are buying nylons, machine embroidery and stretch fabric. So the feeling is more like looking than feeling. My father wore khadi. At one time, he wore British surges when he came from Scotland. But from 1952 till the time of his death, he only wore khadi. So the whole feeling of khadi means something to me. It’s not a fad. It’s my father. It’s his philosophy. When you put a philosophy to a feeling in apparel it gets another dimension. My mother was also deeply interested in crafts. She had craftsmen surrounding her. The zardozi and chikan we do are people who have inherited from her to a great extent. Her goodwill is helping me and it’s the sentiment that is taking us through the process.
You have touched a very special chord. Most of Bridelan’s brides are born and raised in societies where clothes are made in factories. How do you sensitize them about the tactile quality of a garment?
Muzaffar Ali: It doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t just acquire it. But every human being has a very sensitive side. They can tell a soul smell from a nice one. People have specialised in creating fragrances and developing the nose. Today, we need people to develop the art of seeing and feeling. So when there’s an occasion that is arriving, let’s say a marriage occasion, it’s a time for them to indulge in it with feeling so the marriage becomes memorable. It’s not just about going into big brands and coming out with hangers and big shopping bags. You have to give yourself that little indulgence of a couple of months, a little more to go through the labour of making a wedding a more sensitive and joyous sojourn through craft. They are some people who love it. They take that part as experiential and memorable as the shaadi itself. We don’t try to impose craft on them. We try to bring out the craft from them. We like them to be the authors of what they are going to wear. Let them choose. We give them that extra time and put them in a nice milieu where they can have a deeper exchange of thoughts on these issues.
You are a lover of poetry. Does that also come from your parents?
Muzaffar Ali: Poetry comes from the parents and the place. Poetry is not just a one dimensional hawa (breeze). It’s a part of the angst of the society. Shall I say it’s part of your romantic milieu, revolutionary milieu, spiritual milieu – poetry is really your fragrance.
How do we look for poetry and beauty in smaller, everyday things?
Beauty comes from feeling timeless and comes from having the ease of mind to just see the inner dimension of what is visible. You have to train yourself, your eyes and your attitude to be able to see that beauty. For example, you begin to understand beauty in sound comes from the fact that you have been trained to speak language in a certain way, to read the language in a certain and to sing that language in a certain way, You are exploring the beauty of the aural tradition. If you follow that process you are traveller in the direction of that beauty. The same thing is beauty in crafts or textile, in human relationships, architecture, space and nature. They require point of view.
Finally, what is your personal interpretation of Indian culture?
Meera Ali: There’s an interesting sort of resurgence. You see younger people are looking for their roots and their culture. Unfortunately, people who are guiding them are themselves lost. There has been a generation in the middle which has looked at culture very differently because they have quickly imbibed a lot of outside values and they kind of let go of their past. They don’t know how to answer to the younger generation which is very evident when you go for weddings. The way Indian culture is portrayed at weddings is a caricature of what it really is. People who make films also are presenting a caricature of Indian culture because they don’t realise how to marry modernity with tradition. It becomes mishmash, leaving people confused. On the other hand, there are people who are going so far back that they are becoming intolerant in their portrayal of culture and their total, zero acceptance level of everything else. This is a depressing aspect of it. But the good thing is that culture is so beautiful that you cannot hide it or subjugate it. It keeps coming back in music, poetry, in films, clothing and food. If one looks at it with an honest and curious eye, you will find the beauty.
Muzaffar Ali: Indian culture is very rich. So, you cannot afford to be chauvinistic about your own culture. Indian culture is so diverse that if I claim that only the Lucknowi culture is the best then I will be a poor man. But if I have got an open mind to explore culture then I will find so much richness in Bengal, so much richness in Hyderabad – the richness of language, poetry and weaving traditions.