Sanjay Garg's latest collection Heer presents the narrative of a pre-Partition era Punjab
It’s been a month since Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango presented his festive 2018 collection Heer, for which he crafted the narrative of a pre-partition era Punjab that elicited a wave of nostalgia over social media.
Known for his dexterity with textiles and a keen sense of colour, Sanjay set out to create an Indian label ten years ago; one that championed the cause of handloom long before the government and his contemporaries felt the need to address it. With each passing collection, he goes against the grain to create campaigns that set him apart.
Sanjay spoke to us about the making of the collection and its anthropological significance.
Design Fabric (DF): Were you actively researching about Punjab for this collection or was that coincidental?
Sanjay Garg (SG): I was raised in Mubarikpur, Rajasthan. We are Marwaris, and my brother got married to a Sikh girl last year, so the research for the collection was based on personal experiences. I had heard about Punjabi weddings on television. But once you’re a part of it and experience the culture and full family, many stereotypes get shattered. You get to know the family so deeply that it is overwhelming. My campaign was an alternative to what one knows of Punjab. I was looking to create a simple yet beautiful experience, from the decor to the outfits of the bride and family. Traditions and rituals are important to me, but I wanted to present them simply while retaining the values and different cultures of both our families.
Planning for the wedding really made me explore my archival imagery and textiles that were reminiscent of the culture, religion and traditions in the times of Amrita Sher-Gill, Khushwant Singh and Surinder Kaur. Textiles that are rich and beautiful without all the fuss and ostentatiousness. People today know only one kind of Punjabi wedding in India - the loud, larger-than-life kind. I wanted to break away from this stereotype and revisit something traditional that is equally our own.
DF: What’s the story behind the name Heer?
SG: I wanted to portray a scene where traditions between Sikhism and Islam overlap. There are similarities in the way those following either faiths dress up, like how both share the concept of no-idol worship. Before Partition, Heer could have been the name of a Muslim or a Hindu girl. Heer means hira, which is shine. The whole idea behind the collection was to bring out how much politics and religion can affect fashion.
Heer marks Garg's tenth year working with textiles and fashion
DF: How did you bring out the Sikhism meets Islam overlap in the garments?
SG: The idea of Pakistan is relatively new, right? The Mughals ruled us for nearly 300 years, following which we were still one India under the British rule of nearly 100 years. Comparatively, Pakistan is only 71 years old. So it’s hard to say what belongs to one country or the other. For the collection, we emphasised the sharara, the way they wear the chunni, the pasha, and the tika.
Apart from the garments, this is the first time we haven’t done any of the typography for the creatives in Hindi. If there had been no Partition, there wouldn’t be any use of Hindi up north, only Punjabi, Urdu and English. It got me thinking whether a state has any right to decide the languages we use. It’s like the opposition of Hindi on the Metro signboards in Bengaluru.
DF: The launch of the collection has gone viral. Did you anticipate that it would be so well received?
SG: Not at all. We have always had strong concepts for our campaigns, but now we’re learning that other than creativity, emotion too plays a very big role, which was something we had discounted. People found the collection even more beautiful because they could connect to the imagery. That was really interesting.
It was very emotional for me personally. When I was posting my last photograph, I was aware I would be losing the connection by sharing them, like it would end now.
DF: How did you develop the colour palette for the collection?
SG: I think my use of colour has to do with where I come from. I’m very comfortable with a certain idea of India that a lot of people are not. Some people roll their eyes at this side of the country; to eating samosas, to wearing brightly coloured, saris, and to certain silhouettes and body types. The same resistance was there to saris and our textiles when we first started out. But now, it’s considered cool. I’m in love with the India that people roll their eyes at.
The Festive collection uses heirloom fabrics and contemporary ones based on archival prints
DF: You have mastered chanderi, silk and brocades in your previous collections. How did you challenge yourself with this line?
SG: With Heer, we tried to change the context of modernity and redefined what ‘classic’ is. The challenge was to explore ways in which old vintage archives can still make sense today, and the interesting possibilities in which we can balance both tradition and modernity.
The collection draws from older pieces, many of which need design interventions and need to be seen. There are heirloom textiles and there are contemporary ones. According to me, just because something is old doesn’t mean it is beautiful. I have a textile collection with about 450 different pieces. Heer is based on four-five old patterns exactly the way I have them in the archives. It’s a kind of shared history, and I’m questioning their importance in today’s context. We have been clear to acknowledge this from the outset, as we are conscious of those who designed these in the first place. How I wish we knew who they were!
DF: What was the selection process to narrow down on these four-five archival designs?
SG: I looked at my archive as a bank of skill sets, of the material, intent, craftsmanship, pattern, size, everything. So when I chose the specific ones, it was based on all of these factors, my visual sense and practicality. I don’t like to use the word ‘revival’ because people try to hide behind it, but in this case, we did truly revive old craft techniques, motifs and patterns.
DF: You seem to be trying to offer an alternative to the saturated market of heavy jewellery and bridal wear. What is your client base like?
SG: We believe that fashion gives you individuality, and is much more than just clothing. That’s the freedom, the power of fashion. I am hurt when I see everyone in the same jewellery in weddings standing against the background of palaces. It looks fake, like there’s no connection between the actual person you are and what you are doing at your wedding. We are not trying to find an alternative, but to balance the equation. The minority has a right to exist. Our clients come from varied age groups and backgrounds - working professionals, homemakers, entrepreneurs, journalists, everybody.
DF: The audio clip that was a part of the collection launch is a conversation between two women, one of whom is a bride deciding what goes into her trousseau. What made you think of it?
SG: When you present a collection, you want to go as deep as you can with the concept. In this case, it was a mix of trying new mediums and the memories of listening to the radio as a child. While researching, I came across a radio interview of Farida Khanum on Youtube. I thought of creating another such conversation to say what I wanted to; to share my opinion as well as the voice of Raw Mango and the identity of a woman that we try to communicate comes through Heer’s voice. The whole world is looking at videos and the rebel in me wanted to try audio. It was also my way of bringing back Farida Khanum.
The collection was shot in Neemrana’s Baradari Palace, Patiala, where the palace's unique architecture unites Sikh, Mughal and Colonial styles
DF: Neemrana’s Baradari Palace, where you shot the campaign, has historical and cultural significance. Tell us a little about the place and how you came to find it for the shoot.
SG: Years ago, I visited Patiala to research about Phulkari and chanced upon Neemrana’s Baradari Palace, which I thought was really beautiful. While working on Heer, I thought of going back to that 100-year old space, commissioned by Maharaja Rajinder Singh of Patiala in 1876. He aimed to integrate all cultures and every aspect of his life, the architecture of the palace which embodies and unites Sikh, Mughal and Colonial styles. I haven’t shown a palatial view of Neemrana. To me, what matters is the detail, the architecture, the simplicity of the structure.
DF: Your clear direction for the shoot was to avoid using any known models. Why?
SG: Almost all the girls you see in the campaign are either my brother’s sisters-in-law or their friends. They were all together at his wedding, and we just recreated that for the campaign. I think the connection was real, and that’s what you see in the campaign.
DF: Do you think of yourself as an outsider in the contemporary fashion landscape in India?
SG: To me, design is a solution and I express it through textiles. I look at textiles, garments, costumes in an anthropological way. If I am able to create a real change in the way weddings are shot or the way someone uses handloom to create a larger statement, that’s all I am interested in.
DF: 2018 marks your tenth year in the fashion industry. How has your journey been?
SG: I have no complaints but I’m more impatient and impulsive than ever before because I haven’t done half of the things I want to. Normally, brands branch out into jewellery or menswear but for Raw Mango’s tenth anniversary, we are creating 10 objects. I might even get into music. I want to explore too many things. And I think this is the time to do that now.