Surrealism was always a part of my brand, says designer Sanjay Garg


When Banksy said: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” maybe somewhere this touched a chord with designer Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango. In fact, Garg – inarguably the king of handloom saris – admits to having read something to this effect and swears by it. And if the visuals of his spring-summer 2021 collection “Other” are anything to go by, he has followed it too. The moment the first visual was dropped, the Internet was divided. Fashion account @dietsabya asked people to weigh in. Some called it art, some called it horror and many commented under the pics with threats of unfollowing the brand. But Gupta is not ruffled because he feels that the signs of surrealism are in his campaigns since beginning. His idea has always been to question of what we conventionally call or think is pretty. The film sees the models ear oversized ceramic eyes made by artist Vikramditya Sharma with faces painted red or green exploring Garg’s theme of “supernatural vs natural”. He talks to us about the new collection, the visuals, his work and how 2020 changed his way of working.

I had the whole visuals in my mind when I was thinking of the series. But if you look at our past work, as I have been saying to my team too, this element of surrealism was evident in our earlier work too. First Raw Mango campaign shot 21 years ago was a green-faced lady – my sister. And I shot that photo. Then collection like ‘Monkey Business’ and ‘Cloud People’ too had such elements. Even my studio at Lodi Road has these bits and pieces strewn around the space from a hand in the courtyard to the ceiling with a shamiana – surrealism was part of the brand, a part of me. It always existed.

So when I saw the response it didn’t bother me, as we were ready for it. I have never been afraid for a change. For me surrealism and beauty co-exist. Right now people are also a little bit intolerant as we want to see what we want to see.

Yes of course. People have come to know of me as a brand, a commercial brand if you will. But even in my past collections we have always challenged the norms of beauty. My last collection was Moomal – where my sister modeled for me. There too I questioned the depiction of Rajasthan – which is always grand and shown through palaces, elephants and the rajas. I wanted to showcase a Rajasthan that I grew up in – a village wedding, small celebrations. Prior to that ‘Heer’ was set in Punjab with the typical earthy wedding celebrations. It’s a cultural thing. I wanted to keep moving to explore as the country is not one thing – it’s a flowing, thriving civilisation. But again I don’t believe in breaking boundaries for sake of breaking boundaries. It’s what I feel at the moment.

Yes. When I started working with the saree, it had a perception of being academic, behenji or NGO. I wanted to break that stereotype. In fact, many people said we don’t do brocade for weddings as it was embroidery heavy. Even the imagery for weddings was so polished. I brought in old models, real people — diversity.

Because it’s as much part of India. People think surrealism is a western concept. But Kali is our idea of divinity with blood flowing, narmund mala and a host of symbolism. Why is the idea of pretty so much narrowed today? When I thought of the visuals that were in my mind – to expand the idea of what we consider conventionally pretty or call beautiful. We played with acid aposematism like the way you see frogs and snakes in natural habitat – where they stand out and in fact refuse to blend in to survive. Then again, we shot in a desert to give the feeling of a mirage that what you see is not really real. Even the music for the films was illogical and irrational. Yes the clothes are bright and within our aesthetic.

Yes, of course. My team was shrunken and then I am not comfortable with working over Zoom or mobile. But the year also made it interesting that it made some people play it safe and pushed others to take a risk. It worked both ways and differently for different people. I conceptualised ‘Moomal’ during this time as I was homesick and wanted to showcase my home.

Tokenism is on the rise. Everyone is jumping on the handmade wagon but the idea is that to make it so that it can rival machine-made goods. Product, design, modernity and new idea have to go hand in hand. We shouldn’t think of handlooms in a sympathized manner like “poor weaver” etc. If you do that you will box it. Handlooms need to be evolved and more avant garde. Because sympathy doesn’t live for long but good design will. Handlooms are a lot like language. Just like Sanskrit went out of use because it lacked new vocabulary, everything old needs innovation. A flowing river whenever stopped will become a naala. Right? Also for me, every day is Handloom Day as I work with 100% handloom and my product if my mouthpiece.

Business wise, we launched our website in 2020 as that was the way forward. I want to make it better and introduce it in different languages. This year we will open a retail space in Hyderabad too.

A celebrity helps to get the eyeballs for sure. When I was starting this I was thinking let’s keep serving handloom to people who are already wearing it. But the idea is to make people wear handloom who haven’t worn it. Seeing celebrities like Karisma Kapoor and Malaika Arora and more helps widen the circle and get more people interested in handlooms.

I would say 2 in 10. There are many NGOs helping weavers to sell but how many are working towards creating awareness. The consumer can’t differentiate between pashmina or merino, khadi vs cotton. They don’t know what are the right questions to ask or how to value the product. It’s not their fault, no one has taught them. We need to introduce this in our education system. There are so many nuances to it from skills to weaving techniques to what is pure, etc. We keep saying that after agriculture, handlooms are the biggest employer but it has to go beyond tokenism. There needs to be more awareness and more information. We have a long way to travel.

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