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Parmesh's ViewFinder
Published: Volume 17, Issue 5, May, 2009

L’air du temps

Cochin in early April, coasting on the still Kerala backwaters, wrapped by a blue sunlit sky. It is early in the day by my holiday standards, and way too early by any standard for Vikram Chatwal, who’s at the wheel of my speedboat. We’ve been partying all night at his just launched Dream Hotel and it is good to escape for a bit from the adrenalin-pounding non-stop jamboree. The stunning beauty all around serves as a better hangover cure than a caffeine jolt. A solitary bird flies across us, almost skimming the water’s surface as we pass by a gnarled old man with knobby knees standing still with his fishing net in a wizened wooden boat. My BlackBerry beeps to abruptly end the silence and the sound echoes across the water, to where the man raises his head, inquiringly. Time to turn back, but the soul’s batteries have been recharged.

There is such delight in these spontaneous moments of bliss, snatched away from crazy appointment filled diaries. This May issue will serve as a window for you to escape into a beautiful magical world, even if it is just for a bit. We’ve conceived all our fashion stories this month as extravagant fantasies. The global Verve woman might luxuriate in her Kolkata mansion, or jet-set from a South American party capital to a traditional Qatar souk via the magic realism of an Indian fashion week, but she’s not stuck up. So when her vintage car breaks down on the highway, she simply shrugs if off as a minor inconvenience. Slinging her designer heels across her shoulders, she hitch-hikes her way across the Indian landscape on a tempo, bullock cart or bicycle, blazing a swathe of orange wherever she goes.

However, fantasy by itself is incomplete. In fact, I prefer to think of reality and fantasy as complementary to each other instead of as opposites. This is why, alongside the fantastic elements of this issue, we’ve also assembled an array of real-life stories about the creative and innovative India that we live in. Creativity and innovation are two factors that are vital in ensuring the success and growth of people, companies, institutions and countries in turbulent times and there is enough happening in our country right now to give me hope that we are going to emerge from this downturn much stronger.

The people that we’ve put under the spotlight include innovative entrepreneurs, bloggers, video artists, musicians, photographers, designers and chefs, all of whom are pushing at the boundaries of their individual creativity to thrive at this very moment. There are other passionate individuals who are funneling their concerns for the environment and underprivileged sections of society into vibrant business ideas. We have also spoken to financial and cultural catalysts like Laura A. Parkin, Philip Dodd, Adam Pushkin and Brigette Singh, who are adding value within India by drawing cross disciplinary links between the past and the present, and across different geographies. I hope you enjoy reading these stories and draw inspiration from them.

Fashion Fervour
Fantasy and reality were both present in equal measure at the recently concluded fashion weeks across the country. Keeping the spirit of innovation in mind, Verve became the first Indian magazine to tweet a fashion season live. (You can check out the ‘best of’ collection from our Twitter feed in this issue.) A constant flow of Grey Goose coffee martinis kept me tweeting in high spirits through the Mumbai and Delhi events (the vodka was the official style partner for Lakme Fashion Week and the official partner for Delhi Fashion Week). I managed to witness enough creativity on the ramp to make the pain caused by the endless delays, scheduling chaos and unruly crowds worthwhile.

Nachiket Barve, Kallol Datta, Arjun Saluja, Sanchita Ajjampur, Jason-Anshu, Savio Jon, CellDsgn, Prashant Verma, Varun Sardana, Gaurav Gupta, Lecoanet Hemant and Manish Arora were impressive. While each designer had his or her unique accent, the collections altogether spoke in a unified language and collectively projected the best of modern India. This was a sexy, confident and unapologetic India, with elements of pop culture playfully woven in – both in terms of materials used and reference points. Thankfully, the country’s textile legacy was intelligently utilised without having to resort to the same old cliché-ridden silhouettes or excessive embellishments. It was a refreshing season.

I was particularly interested to observe the fusion between the fashion world and other worlds, such as art and music. Now, fashion has always drawn from other fields for inspiration and it is quite common to have live performers on stage, like, say Shaair + Func at a Narendra Kumar Ahmed show, or have a designer like Wendell Rodricks do a Mondrian-inspired collection. But when a band like Emperor Minge plays live for CellDsgn at Delhi Fashion Week, it isn’t just an item number. Emperor Minge wear CellDsgn all the time, for their own shows. They often jam at the Living Room Café, a creative hotspot in Delhi’s Hauz Khas village, owned by the CellDsgn folks and Emperor Minge’s music is constantly playing on the sound system at the CellDsgn atelier next door. Their collaboration then is a symbiotic creative union – it works because essentially the creative vision of the designers and the musicians is similar. Provocation, androgyny, border-crossings…the world-views match, the aesthetics are in synch and the fan bases are common. (See our article on CellDsgn’s unique design philosophy in this issue, for more on this.)

Many such creative collaborations are emerging from salon-like spaces across urban India – salons of the kind that designer Nitin Bal Chauhan hosts in Delhi, or we do, with Verve in Mumbai. This cross-pollination excites me and I don’t know about you, but I can certainly begin to trace the contours of a new modern Indian aesthetic, which encompasses, besides the designers mentioned above, the confident wit of Divya Thakur’s graphics, the architectural audacity of Anupam Podar’s Devi Art Foundation, Priya Kishore’s curatorial panache at Bombay Electric and the global sounds of Indigo’s Children and Avial.

This is the India that I wish Suzy Menkes and her team had tuned in to showcase at the International Herald Tribune’s Sustainable Luxury Conference. Despite the impressive line up of international speakers (Lapo Elken, Roberto Cavalli, Dries Van Noten, Francois Pinault) I was disappointed to hear the same old platitudes (“India has such beautiful colour, the sari is a wonderful versatile garment….”) and if it wasn’t for the desi wisdom of Santosh Desai and Anil Chopra, or the chance to reconnect with old friends at the after-parties (Pia Singh’s foie gras counter was the place to mingle), I’d have written it off as a complete waste.

Doha Delight
I experience a different kind of modernity during a short visit to Qatar. Our fashion team has decided to capture the charm of the windswept dunes of Khor al Udeid (Inland Sea) and the colourful Souk Waqif, but I am more interested in the new, modern, ambitious Doha. The Doha of the Doha Debates, WTO negotiations and the 2016 Olympic Games bid. The Doha with an under-construction skyscraper-filled skyline, man-made island developments (Qatar Pearl), world-class equestrian venues (Al Shaqab) and gondola-filled Venice-themed shopping malls (Villaggio).

Dubai redux? Not quite. Qatar is fashioning itself into a very different kind of Middle Eastern state, with its focus on media freedom and cultural institution building. In fact, more than Dubai, I am reminded of Singapore in the way that the country is efficiently using its stockpiled cash resources to build a future-ready urban infrastructure, and astutely embracing creativity and innovation as its growth mantras. While the rest of the world, including Dubai, is downsizing, Doha is shifting gears upwards. It is an experiment worth watching.

I feel the kinetic energy even as I board my Qatar Airways flight. (There’s something to be said for travelling in an almost new plane and with staff that are actually happy to be flying instead of worrying about being laid off.) The business class is impeccable, right from the lie-flat seats, gourmet food and drink and wireless mouse-operated entertainment system, to the proactive spontaneity of the flight crew. When I request a snack mid-flight, the attendant wonders if I’d like some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and then promptly bakes me another batch after she sees me devouring the first plate in two minutes flat. I find this eagerness across all my interactions in Doha – whether it is at the Turkish hamam at the Sharq Hotel’s Six Seasons spa, or during dinner at the Four Seasons’ Il Teatro restaurant. The aim is to surpass best-in-class world service standards and there is a quiet pride when this is accomplished.

What Qataris are proudest of at this moment, is their beautiful new Museum of Islamic Art, located off Doha’s corniche. I’m a big fan of IM Pei’s architecture and have spent many happy days tinkering about in his cube shaped Media Lab in Boston. Visiting the Doha museum is an exhilarating experience. Its giant geometric form (sand coloured square and octagonal blocks placed over each other) contains within, one of the world’s most encyclopedic Islamic art collections. The museum building is an artistic wonder by itself and I am happy to just walk all over on the several levels, inside and outside, exploring it with delight. There is a point when you emerge out of the museum, to a huge landing above the Emir’s (waterfront facing) private entrance. If you look straight ahead, you see the old dhows docked in the harbour and if you look right, you can see the crowded futuristic Doha skyline framed in one of the museum’s arches.

I am still on an adrenalin rush when I visit the Al Jazeera news headquarters. Again, one has heard so much about this network but seeing is believing and I am impressed by the slick state-of-the art complex that houses both the Arabic and English operations. The Arabic channel is of course, the de facto voice of the Islamic world and it has built its reputation with its extensive on the ground coverage from conflict zones like Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. But what I find more interesting has been the growth in the English news channel as an alternative to the CNN, BBC and France 24 news perspectives. It reaches over 130 million viewers worldwide, across cable, satellite, internet and mobile and with 70 bureaus and dedicated resources committed towards underserved parts of the globe (Africa has twelve Al Jazeera bureaus for example, versus CNN’s three). This is an innovative programming strategy, for the channel certainly, as well as for the state of Qatar, which funds its operations and wants to build itself into a global media hub.

During my tour, I bump into Sami al Haj, the Al Jazeera cameraman who was arrested when he was covering the Afghanistan war and imprisoned without any charges in the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison for six years. Recently freed, his calm smile betrays none of the horrors he might have experienced. Meeting him brings me down a few notches and takes me back to the complex reality that exists outside.

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