Art and design are like eternal lovers: inseparable, twined together and incomplete without each other. This idiom especially personifies Sabyasachi Mukherjee. Couturier, art aficionado, craft evangelist, design guru and a romantic soul who defines Indian couture today.
Every design expression by this iconic artist is like a lilting raaga, reminiscent of a purity that is steeped in the past. Every artistic insinuation an ode to the Bengal that resides in his heart. The majestic Thakur baadis where once lived the talukdars of Bengal. The avant-garde, progressive world of Tagore. The understated beauty of the Company School of Art and the brilliance of indigenous embroideries and textural textiles that the weavers and beaders of Kolkata made for the aristocracy.
Yet, to restrict him to Bengal would be myopic and not representative of his eclectic design. Nor will it be fair to his refined eye that is able to capture the many heritage stories of India, evident in the sheer voracity of elements that fill his decorous ateliers. Lithographs from German Press, chandeliers from erstwhile palaces, hand-cut crystal bottles in a host of hues, a series of Ravi Varma prints that got embellished in Rangoon and wallpapers that celebrate chintz.
In a freewheeling chat, he shares his dream to support the traditional artists of India through the Sabyasachi Art Foundation — a passion that won him a special honour at the HELLO! India Art Awards for the ‘Sustained Promotion of Arts & Culture’. The foundation is a platform wherein artists and artisans work together in an atelier style. Where dexterous hands become the backbone of the many design oeuvres by Sabyasachi. Supporting them with wages and materials, the craft evangelist ensures not just the continuity of their school of art and design; his intervention also ensures that the vocabulary of aesthetics takes the craft back to its rich past.
The Nilaya project for Asian Paints, where he recreated five bastions of traditional iconography: India Baroque in celebration of North Calcutta; an indigo tale to capture Jodhpur; the Spice Route that tells spicy Indian folklore; Varanasi that is an ode to the ubiquitous ‘peeli kothi’, the haven for weavers; and Makhmal, an indulgent recreation of the zamindar ‘nautch ghar’. The Bergdorf Goodman project that celebrates ornamental design, the tryst with Pottery Barn where Sabyasachi and his artists blended floral and animal artworks.... The Sabyasachi Art Foundation is the couturier’s way of keeping Bengal and its school of art alive in the collective consciousness of global art lovers.
HELLO: Share your early initiation into the arts. How much of it was inspired by your mother, who was an artist?
Sabyasachi: Being the son of an artist mother and being surrounded by the almost subliminal pressures of growing up in Calcutta, I resisted art for the longest time and even gave up painting. It was a bit of a childish rebellion that didn’t last long because it was too ingrained in me by then. From watching my mother teach art at YWCA as a young boy and being fascinated by how different colours were mixed to create the right tone. To heated debates at Coffee House over Tagore and Woolf that went on to shape myworldview. It all fed into my understanding of creative expression. Everything I do today — be it mixing a dye, or layering craft into a garment, or mixing gemstones into jewellery, or moulding leather into shapes — goes back to the unconscious training that began when I was a 6-year-old. I have never known a universe where art and fashion are detached.
If what you hang on your wall is art, then what you wear on your body is art, as well. I believe people are artistic consumers. The various intents with which you buy art are the same as when you buy clothing, jewellery or even a handbag.
Gone are the days when one could look at art through the myopic lens of high and low, categorised into rigid and limiting definitions. That point where the human mind and hand connect is art for me. It could be the way you string a garland, shape pottery or design a handbag. Because art is subjective. No one can decide for you what is good or bad art. You should give that licence to yourself.
H: As a symbol of heritage, do you see yourself steer towards traditional and folk art naturally? Do you also have a mind space for contemporary masters?
S: When you’re successful in a particular field, you get limited by the tags that people place on you. I’m mindful of that. If you look at my body of work, I’ve done everything from neon to earthy Indian pigments, from plastic sequins to pure zardozi and semi- precious to the finest of precious gemstones. I push and break boundaries. I can enjoy Bappi Lahiri and Eric Satie with equal exuberance. I don’t suffer fools by creating an image that is contrived, unnecessary and limiting, where you can’t live your life beyond that. I’m extremely fluid as a man and as a designer.
When it comes to some of my favourite artists, the list is as varied, with everyone from Picasso, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo and FN Souza. to Jamini Roy, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Egon Schiele, Amrita Sher-Gil, Dhruvi Acharya and cartoons and doodles from unknown artists.
H: What is the art that graces your home?
S: My home is packed with sketches, lithographs, paintings, etchings, doodles and sculptures from flea markets and antique stores, besides random objects I just love and souvenirs and things that matter to nobody but myself.
I don’t like buying expensive art because I honestly don’t think history is for personal consumption. For me, great art is for public consumption. If I do ever consider buying expensive art, it’ll probably be to contribute it to a museum collection that’s open to all.
H: How can traditional art get the same gravitas that contemporary masters do? Why is it never valued the way art by living masters is?
S: Familiarity, unfortunately, breeds contempt, and because traditional artistic pursuit and expression is so freely available in India, we show it a particular kind of disrespect it doesn’t deserve. The problem with our social and cultural narrative is that we don’t value what we have until it’s taken away from us. I think it stems from a lack of sensitivity and confidence. It’s a profound shame that this is the way things are. Abstraction versus figurative, native versus regal, rich versus rustic... What is closest to your heart? I don’t personally differentiate honestly, if it speaks to me, it’s close to my heart. Art is that great conference of hand and mind. Sometimes the hand overshadows the mind, and at others the mind overshadows the hand, the beauty lies in the balance.
H: Having seen your mother sacrifice her love for the arts must have been a moving experience for a young impressionable mind. How much of it guided your mission to support the ecosystem of Indian artisans?
S: The Sabyasachi Art Foundation was set up in homage to my mother. She was a wonderfully talented and creative artist, who, like many women in our country, gave up what could have been a career as an artist to become an art teacher and take care of her children and home. I felt a lot of guilt when I began to realise that my mother, this indomitably strong and courageous woman who helped shape my own creativity, had to sacrifice her talent because of our lack of privilege. And so, the Sabyasachi Art Foundation was born. It’s a sort of an incubator, where we offer underprivileged fine artists a safe space, where they are given all the tools required for them to hone and shape their practice — a studio, a well-paying income and a mentorship programme that I lead.
Over the years, as a way to make the foundation economically sustainable, I found ways to commission it, be it in creating original art prints or restoring vintage prints. My stores carry a lot of their work, and their work has been made more visible and greatly appreciated through our various collaborations with Pottery Barn, Asian Paints, Christian Louboutin, H&M and Starbucks.
H: Where do you foresee taking it?
S: When I started the foundation, I started with the single-minded intention of looking at economic sustainability for artists. How this grows and where it goes will be dependent on the artists’ hopes and ambitions. They will define the way forward. I see myself and this initiative as playing the ferryman between the artists and the market.
H: What is the kind of initiative that the foundation hopes to create?
S: I started with artists from Bengal and I hope we have the bandwidth someday to support struggling artists from across India.
H: How can vintage and traditional art forms that are so decorous find a place in the global trend of understatement?
S: We’re seeing a rise of the decorous or maximalist aesthetic across almost all disciplines now. I think a lot of minimalism has been created to maximise business because it’s easy to produce and replicate. And with minimalism being exploited the way it has, it will be the jewel. It’s already happening around the world. It’s begun in interiors, where people are moving away from cookie-cutter modular homes into more decorative homes that celebrate art and craft. The same can be seen spilling over into food, music, jewellery, clothing, art and architecture. The beautiful complexity of the human mind will always be celebrated.
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in HELLO! India’s June 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!