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Jawai: The leopard country

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Bordering Gujarat, Rajasthan’s south-western region is popularly referred to as Godwar, meaning the water (god) territory (war). The Sukri river and its tributaries gush through its otherwise arid and rocky terrain before joining the westward Luni river. Back in 1946, Jodhpur’s Maharaja Umaid Singhji had commissioned a dam project in Jawai for Rs 2 crore to cater to irrigation in the Pali and Jalore districts. The Jawai dam, also known as Jawai bandh, attained completion after 11 years of hard work and forms the largest dam of western Rajasthan. Not only is it the main water reservoir for all of Pali district, but the decades following its establishment have witnessed Jawai becoming home to many migratory birds, and its erstwhile flora and fauna have further thrived. Moreover, thirty-odd lakes in this locality provide ample waterholes for Jawai’s territorial and aerial fauna.

Rabaris constitute the region’s dominant community of shepherds, whose cattle and Jawai’s clusters of wild boards and antelopes serve as prey base for Jawai’s iconic wild cats-the leopards. After hunting in the thick of the night, these majestic panthers prowl about their caves to bask in the Sun atop a territorial rock. Should their livestock serve as an occasional casualty, the Rabaris surrender to its fate as divinely ordained by their fountainheads, Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Their bony frames are accentuated by fitted white angrakhas atop white dhotis; and can be spotted from afar due to their scarlet turbans. They escort flocks of goats, cows, buffaloes and camels to nearby pasturelands in between dawn and dusk, and make for an unmissable sight to the increasing throngs of Jawai’s safari-bound tourists.

Not very far from this symphonic wilderness, there lie concrete Jain colonies, home to a sizeable community of rich and affluent families that found fortunes in faraway cities, and the pristine white domes of their numerous temples. Nestled amidst one of these colonies in Bera is the present-day dwelling place of the erstwhile jagir’s Ranawat clan, its Rawla. A faction of Bera Rawla’s premises is the contemporary hospitality domain of its younger Thakur sahib, Baljeet Singhji, wherein he hosts diverse flocks of tourists from all around the world. Castle Bera, as it is now known is a quaint homestay of five rooms that emanates an unassuming and jovial essence identical to its host. And although it is far from claiming itself to be a luxury homestay, it derives its old-world charm in the rare and personalised hospitality extended by Thakur Baljeet Singhji, or Winku bana as he is fondly known as. 

Come rain, hail or the scorching summer sun, there isn’t a safari that Winku bana would voluntarily miss. His dark green gypsy awaits him twice every day, once before dawn and once around late afternoon. Freshly shaven and donning a safari hat, Winku bana serves as the driver Narayan’s ace shotgun for each safari, regardless of whether there are guests to be taken along or not. His keen enthusiasm for Jawai’s native cats was nurtured right from his childhood days, when his father would take him along for their daily sighting adventure. Now at over 60 years of age, Winku bana does the same with his children and guests. Every morning carries with it the hope for a rare sighting, a gorgeous sunrise and the thrill of venturing out into the rugged terrains of his homeland. Throughout his life, he has either discovered or been confided in with knowledge on over fifteen safari routes across Jawai. Host to the region’s oldest lodging, it comes as less of a surprise that its more recent hoteliers are barely beginning to grasp a few. 

Upon returning from his evening outing from the arid forest, Winku bana shares fond childhood memories over two Bera pegs of whiskey in water, a reference to his preferred pegs of 10 or 15 ml each, depending on the size of the bottle cap. His infectious laughter makes it nearly impossible for the visitor not to crack up in amusement to Winku bana’s animated collection of anecdotes. Juxtaposed with these comical descriptions of life’s oddities is the veteran’s unparalleled passion for wildlife and conversations. 

The ardent follower, admirer and friend of the fabled M.K. Ranjitsinhji proudly shares hand-signed books of India’s biggest wildlife pioneer, who also happens to be wedded to Winku bana’s immediate sister-in-law. And unlike the usual conservationist, Winku bana is a man of few words but much meaning. His observations seldom honour conventional happenings. Rather, he shares the very essence of Jawai’s wildlife as one of its oldest and most heartfelt companions. He laments the recent overpopulation of hotels and tourists in the area, which is evidently pushing back Jawai’s already hesitant leopards further back into their shells. Poor safari knowledge, irresponsible tourism and the absence of government regulations over Jawai are unitedly contributing towards his homeland’s ruination and true to his cause, Winku bana is amongst the few nature lovers who have learned to continue being wistfully in love with Jawai through its incumbent blotting. After all, what temporarily serves most of us as an exotic getaway essentially comprises of the very foundations of his past, present and future.

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Royally Speaking

Mohena Singh and her incredible flight to stardom

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A little girl from the erstwhile kingdom of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh grew up believing that no dream was too big for her to achieve. From the very beginning, she had her heart set on performing arts such as dancing and acting, but held reservations vis-à-vis its acceptance within her community, where dancing and acting were watched and much-appreciated, but never conducted by oneself.

However, the oft-related stereotypes and hurdles attached to the art and career of performing arts were soon diminished by the enormous support that the little girl’s mother bestowed upon her. Gradually over the years, she developed wings and began to fly. Within the infinite pulse of Mumbai, she found her feet as a performer and continued to persevere her journey as an entertainer until her talent landed her flight upon the sets of Dance India Dance. Being in front of the television and a million eyes did little to dampen the first timer’s spirit. Instead, she glided her way into every successive round and ended up being a finalist of the show. This is how Mohena Kumari Singh made her scintillating entry into tinsel town and her flight only continues to soar higher.

Mohena’s mettle as a dancer and actor began to melt the pre-conceived notions that her family held vis-a-vis this field of expertise. She assisted the renowned choreographer Remo D’Souza on the sets of the famous dance show Jhalak Dikhla Ja for three entire seasons and also starred amongst the lead characters in Dil Dosti Dance, one of the most loved fiction dance dramas on Star Plus. At present, Mohena can be seen on the popular soap opera, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, and is savouring every moment enacting Kirti Bansal.

Breaking through into the competitive entertainment industry for Mohena was accompanied by the additional challenge of doing within long-held traditionalism by ancestral families such as hers. “Even though I had my family support I did know at the back of my head that girls from our community, especially Princesses have never gone out there and done unconventional jobs like mine. So, I knew I was going to get a lot of flak for it too. Which I did. But the support I have received is so much more than the flak,” says the star-eyed celebrity. The continuous and overwhelming support that she receives daily from her fanbase keeps her going. She is also aware of having made a bold career choice that is likely to open up aspirational avenues for other Rajput girls.

Maintaining herself as a traditionalist in many ways, Mohena emphasises on the vitality of community-based thinking and individualism in order to evolve. “The thinking (of the Rajput community) has to evolve. It is important for an individual to go through struggles in life to shape themselves as better human beings. I believe experience is everything. Until and unless you don’t get out into the real world, you’ll never know who you really are and what you want from your life. Parents should give their kids the right values and ultimately let them choose their own paths.” she elaborates. In many ways, Mohena’s approach tactfully balances traditional values with her professional pursuit as an individual and successfully portrays a proud retention of her family heritage while creating her own legacy in India’s film industry.

When asked about her ultimate aims and goals, Mohena expresses a highly spiritual insight: “My aim is to be happy. My goal is to go back home after a long day at shoot, satisfied with what I have done. It is so important to do what makes you happy. That way you can be at peace with yourself and can actually make others in your life happy too.”

In the long run, apart from working in the entertainment industry, Mohena envisions heading homewards and taking up political responsibilities alongside her brother towards social causes such as women empowerment and underprivileged children. Along her exciting journey as an aspirational individual and a Rajput scioness, Mohena mentions the likelihood of finding her Prince Charming in a suitor who co-pilots her exciting flight with her.

“He should be one who finds pride in my achievements, instead of chopping off my wings”, says Mohena while finishing off, with a wink that is as charming as she is.

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Royally Speaking

Creating a storm with stunning shawls

Anshu Khanna

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A resident of the quiet city of Kota, the elegant shawl creator, Madhulika Hada is a Hada Rajput who is silently creating a storm with her stunningly beautiful shawls in cashmere. Each piece is a canvas for her signature style of stunning hand embroidery and bead work. One of the most acclaimed of Chauhan branches, the Hadas belong to the Agnikula and two of the prominent Rajasthan states of Bundi and Kota were ruled by them. Madhulika, married into a small noble family of Koela, is a woman of immense creativity with a deep understanding of the craft of embellishment.

She is supported unanimously by both her children, daughter Aishwarya Singh, married to Aditya Singh, son of former Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh. When not posing as ex-CM’s daughter-in-law, pursuing his many charity programmes, Aishwarya happily poses in her mother’s shawls. As her filmmaker son who, besides shooting for Yash Raj Films also shoots his elegant mother and beautiful wife draped in these heirloom quality shawls.

Madhulika’s work on cashmere is nothing short of museum quality. She looks at pictures of past portraitures and selects motifs typical of Kashmiri embroidery form. The paisley, the jaal, the bootas and the medallion designs. She then reproduces them using a variety of decorative embroidery techniques, including zardozi, aari, tepchi, resham do taar, etc. She enhances her cashmere in vibrant hues using gold threads, pearls, beads and resham. Each piece a stunner and a veritable hand me down for generations to come.

“While the designs come to me as visions from a collective memory, the design bastions belong to the rich history of hand crafting that all of us Rajputs have had the good luck to experience up close,” she says.

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Royally Speaking

THE TIMELESS TEXTILE TALES OF AMBIKA RAJE GHORPADE

Ambika Raje Ghorpade of Sandur is weaving stories of her treasure trove of old textiles and royal couture and sharing it with the world with the help of a very modern tool—Instagram.

Anshu Khanna

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The royals and their love for costumes is no hidden secret. In older times, a fleet of weavers, beaders, embroiderers and seamstresses sat within palace karkhanas to create something bespoke for the queen. There was a special impetus for making saris that the royal ladies would wear with much elan. Each style carried forth a story of rare reverence, be it the gossamer chiffons embroidered with pure gold threads and semi precious stones, the soft Chanderis worn with pure zari borders, a patent of the Maratha women, or the chantilly lace that would get shipped directly from the ateliers of France to the palaces of India.

Shrimant Kartiteya Raje and Smrimati Ambikaraje Ghorpade Sandur.Ambika in an adaptation of the dupatta.

Shrimant Murari Rao Yashwant Rao Ghorpade in original dupatta.

Late Rajmata Vasundhara Raje Ghorpade Sandur.

R.K. Sushila Kumari of Jasdan.

Cut to modern times. As couture claimed centre stage, these master craftsmen working on commision for princely families were forgotten. Their masterpieces lay packed in the trunks of the erstwhile royals and in the memoirs of past queens, where many stories of rare textiles and costumes could be found. 

Many such tales have been lying within the personal wardrobe of the very elegant and beautiful Ambika Raje Ghorpade of Sandur. The wife of Kartikeya Raje, a successful entrepreneur, a great food historian  and passionate chef, she had the privilege of calling two spectacular women her mother: Sushila Kumari, the Princess of Jasdan, who was her biological mother, and the late Rajmata Vasundhara Raje Ghorpade, who was her mother-in-law. From both of them she inherited not just amazing tales about textiles but also an inborn grace to do justice to anything she wore.

Born to a Maratha IAS officer Hirojirao Ramarao Patankar and Raj Kumari Sushila Kumari of Jasdan, Ambika got married into the Sandur princely state in Karnataka. A popular Maratha state with a strong political legacy, Sandur was also the region where a unique form of Mysore silk was woven. Add to that the fact that Ambika’s mother-in-law, the stunning beauty, was a princess from Baroda. Together they created such a trunk of tales to unfurl that Ambika decided to share them with the next generation on a forum that they understand: Instagram. “It would help my two daughters trace my collection better,” she jokes.

There are sari influencers galore today, but this lady says things from the heart, tracing many rare, restored pieces to the women of Baroda, Jasdan and Sandur. From a Parsi gara, lovingly restored from an old piece of chiffon, to her mother-in-law’s bridal dupatta which she added to a sari, her tales are enchanting. Every word uttered by her catches the fancy of her organically grown followers – most of them second-generation nobles and royals – including her daughters, the younger one, Anushka Ghorpade, who is a baker, and the elder daughter, Krutika, who is a mother to a little girl and the wife of Akshay Bhansali, son of politician Yashodhara Raje Scindia and Siddharth Bhansali.

Two of my favourite stories from her stunning page are the one where she pays an ode to her mother’s chiffons, by posing in a stunning print from BBG royals herself, and the other where she strikes a perfect picture with her amazing spouse, wearing a sari, hand-tucked with a pure gold border, which belonged to her mother-in-law’s bridal ensemble.

The quotes which follow them are just as endearing. “When you are looking at your mother, you are looking at the purest love you will ever know. My insta page is dedicated to my mom, her love for saris and her in-depth knowledge of the textiles! Listening to her stories as I grew up, while shopping and travelling, is where my love for textiles started…Mom at 17 in a French floral chiffon and me in a @bbg_royal champagne rose chiffon,” reads the first one.

The second says, “Years back my mother-in-law was rummaging through her trunk and she pulled out her wedding dupatta. As she unfolded it, she realised it was in tatters. It was a real gold tissue dupatta with a solid huge gold border all around. The tissue was in tatters but the border could be restored. Those days they wore very long dupattas over the sari ,so it was easy to get a complete sari border from the dupatta! And I did !…My in-laws on their wedding day and me in a pink chiffon with the solid real gold border, which I restored from my mother in law’s wedding dupatta! Old is gold — literally!”

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When two French Bulldogs tango

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Dominating the fray of recent pooch-trending breeds is the stout, bat-eared, bow-legged and irresistibly cute French Bulldog. Its recent invasion over social media, clothing retail and pop art culture makes the Frenchie hard to miss. A nation that once underwent the Pug revolution (thanks to Hutch and then Vodafone) now dotes over this miniature bulldog variant in an ever-increasing fan following. Its pied, fawn, black, white and brindle members are winning hearts across urban India’s dog-loving cohort; and present-day Rajputana makes no delay in partaking in this canine vogue. The houses of Jammu and Kashmir (Pablo & Missy), Bikaner (Coco), Mayurbhanj (Sir Arthur), Asadi (Popeye) and Khimsar (Tsarina & Cleopatra) are but a few examples.

So what is the hype all about? Quite a lot, actually. 

The French Bulldog was first conceived in 19th century England as a miniature variant of the classic bulldog. Over time, these unmissable four-legged oddities were seen accompanying English lace makers from Nottingham to France, which might explain their present-day monicker. Playful yet sedate and just as charming as they are stubborn, French Bulldogs readily adapt to any atmosphere that is merciful to their brachycephalic, or “flat-faced” respiratory constraints and non-existent swimming skills.

Their restful nature and minimal exercise needs make them an instant hit in urban cityscapes. But lo and behold, before their preference for the couch spells low maintenance, their owners will assuredly be brought to test when it comes to house training. Unlike its intuitive contemporaries such as famous retrievers and mastiffs, the Frenchie takes its own time to embrace your house rules. And when their goofiness renders you with comical relief and frustration in equal measure, it is nearly impossible to imagine the Frenchie’s past reputation as an excellent ratter. After all, it was a French ratter that the English Toy Bulldog crossed with to produce this illustrious lineage. 

I, for one, am the proud mother of two French Bulldogs, Tsarina and Cleopatra who, in the short span of four months have braved the Himalayan winter, my sister’s wedding and many a travels by my side. Owing to their sensitive modes of respiration, I was initially hesitant to take them along with me to tend to Manali’s busy winter tourist season. However, I was reassured by a breeding expert, who emphasized on the vast difference between the subdued pug and our bat-eyed Napoleons. And sure enough, he was right. Although Tsarina’s upbringing by my brother in Western Rajasthan made her slightly reluctant to the cold, Cleo was a natural through and through. She developed a special fascination for the snow and would rummage in sun-kissed patches of white all afternoon-long. 

To my absolute horror, I once saw Cleo strutting around with a tiny tail hanging from her mouth, only to discover minutes later that she had lived up to her familial reputation and caught a rat! On another occasion, her irresistible confidence made her glide over a frozen embankment of water. It was all fun and games until the icy layer cracked and in fell Cleo. Never outside a human sphere of vision, our ice princess was promptly rescued, dunked into a bucket of warm water and blowdried ahead of a sumptuous meal. The scrambled egg yolks, cow’s milk and carom seeds seem to have erased the recent trauma from Cleo’s memory, for the sunny windowpane upon which she dined placed her icy plunge into a dark corner that she’s too blissed out to revisit. In fact, her pirate-like goggled eyes spot one adventure after the other. Even in my family’s Delhi apartment, she takes on some novel leaps onto the bed, sofa (and once, the waste commode almost!), delighting me while making my germaphobe mother shake her head in despair. 

All this while, Tsarina enjoys the warmth of the radiator and cuddles up on any soft blanket that comes her way. The older of the two, she often attempts to establish her seniority over Cleo, but still has a long way to go before she is fully heard and adhered to by the smaller ball of fur. 

What seems to be equally amusing is where all a pet can push his/her human in the process of dog parenting. On days when Cleo and Tsarina are more reluctant to finish their mid-day papaya snack, my friend generously sprinkles her Pringles as a bribe that has never failed to work. There are also times when Tsarina simply refuses to take a walk, and in our utmost respect for a mind of her own, we find it’s best to let her be. In her truest individuality, she comes around after taking her time, and never expresses herself without fully meaning it. Cleo and Tsarina’s ingenuity, their comforting presence and the sheer generosity of their heart teach me a thing or two every day; and amidst digitalising times of overrated consumerism, I am reminded of the ultimate luxuries that lie in life’s simpler pleasures, not the least being a daily return from work to two odd, bat-eared creatures that I dearly call my family.

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Royal music festivals to look forward to in 2021

Anshu Khanna

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Royal palaces and havelis have been an abode to both fine art and the performing arts. Right from Mian Tansen to Bismillah Khan to Bulleh Shah, musicians, poets and Sufi saints have filled their interiors with their resonating voices. Till date, this tradition of patronage is being kept alive by some royals and nobles of India who host hugely successful annual music festivals on their premises, inviting aficionados of the arts.

However, in the year of the pandemic this tradition was side tracked or taken online. The Sunday Guardian takes a look at the best of music festivals held within royal addresses, with the hope of attending them again in this year of new beginnings, with the sense of safety brought by the vaccines.

To begin with, it was heartening to see Magnetic Fields add another festival IP to their stupendously successful lineup. Steered by the Alsisar family, Magnetic Fields Nomads 2021 was announced to be held in Nahargarh, Ranthambore from 19-21 March and got booked within hours of the announcement. A three-day 400 attendees-capacity event, Nomads will provide unique culinary experiences under the ‘The Chef’s Table” banner, pool parties, garden picnics and jungle safaris. 

“Magnetic Fields Nomads is a new project that we have been dreaming of over the last few years,” says the team behind the festival. “Our focus this year is on championing and supporting local excellence in food, culture and music as we cautiously celebrate the encouraging signs of revival in India.”

The original festival, Magnetic Fields, which the family will give a slip this year, is where the world’s most famous and most underground performers share a stage. All boundaries melt into fluid sections and communities merge into one society under the influence of so much love. Among the best music festivals in Rajasthan, it is famous for secret parties in what used to be dungeons without dragons. 

Other royals who are brewing their programmes for this year also need to be saluted for doing their part in keeping the legacy of rooted music alive, year after year. One such event is the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, which classical and folk music lovers wait for. With the majestic Mehrangarh Fort as its backdrop, the festival presents local, folk talents over three resoundingly melodious days. The festival is much respected and has seen the birth of iconic artists like Mame Khan and Kutle Khan.

Then there is the ‘family-oriented’ Taalbelia Festival, held in the iconic Mandawa Haveli, which aptly showcases the Shekhawati region and its culture. Located in the heart of Rajasthan, Mandawa town plays host to Taalbelia, a four-day-long multi-format festival, which seeks to highlight a wide range of music genres that usually don’t find a spot in the current crop of festivals. Four days, three stages and more than 30 acts feature a combination of music, arts and crafts, along with adventure, royal hospitality and gastronomic experiences unique to the belt.

Meanwhile in the distant land of Awadh, in the heart of Qaiser Bagh, the Raja of Kotwara, Muzaffar Ali, and his wife, Meera, present the Wajid Ali Shah festival that relives the era of the emperor who turned his state of Awadh into a mystical world of music, art and dance.  The festival begins at Wajid Ali Shah’s mazhar and goes through the many havelis of Qaisar Bagh to relive the Talukdari era of Awadh. The Alis, known for their festival Jahan E Khusrau, are now getting set to plan the 2021 edition of this acclaimed Sufi music festival. “We were indeed lucky to host it in 2020, just a few days before the lockdown, and this year, when all will be vaccinated and lovers of music will feel at peace and safe, we will announce the 2021 edition,” said the organisers. Once again Arab ke Serai will resonate with sufiana kalam, the dance of the dervishes and a salute to the many Sufi saints born on our rich soil.

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Royally Speaking

USHERING IN SPRING WITH ATELIER SHIKAARBAGH’S SARIS

Mayankraj Singh’s Atelier Shikaarbagh is welcoming the change in seasons with a collection that brings together the lightness of spring and the legacy of Rajput design.

Anshu Khanna

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The legacy of heritage design comes naturally to those with Rajput roots: Young men and women who have seen the zenana up close, a congregation of noble ladies who got together within the confines of a well shielded room, offering a private audience to the many master craftsmen who brought along divine objects for the Maharani’s audience. These women of great beauty, immense poise and evolved tastes sat previewing the finest necklaces, silver accessories, saris and poshaks—their gossamer chiffon saris held tightly over their well-coiffured hair, each sari a piece of art, some lace-infused and others subtle and floral with tiny sequins and slender thread work adding a bit of glitz to the understated look.

One such couturier of noble lineage is Mayankraj Singh, the creator of Shikaarbagh, a heritage label that is greatly patronized by feisty and beautiful women from Maratha and Rajput families. His in-depth understanding of restoration, recreation and revival is helping him become the preferred one for saris in chiffon, lace and organza. Each of his pieces is accessorised with coats, capes and shawls, and the entire look, curated from the past, is often a veritable remake of cameos of the past.

Mayankraaj Singh, self-trained in design, is from an aristocratic family residing in Kota, which is also home to his Atelier Shikaarbagh. The brand name is inspired by a very intricate form of weave and embroidery patronised by the royals, which captures scenes from erstwhile hunts with rich gold threads woven through silk or embroidered onto chiffon.

It was in 2012 that this student of costuming and history got into heritage couture. With a Masters in the History of Arts from Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara, Mayankraaj is presently pursuing his PhD in “The Evolution of Rajput Royal Costumes”. He has also personally recorded the “Oral History of Costume Traditions” as a written thesis through extensive travel and research. All these studies have not just honed his sensibilities towards heritage and design but also helped him understand his roots better, equipping him with a beautiful blueprint for the future. 

The essence of each sari by Shikaarbagh is steeped in heritage craft and design narratives which have stood the test of time, especially his collection for spring 2021 which he traces to the famed first visit of Queen Elizabeth to independent India in the winter of 1961. During the reception held at the City Palace, Jaipur, the Queen had complimented a lady for the sari she had been wearing. The sari had been made by Sir Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s couturier, and the lady was Rani Urmila Raje, an eternal muse for both Mayankraaj and his brand, Atelier Shikaarbagh.

Primavera—named for the season of spring and its new beginnings—hopes to serve as a paradigm shift from the current art of sari ideation and design. This summer, Atelier Shikaarbagh will also present a range of evening and wedding gowns, day dresses and over layers, recalling the glamour of the 1950s and 1960s, an era when detailed construction and tasteful embellishment were celebrated for the sheer joy of their gifts to personal styling.

Delicate pink, ivory, navy, black, metallic silver and gold as well as ruby red and emerald green will present a symphony of the English and Indian love for refined colour palettes. The collection will be soft and feminine, with diaphanous organzas and crisp georgette sarees paired with sharp blouses and jackets, flowy gowns with illusion necks, and ‘couture-technique’ skirts in shikaargah brocades, specially woven for this collection.

Primavera also features a first-of-its kind Indian lace. The hand-guided Cornely embroidery blends the ‘primavera’ and shikaargah aesthetic, shown in the depiction of a royal springtime hunt.

The sarees have been styled with timelessly decadent outerwear pieces, like capes, jackets, and boleros, in soft taffetas, gajji silks and velvets. The end-to-end design process, from creating the patterns and motifs to meticulously perfecting the silhouettes, has taken two years to complete.

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