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On the copycat trail in Chandni Chowk

Anshu Khanna

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Akshiena Khanna looks gorgeous in an Anju Modi attire; with hubby Rahul Kumar.

April I989. A complete brood of ladies trudges together to Chandni Chowk to shop for my wedding ensemble. A lehenga, of course. We are the first generation of brides to give the wedding sari a slip and wear a ‘full blown’ lehenga in various shades of red. I am, though, hell bent on changing the trend and trying fuchsia pink. And trust me, that is bold.

Unstitched, embroidered and embellished kallis make their way to the white floor, covered with gaddi, the masnat, in crisp cotton. Majestic paisleys in badlas, flowers in zardoz, kilim-like motifs in gentle aari and the all-new inclusions of rhinestones and pearls that are changing the embroidery palette make way to our section. Tradition abounds and it is all a heritage sacrosanct zone. I like a motif in one khakha, the embroidery of another, the textile of one silk and another’s colour… and presto! There emerges a masterji who sketches the cut, selects the motif, gets the shade approved and notes it all down in a farman-like paper! Rates are haggled over a few chaat papdi platters served on plates made out of leaves, and half an hour later, the ladies leave for their homes, in time to catch a customary cuppa tea with the hubby at six, sharp!

Simpler times they were. Plagiarism was a word no one knew. In fact, no one even deciphered who a couturier was, or what the hell he does!

Cut to 2016. My daughter gets set to marry. I insist that Chandni Chowk it must be. I am told of two shops. No, I won’t name them but everyone knows. The first shop has a legacy. It still has the masterji, the gaddas and the chaat — and the unstitched kallis! But when the lehengas emerge, you know the unspoken word. Here comes a Sabya, then a Tarun and then a Bal in velvet! No, the man is elegant enough not to mention names but he keeps saying in Punjabi, “Who will know the difference?” I would…clearly! I can feel the pucker in the hem, sense the thread in tasteless colour added unnecessarily to the embroidery. And the crystal overdose! In my mind, I can recall many weddings where the girl wore a Sabya. And now I know where it came from.

Shop number two is a jerk to the senses. It has garish glass and a forced ramp in wood flanked with lotus-cut jaalis. Total OTT. Rows of men are standing on stools, live mannequins all wearing lehengas (stools ensure height). I am greeted by a young lad who asks, “Want to see a Rohit Bal?” And, by the way, Rohit’s latest finale is playing on the screen. The room is full of brides: all clad in designer rip-offs: an Anita Dongre here, a Sabya there, a Tarun, a Rohit, a ShantanuNikhil. I insist on seeing an original and am stumped at the sheer simplicity of a gota patti lehenga in Benarasi that is shown to me. Badly stitched but innovatively embroidered. I love the carrot pink shade too. A bit dhoopchaoon. “You are the only one to have liked it. Or even asked for an original,” I am told.

 And this is the root cause of rampant copies today: the obsession with brands — a need to wear only a branded lehenga at your wedding, even if it is a copy. After all, who will find out, between a million flash bulbs, rows of imitation kundans and layers of very bright make-up? After every part of the girl’s head, face, neck and hands is bejewelled.

Subtle graces, the art of understatement, the urge to be an individual and not a sheep in a herd — these are now seeming dreams. Karigars are at the root of this menace. I still recall sitting with a designer friend, who was viewing the works of an embroiderer, in the 1990s. In those days, designers would outsource work. He had blatantly told her: an original khakha will be for Rs 8,000 and a copy would cost Rs 2,000. Even today, it is this kind that takes the backdoor route to smuggle out a design, sometimes even before it hits the runway.

A plagiarist is no different from a weak student with a sharp survival instinct copying a bright neighbour’s paper in the examination hall. The sad part is that the same weak student, who in this case is the karigar, has crafted the original too. He is a master and, if nurtured by ‘Copycat’ Chowk’s landlords, can create a robust, midsegment market of design that can give the couturiers a legal, logical run for their money and creativity.

But before that, will the copycat aunty wear a nonbranded, but spectacular, original piece?

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