Yesterday once more

He always dips into his rich past to get inspired. At a subliminal level his heart ensures that his legacy and his family’s rich history never get eroded. Instead it remains alive, tweaking itself in a tiny way to fit the current flow of refinement. Umang Hutheesing, designer and royal textile revivalist from the Hutheesing family, relives his past in this article with Nandishi Shriram.

The early 18th century charted the course of India’s most prestigious families hailing from Ahmedabad, the Hutheesings. Marital alliances with the Nehru and Tagore family, collaborations spanning the globe, with fortunes jingling in the coffers, the powerful family has led the historic lineage in Gujarat. Their stupendous rise in the business world had much to do with Lockwood de Forest and Louis Tiffany, a renowned interior design firm from New York. The family was aligned closely with De Forest with whom they created decorated designs in wood for the Osborne House (Queen Victoria’s home).

In the early 18th century when decorative art for home interiors was vital, De Forest discovered the genius of Maganbhai Hutheesing, scion of the Hutheesing empire, and forged a partnership with him. Maganbhai was a member of the family of merchants who built the famous Jain Temple in Ahmedabad in 1848, one of the key historic constructions of this World Heritage City. (The statue of Lord Mahavira still stands safely in the temple that is still managed by the family trust. The temple fed six lakh impoverished people for two years during the famine that ravaged India in the mid-18th century.) With Lockwood, the Hutheesings started crafting intricate carvings out of wood. Masterpieces that were to decorate some on the most iconic homes in the US. It was with De Forest and Tiffany that they added to the beauty of the west wing of the White House.

The merchants those days also traded in opiates as did the Hutheesings. Shet Hutheesing Kesarisinh, the patriarch of the family delivered the opiates in his own ship, the Mottichund Amichund vessel, all the way to Canton. Businessmen from the West got lucrative by trading Indian Opium with China. The British government based in India smelt the money and wanted all this abundant loot to themselves, and thenceforth a state monopoly was imposed in 1878, curbing the revenue generation for the Indian merchants.

The American partnership lasted for 32 years. Right up till America went into the Civil war (1862-1865) and the art business was suddenly off the shelf. Not deterred, textiles were introduced as an art form. The family then added cotton to its design repertoire. Becoming mega giants in the trade, the family brought in the finest textiles, antique decorative clothing, and rich heritage handlooms and this helped turn Ahmedabad into a hub for heritage art. The family fortune was vast, even before the British Raj. In fact it was the Hutheesing family that invited Le Corbusier to design the famed Mill campus in Ahmedabad.

The heir apparent of the Hutheesing empire and art connoisseur, Umang Hutheesing has kept alive the family legacy. Preserving the historic roots of Gujarat, Umang is a design genius, with his trademark style of Aabas, an antique style of clothing, worn by Indian royalty. A maker of true luxury, he is helping restore the fine craft of Patola, an ikat woven sari, worn only by the royals or aristocracy. The warp and weft of this traditional handloom sari is decided by the colours and patterns.

Says Umang, “Our family owes its origins to Osia, near Jaisalmer. A legendary family who were the Nagar Shet of Ahmedabad, we, the Hutheesings, have led an indulgent life. Over the years our family has helped curate a vast collection of royal costumes. Which still holds as a legacy for the future. Our style of preserving old costumes is unique to our legacy. The artisans have been trained in royal poshak-khaanas, and from our temples. We have skilled artisans working with us, from Bengal, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Kashmir. Working with each masterpiece, whether it’s an embellished angarkhaa, or a wieldy lehenga, the embroideries are handled with delicate mastery, using motifs from the medieval times.”

From conservationist to creator, Umang “started designing royal costumes 10 years back”. With an inherent aesthetic sense, and rich ancestral roots, putting together a luxurious garment for royalty is second skin to Umang. Always sporting pure khadi kurtas, Umang is all about adding flavour to Indian culture. As a revivalist, he is keen on keeping alive the traditional cuts of the nobles. His label, Umang Hutheesing, only designs clothing for royal families with limited edition pieces, keeping the originality of the garment intact, with no repeats.

Taking exhibitions across the world, Umang’s label has seen immense success. Hutheesing Design Company (HDC) hosted an exhibition of antique textile art in Paris in 2010, with the exemplary patrons, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Brunei. The firm was authorised in 1882 to rework the East Wing of The White House, home to many American Presidents. A looming, majestic building, the White House has elements of Indian design. HDC has once more laid their regal imprint on the White House, by designing the textured silk panels at Roosevelt House. “The eternal Tree of Life, with 50 stars of the American flag, displays within itself the metaphysical meaning of life. The design in itself helps unify the Indo-American everlasting bond,” says he.

Taking his design company forward, Umang relates how the Hutheesing Haveli was revamped using his artistic senses. The Hutheesing Haveli has played host to political leaders, aristocrats, monarchs and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Built in the mid-18th century, the haveli is haven of solace to the family.

In recent times, the haveli had started losing the essence. Walls falling apart, damp creeping in, the haveli needed rework. Ten years back, the reconstruction began. Craftsmen from various states in India came together to put back the lost gory of an edifice, home to the Hutheesing clan. The haveli was restored with much passion, bringing alive a museum that exhibited various cycles of Life.

As for the haveli, the reception, Kamal Kund Chowk, was where mehfils were held, with glimpses of Mughal courts. Surya Darbar, resplendent in colours of the Fire God, is awash with an energy palpable and pulsing. The Navgraha room is stunningly ancient, in the wall art depicting the nine cosmic deities and many statuettes of the powers that be. Every room has a story behind it. And history, generous doses of it. For Umang, after all, it is always “yesterday once more”.