As Farida Khanum’s Dashte Tanhai played at the Wills India Fashion Week in Delhi last October, a model emerged, draped in a burkha-sari, the black clinging to her shape, revealing and hiding her form at the same time. This was Arjun Saluja’s interpretation of the eunuch, Dimple or Zeenat, from Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis, who had said: “Woman and man are words other people use, not me. I’m not sure what I am. Some days I’m neither, or I’m nothing. On other days I feel I’m both ... Well, I’m both ...” Saluja emerged on stage for a fraction of a second, bowed to the audience and then withdrew.
Contradictions fascinate Saluja, who was hailed by Elle magazine in 2006 as one of the hottest designers in India. Like when Zeenat, as Dimple was rechristened in the book, removed her kameez and saw how the ‘shiny black fabric clung to her’. It was revealing. And when she took off her salwar, the burkha was silk against her skin. Of course, Zeenat didn’t stop wearing saris, which ‘covered the legs and exposed the belly, exposed the intimate part that should be seen only by a lover or husband’. So Saluja interpreted Dimple’s story his own way, merging the burkha and the sari.
Outside Saluja’s living room in New Delhi, an airplane model hangs from the ceiling. He got it from Chor Bazaar in Bombay, a memento of his fascination with planes as a child. He used to live across the street from an Air Force base and would spend hours with his uncle in the hangers wondering at the designs. Nowadays, he walks among ruins and around the city, looking at buildings being broken down, and constructed. Some of that gets manifested in the clothes he designs.
Inside his room, there are books— Kundera, Kafka, Murakami. And installations: dhols made into wall lights, and a bar upholstered in one of his prints from a previous collection, ‘Bu- shirt Meets Dhoti’, inspired by a fishing village in Goa.
Unlike many others, Saluja has never believed in “sexifying” women or men. He deals with sensuality, not sexuality, he says. He doesn’t believe in stereotypes, and sets out to tell the stories that he sees around him.
Like that of a woman he would see from his terrace every day as he drank his morning coffee. It was at a construction site, where the old was being dismantled and the new created. The worker, who wore a shirt with a sari, carried bricks, cooked and took care of her children, intrigued him. To Saluja, she represented androgyny. The building was this migrant woman’s home— for then. Saluja imagined her existing in that space, stark in her misfortune and rich in her experiences of people, places and a nomadic life.
He called that 2012 collection ‘No Ground Beneath My Feet’, and typical of his body of work, it focused on structures and drapes. ‘I don’t remember my home. You mean where I was born? That was a long time ago. History. You could say I don’t belong anywhere. You could say I belong everywhere. Circumstances have made me my creature. People, places, languages, they change and I make them all mine... My garment is my struggle between my roots and my environment. You see, I come here as one person but leave as another. Changed by misfortune or transformed with good. I must flow like a machine till one day I can weave my dreams into reality. Until then, I cannot build walls for myself or I will not be able to build yours. I must destroy my home many times to create yours. I must carry no weight other than hope. Until then, my name must be woven in and out of everywhere I have been, and everyone I have become. Until then, I can have no ground beneath my feet,’ he wrote, introducing his collection.
In that transitory space, the nomadic woman appeared mystical to him. And she defined androgyny in the way she merged her roots with her environment. For, as June Singer said, “Androgyny is not trying to manage the relationship between opposites; it is simply flowing between them.” It is adaptive. It was also the contradiction in her life that struck him. She was constantly on the move while she worked on a signifier of stability— homes for families.
But why this fascination with androgyny? More than a decade ago, the young Arjun Saluja roamed the streets of New York City, dissolving into the scene that defined the city for him, the subcultures that revolved around people’s identities. He once saw the singer Prince in his furs sitting at a bar. “Fully opulent,” he says. And then a sighting of David Bowie, the musical superstar who celebrated his androgynous look, at a cafe.
The ‘scene’ was everywhere— Lenox Lounge, a jazz bar in Harlem, and the various lounges where mujra performances took place. He would sit and listen and see. He would watch films that would then find place in his work—Kurosawa gave birth to the idea of the Hakama pant and sari, he says. “Good cinema is not just a good script, sometimes it’s the way it is shot, the production design, the costumes, that capture your attention. Films like Hunger, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Metropolis, A Clockwork Orange, We Need to Talk About Kevin— a passing reference in a conversation, a sighting on the street, anything can work its way into my designs.”
At one point, Saluja had wanted to be a theatre artist. He was as fascinated with performances as he was with shapes, lines and industrial design at his father’s flour mill in Bareilly. Androgyny, whether in the performances he saw, or in Patricia Fields’ salon where he used to work (he designed for the TV series Sex and the City, and Fields was the stylist for its main character Carrie Bradshaw) intrigued him. He wore skirts, bejewelled himself, coloured his hair purple, grew it to his shoulders, and when he looked in the mirror, it shouted back ‘freedom’. And this has been the backbone of his work.
Everything, he says, settles into the subconscious and makes an appearance in his work. His time at NYC was about confusion and assertion and identity. He was young, curious and adventurous. He’d take the train to Harlem, watching people on the subway as the stations went past. He’d go to jazz bars, listening to music that spoke of pain, voices that came from years of suffering and told stories of slavery and racism.
NYC made him. London gave him another push. The alleys where you’d be afraid to go, he went. “It wasn’t about fitting in. There was this curiosity about role play and the dark was interesting. That whole thing in London about ‘don’t touch me but get into me’,” he says. “You would see [the singer] Bjork sitting in a cafe. The independence of these cities shaped me. It allowed you to be alone.”
This was before those planes struck NYC’s twin towers. Later, the cities changed. It made him sad. He was retailing at stores like Anthropologie in NYC, but he returned to India in 2005 and launched his label Rishta.
In these years that shaped him, Saluja discovered his own leanings towards shapes and structures. He saw design—he wouldn’t like to call it art because that term has been “bastardised”— as his form of expression. If a garment doesn’t trigger an emotional response, he believes, it is not there yet.
Before he went to NYC, Saluja studied in Philadelphia, a city of murals, historical buildings and musicians. The City of Brotherly Love made him push his own boundaries. For his show as a part of a Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences’ project, he rummaged through garbage bins one night before the show, and stitched his clothes with residue pieces that others had dumped after they were done with their collections.
“You find beauty in strange places,” he says. Once, he was driving through Delhi, and on a flyover, he saw a homeless man carrying a load on his head. He was dark, and wore silver dreadlocks. There was a calm on his face, something that reminded him of silence after a storm has passed. “I can’t forget his face. It was beautiful,” he says. At traffic lights, he watches children performing, and all of these sightings then settle in his subconscious, a database. Memory surprises him by presenting these scenes when he is alone, and working.
Undervalued things interest him. Identity intrigues him. Gender and class underlie all his work. The streets act as a catalyst. He is there to celebrate the uncelebrated. In his clothes, there is response to the beauty and pain of everyday life. And Saluja doesn’t sketch. He designs hands-on—cuts the fabric and creates garments from his database of experiences. He writes diaries, a chronicle of his state of mind.
In 1997-98—he doesn’t remember the exact year—he says he went to a concert of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in New Jersey and “something happened”. “You know pain, and you know where it is coming from,” he says. That’s when his romance with Urdu started. Currently, he is reading Manto’s Bitter Fruit, a collection of his short stories and profiles, and he says he never knows what will emerge from regular life and inspire him.
Saluja’s last collection called ‘Aik’ was an amalgamation of his personal experiences with faith. He went to these spaces and he was elevated to a state where he could just be. Beyond a mention, he won’t speak of these moments. They are too sacred, he says. “The experience can’t be contained in words. It might just corrupt it,” he says.
“[The collection] was about soul. The zip placement was symbolic of opening up of layers in order to be one with the cosmos. It was about going in with a tainted heart, and coming out purged. That’s when you are reduced to nothingness. The atmospherics of jalis stained with smoke was beautiful and symbolic of my experience. The collection has smoke print as a tribute to that experience,” he says. “When I design clothes, I don’t think clothes. In ‘Aik’, I wanted to show the inner side. It has been a journey. Ten years and I am still exploring.”
At 38, Saluja is one of India’s most inventive designers. He has stuck to fashion as an art form, a way of expression. In India, ever since he moved back in 2005, he has showcased eight collections. “I leave myself open,” he says. “Inspirations come.” And they come from his experiences from all over— from his days as a DJ in NYC and India, of working in restaurants, of surviving.
His fashion has evolved, though. “What I designed long ago might seem ridiculous to me now. I was like, ‘What was I thinking?’ he says. Editing, he says, is a big part of design. “You should know when to stop,” he says. “Never overdo.”
His younger sister is also a designer. She worked with him before launching her own label. Saluja says their parents let the siblings be. In time, they came into their own.
Saluja is a quiet man, and most evenings he stays home, visits his family, and spends time with his two dogs. Like his fashion, his two street dogs are free. But they return to him. He understands and respects their space. “I lead a boring life,” he says. “The thing about Delhi is that it lets you be.”
Lean, with bright eyes framed in spectacles, he now wears his hair short. Neat, cropped. He has a fine mouth and sunken cheeks. It is the eyes that are prominent. Intense, and brooding. Being non-conformist takes a lot more out of a person. To do what everyone else is doing isn’t very difficult. But to continue to tell stories through clothes, and then to tie in his recurrent theme of androgyny requires him to be more than just innovative.
Of course he photographs well, but he says that he gets very conscious. “I am the worst person to be photographed,” he says, when asked to pose. But he is quite at ease. He walks through the debris of a construction site, precariously balancing himself on a heap of bricks, and stands there as long as needed. His sandals break. But he laughs it off saying it was time he returned to Lajpat Nagar and bought himself another pair.
He is dressed in his own design, a pant-skirt and fitted shirt that reminds one of a military uniform. “It is cheaper to wear your own clothes,” he quips, though admitting that “I love shopping at Sarojini Nagar. It is the best.”