Anand Kabra almost became a doctor. It is not hard to understand why. He grew up in a well-off Marwari family in Hyderabad and his father was a well-known ophthalmologist. He did a year-and-a-half of medical college before he decided he'd had enough. When he told his parents that he had chosen to be a designer, there were tears, recriminations, threats, strained relationships and much family unhappiness. "I just knew it in my heart that this is what I wanted to do," he says, "and stood my ground." So he switched from medicine to studying fashion design at a London college.
Today, the 40-year-old Kabra has a basement studio in a building owned by his family in a quiet lane of Hyderabad. The walls are bare. Muted lighting casts warm shadows around the room lined with colourful creations of his.
A teak centre table displays a beautiful red lehenga. It belonged to Kabra's grandmother who handed it over to him for his bride. "Marriage will happen when it does," he says, "Meanwhile I decided to display the lehenga as it is such a superb work of art." It is embellished with exquisite zari work. "If it's [still] intact," he laughs, "my bride will wear it."
Each of Kabra's designs has a story to tell and it is almost inevitably about a woman's valour. His latest collection, Taramati, embodies the tale of a courtesan whose voice once held time itself in a hypnotic spell. An accomplished singer and dancer, she would perform every night for her beloved Abdullah Qutub Shah, the 7th Sultan of Golconda. History did not record Taramati in art or literature. All that remains of her legend is an open pavillion of lime-and-mortar with 12 doorways and a terraced garden known as Taramati Baradari. That's where she would sit and sing for the ears of the Sultan seated in Golconda Fort miles and miles away.
Like the legend, Kabra's collection pieces together Taramati's story partly from imagination and partly from the pavillion's design. The inlay pattern and borders of the tiles, fragmented mosaics, jaali windows and doorway arches form the collection's base for further embellishment. The colours are lime gold, royal blue, ivory and white, kohl black and alta red, and they go supremely well with the jaali cutwork, beaten metal embroidery, bead work and zardozi. By way of fabric, he has used malkha, cotton, lightweight silk, georgette, chiffon and crepe de chine to evoke Taramati's felicity of song and dance.
A story that is often told about Kabra is that he drew his inspiration from sex workers. "It is utter rubbish," he says, "I have never been to a red light area nor to any of them. What inspiration can they possible give me when they seem to be a reflection of garish Bollywood and Tollywood fashion? When Indian history is the best showcase of fashion, style and elegance, why would I need to go elsewhere?"
It's not all form either. Kabra says he pays close attention to function as well. He relates strongly to the one-size-fits-all wonder that is the sari.
Kabra guards his privacy and is that rare designer who has fixed working hours. He does not take kindly to telephone calls after 6 pm and only a tight group of friends may break this rule. "We are the bad boys or rebels in the fashion world," he says, "We keep hearing so many stories about ourselves that safeguarding our privacy becomes an obsession."
Not that it hinders his creativity. His 2010 collection, She Was So Dark That She Was Blue, was acclaimed for how it drew parallels between Draupadi and the Krishna River. It was inspired by Draupadi's narrative in Chitra Banerji Divakaruni's book Palace of Illusions. The collection traced the depths of darkness in tumult beneath quiet waters. Another collection, Kumari, is a story about a goddess no one idolises; at another level, it is about the coexistence of two sides, only one of which is acknowledged and revered.
The strength of women is a consistent motif in Kabra's work. He attributes it to his family. "My mother and grandmother were the true decision makers," he says, "Nothing moved without their consent and they were housewives with limited exposure to the outside world. They have shaped my perspective [of] women. No woman is a weakling. There is a steely resolve within each. It is this I see when I create my designs."
"I would rather have an unknown woman of substance wear my clothes than [someone] who has the money but lacks the spirit," he says. However, commercial considerations mean that he has little control over who wears what he designs. "Once I create a collection, that's it. I have learnt to be calmer now. In a way, I do not want to know who's wearing my label. I know I will be hugely disappointed, so why bother?"
Only a few celebrities dress up with elegance, he feels, while most labour under delusions of sensuality. "Showing skin is not sexy," he says, "You should know how much to show."
Kabra's ideal is Vidya Balan, who he believes is beautiful and sexy and has substance--the origin of which he traces not to her role in The Dirty Picture, but to an 'inexplicable completeness'.
Kabra's designs are widely plagiarised and this is something he is unhappy about. He says that fashion is in the midst of a great churn, with everyone copying everyone and designers popping out of nowhere. Even housewives who employ tailors now call themselves designers. "People tell me that there are so many Anand Kabra ripoffs in Karol Bagh. There is nothing I can do. Once a design is done, it is in the public domain and is bound to be copied."
It's not a loss of sales that bothers him, he says, but what it does to his feelings. "I find my emotions bastardised when someone rips off a creation." This is because of his artistic intimacy with each of his creations. The Taramati collection, for example, was inspired by a failed relationship, a failure that made him feel that everything he was chasing had fallen apart. He now craves the stability of a lasting relationship.
"There are days when I want to disappear into anonymity," he says, "It is scary, as I don't know what I want and where I am headed. I have always planned everything and been a control freak. But now everything seems different. I have lost control of where I am headed."