From the Sher Bagh collection (Courtesy: Sher Bagh Lookbook)
THE FABRIC IS SILK, WOOL, CANVAS, organza and cotton. The colours are khaki, brown and black. And yet, two colours spark: the yellow of the amaltas (Indian laburnum) that swishes its way through the forests of Ranthambore, Rajasthan, at the beginning of summer. It is the colour of haldi, of rejuvenation, of healing. And the red of the flame of the forest flower, which runs like a river through Ranthambore again. Yet, eventually, it is all khak (dust, the origin of the word khaki). “We came from dust and will be dust, nothing to nothingness,” says Anjali Singh, artist, creative director of SUJÁN, a hospitality endeavour firmly rooted in the wilderness, and now one-half of the inspired duo behind a new collection of textiles, saris, jackets and pant suits, Sher Bagh.
Inspired by the iconography of the shikargah, a traditional Banarasi weave that celebrated the royal hunt during the Mughal era, and later, during the Raj, Anjali and designer Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango have created an exquisite collection that inverts the logic of the hunt. Man doesn’t prevail over animal in this collection, but the two coexist as they must, especially in a world ravaged by Covid-19. The rewritten shikargah now has an iconography that becomes a visual narrative for the preservation of communities and of the wilderness they inhabit, two things very dear to both Anjali, 40, and Sanjay, 41.
Beginning from a conversation the two friends had over a cup of coffee three years ago, the idea crystallised during Covid with initial reports suggesting the pangolin was the cause of the virus. Covid, says Anjali, is the result of what humans have done to the planet, and nowhere is it symbolised better than in the tragedy of the pangolin which is being massacred in India and Africa because of its scales. The discussion moved to the elephant and the rhino, and eventually, the two decided to use the idea of the shikargah to talk about the coexistence they dream of. Learning from the great masters like the Vartys of Londolozi who maintain wilderness-friendly game reserves in South Africa, the Pantanal of Brazil who have made great efforts to save the jaguar, and Valmik Thapar who has done exemplary work with the tiger, Anjali and husband Jaisal run the SUJÁN luxury camp in Ranthambore that celebrated zero-carbon footprint and local-for-vocal much before they became buzzwords.
As the Sher Bagh Lookbook, based on the collection, says:
“Forty-six years ago, Jaisal’s family made their first foray into Ranthambore, a national park with rich biodiversity, framed by dry deciduous forest spaces, open grass meadows, lakes and valleys; a rare repository that is today the most celebrated tiger reserve in the world.”
As a young child, Jaisal was familiar with the sounds and fragrances of the jungle and soon he was examining animal kills and trails, the many bush craft skills taught to him by the trio of Fateh Singh, his father Tejbir, and uncle, conservationist Valmik Thapar. In 1988, spearheaded by Thapar, Jaisal’s parents and like-minded friends, The Ranthambore Foundation was initiated with the idea of conserving and preserving Ranthambore through active “community conservation”. That was when the family bought a parcel of farmland, put down its roots in the area and made it its second home. The foundation launched a primary healthcare service that reached out to 96 villages around the park; an afforestation project; a village relocation programme; a dairy development scheme; and supported a craft regeneration project with Dastkar.
SUJÁN Sher Bagh in 2000 was followed by SUJÁN The Serai in Jaisalmer and SUJÁN JAWAI in Jawai Bandh. All three properties are designed by Anjali, who is a trained artist from the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London. “Everything has to look and feel and taste and smell a certain way,” she says, whether it is the food on the plate, a stable for her horses, a property, a piece of fabric, everything the couple does. They actively use and endorse photography, art and cultural skills as powerful tools to effectively raise awareness for the several critically endangered species and natural habitats, and share a love for horses, nature and wilderness. Anjali’s first experience of riding and the wild are interconnected—she remembers riding with her father in what was then the Delhi Ridge (and is now where the Hotel Leela Kempinski, Gurugram, is located) and seeing sambar and pigs along the way. School at Aiglon College in Switzerland meant that she spent much of her youth running up and down hills, and even now, her husband and she ride every morning with their ten-year-old twins. “We are both equestrians and the wild, whether in India or Africa, is our stomping ground,” she says.
Fashion for Garg is all about the freedom to express one’s individuality. Ditto for Anjali who says she prefers two good things to ten bad. It shows in Sher Bagh, which is a commitment to organic and real. There is no clamour for the Kelly bag, though there is an appreciation for what is precious
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On the face of it, Garg makes an unlikely collaborator. His experience of Rajasthan, his home state, is more mixed. While he loved the simplicity of his village Mubarikpur, Alwar, where he hadn’t seen a single fruit-bearing tree or even a fresh source of water, he hated the conservatism of Jaipur where he was sent to study chartered accountancy at 19. Admission to the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi, was his escape where he happily formed an alliance with four other students, informally known as the Broken English Club.
Garg began the Raw Mango label in 2008, and it is now a much-coveted design house with patrons as powerful as director Mira Nair and actor Tabu. Drawing from the colours, philosophies and cultures of India with a unique voice, Garg refuses to mix fabrics or weaves, remaining a purist who wants to preserve the traditional, sustainable way of working and weaving. He doesn’t have a single loom in Delhi and works with weavers in Varanasi. “It is the original work from home,” he says, “a culture of working when the time is suitable.” Fashion for Garg is all about the freedom to express one’s individuality. Ditto for Anjali who says she prefers two good things to ten bad. It shows in Sher Bagh, which is a commitment to organic and real. There is no clamour for the Kelly bag, though there is an appreciation for what is precious.
There is a value for a certain aesthetic sensibility which doesn’t allow Garg to mix his Chanderi with his Banarasi, and ensures that everything Anjali uses at the SUJÁN properties, from the lanterns to the flowers, is from the region. The “narrative” in such textiles retell stories from myth and legend as well as from popular historical folklore, with the woven figures on the warp and weft playing out their parts on a larger stage, more often than not, celebrating and fêting the power and victory of man over animal. However, there is one known and identified saree that captures the kill of a notable shikargah. Emblems and motifs also are linked to the large pantheon of gods and goddesses, riding their vahans (vehicles), that are usually animals from the forest, reinforcing India’s veneration of that which was bequeathed by nature. From the story of the golden deer that so tempted Sita to the conservation of forests that Ashoka made mandatory, from Jehangir breeding leopards in captivity to the ban on hunting by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the relationship between humans and animals is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche.
The range of pattern and motif embrace the wide circle of life ranging from war and victory; to tigers hunting down deer; to birds of prey holding pearls and pomegranates in their beaks; to the waning and waxing moon. The vocabulary is infinite, the directory extraordinary, the iconography refined.
The collection is a fine assemblage of two diverse life experiences—Anjali is chairperson of the Anand Group, one of the country’s foremost automotive parts manufacturing company. A mother who multitasks with ease, she is as much at home in her beautiful corporate office in Delhi whose walls have her stunning Japanese ink botanical paintings, as she is making rotis with her daughter in Ranthambore. Garg’s experience, at first infused with the harshness of a village life where his father had a kirana store, and later, suffused with the brilliance of the country’s rich textile heritage, finds its way into the sharp silhouettes of the Sher Bagh collection. Each piece is a collectible, but is also eminently wearable, something to treasure, to preserve and to pass on.