It is Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s first visit to Coimbatore and he loves it here, he tells a bedazzled Pankaja Srinivasan

“It is lovely to meet Coimbatore,” says Sabyasachi. We are surrounded by his resplendent creations at the trunk show at Vivanta by Taj — Surya. Loose jasmine flowers in woven baskets give off a heady fragrance; somehow, an entirely appropriate embellishment for Sabyasachi’s collection. Clouds of net and georgettes shimmer and glint in blushing pinks, looking like they are made entirely out of spun sugar, or some similar fairy stuff. But your knees will buckle if you try lifting one of the lehengas off the hook. It is not for the weak-kneed. “Girls do not mind the weight. They are willing to bear any pain if they get to wear Sabya’s creation,” declares a shopper. Across the hall are the more stately Kanjeevaram saris, in vermillion, flame, emerald and dull gold.

A steady stream of women trickle in. Some look at Sabya from a distance with respect, some tentatively introduce themselves. One young thing studying fashion at PSG even asks him for advice on what she should do after graduation.

Sabya patiently responds to queries and gracefully accepts fulsome praise. “I have had super success selling my clothes in the south and Coimbatore has a lot of my clients,” he says. As if on cue, a lady bears down on him. “More than 10 years ago, I bought two saris from you paying Rs. 7, 000 each,” she tells him. “Hold on to them, Ma’am,” Sabya smiles. Usha Dalmiya intends to. She describes them fondly: “One of them is a rani and black combination, and the other is in turquoise and green.” She owns nearly 30 saris of the designer. Nidhi Gupta says she is a Sabya fan too and a proud owner of a wedding lehenga, two suits and eight saris.

In the next year or so, Sabya intends to travel the country meeting people who wear his clothes. “Though I am a recluse, I cannot create in a vacuum. I need to know who I am designing for,” he says. And that is why doing Band Baaja Bride appeals to him (the next season is being readied now). “I get to meet people from so many backgrounds — rich, not-so-rich, NRIs, foreigners...” He enjoys the variety. “I travel in a Rolls Royce or a third class compartment with equal ease. I stay in 5 Star hotels, and I stay in huts. Inspiration can strike anywhere.” Like it did, when he was struck by the wide-hipped skirts and colourful cotton dupattas worn by women sweeping the roads in Ahmedabad. He created a line of lehengas from this experience.

“If you want to be truly global, first learn to be local,” says Sabya. “Fashion often bastardises society, homogenises people and strips them of their personality.” May be, that is why he is unapologetic about dressing up Vidya Balan the way he did at Cannes. “She would look silly in an off-the-shoulder dress. But look at the buzz she created with the outfit, the nath...the foreign press was impressed. Nicole Kidman and Spielberg admired it. If you want to be subservient, follow the world. If you want to lead, be Indian. If you do not want to hold on to your heritage, somebody else will get it. Look how Indian textiles are being replicated in China.”

“My job is to influence Indians to think Indian,” says Sabya who is irritated when 20-somethings tell him, ‘I don’t know how to wear a sari’. “As if that is something to be proud of. We have to address our roots, be comfortable in what we are and be proud of ourselves. The world loves confidence in a person or a country. Look at the French. How proud they are of their food, their language and their country. They are supremely confident about where they come from. And the world admires them for their culture.”

Sabya is proud that westerners are wearing his clothes too. He recounts how a guy gifted his fiancée old leather boots and asked her to find a bridal dress to match. And guess what she did! She found herself a Sabya classic vintage Anarkali, snipped bits off it to make dresses for her bridesmaids, embellished her boots with some of it and wore the rest. “She made it her own, and I have no problem with it,” he laughs.

Do Bollywood actresses ever argue with him about colour or cut? The response is a firm “No”. “I am paid to dress them; it is to their advantage to listen to me.” Vidya Balan, Rani Mukherjee, Tabu, Rekha and Dimple are some of his favourites. (Rekha, of course, only wears her own designs, not his, he clarifies). But, there is one person he would have truly loved to dress — the late Smita Patil.

Reaching out

Sabya wants his creations to reach more people. He is on the lookout for serious investors. He would like to keep that range between Rs 3,000 and Rs 10,000.

He says, “If you are not going to look at the width and depth of our country, it would be silly”.

Khadi cool

I don’t say this as a political statement. I truly believe Khadi is a sophisticated fabric. It drapes well, breathes well and has an inherent texture. Its history only enhances its value.