Anju Modi: Design has no language

Anju Modi on her textile journeys across India in the 80s and designing for Chiranjeevi’s ‘Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy’

November 18, 2017 01:40 pm | Updated 01:40 pm IST

 Anju Modi

Anju Modi

In the mid 80s, way before the term ‘start-up’ came into vogue, Anju Modi took that approach when she set out to do something that would be immensely satisfying and help her financially. “I was separated from my wedding home and had to do earn; I didn’t know anything apart from my passion for textiles,” she says, when we meet her at her new standalone store in Banjara Hills. Hyderabad is the only other city, apart from Delhi, where Anju Modi has a signature store.

The veteran designer, whose expertise with weaves and crafts is well known, says she owes her career to this learning period from 1985 to 1989. Her brother’s place in Bangalore was her base. From there, she travelled extensively, particularly weaving and craft pockets of Tamil Nadu, undivided Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. “From Madras, I would take the beach road and head to Kerala in a taxi. It was a joyous road trip,” she smiles.

Textile journeys

Anju Modi considers weavers and craftspeople her gurus. “I lived in their homes, woke up in the morning and learnt to put the kolam ( muggu ) and got familiar with indigenous weaves, from Kanchi silks to Kodali Karuppur saris. The interest in textiles took me to Coimbatore and Salem in Tamil Nadu and interiors in Andhra Pradesh where I observed Pochmpally ikats, Venkatagiri and Mangalagiri weaves, Kalahasti kalamkari, Gadwal and Narayanpet saris,” she remembers. Back then, she thought it was tough work to brave the heat and take a bus to these towns. Now she’s thankful for the grass roots learning that strengthened her understanding of textiles.

Language wasn’t a barrier: “Design has no language. I just had to say kumkum colour or show a mango leaf and they would tell me how to arrive at those dyes. That period helped me imbibe skill sets and work tirelessly; even now I can work through the night.”

Textile, not just fashion, is her forte and she liaises with a huge network of artisans. “I don’t think I haven’t visited any state in the country from Bhuj’s bandhani and Damadhka prints in Gujarat to Assam’s muga silks,” she asserts.

50-metre lehengas

The mooring helped her dig into archives and know which pocket of Bhuj to tap when she worked on costumes of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ram Leela . The film team wanted lehengas with a lot of ghera that wouldn’t look bulky at Deepika Padukone’s waist. Anju Modi sourced a few 100-year-old lehengas, restored and used them. She also visited a cottage in Bhuj to learn from the women how to cut a lehenga to add 50 metres flare without making it appear bulky. “We got gauze-like thin muslin fabric woven and then worked on the design so that the lehengas wouldn’t be heavy.”

Anju Modi launched her label in 1990 and grew to be respected as a forerunner in textiles, but she nurtured a dream — to research extensively, create garments that celebrate forgotten techniques and not worry about saleability factor. All this would require a sizeable budget as well. The opportunity presented itself through Bhansali’s Ram Leela and then Bajirao Mastani . For the latter, she used a flourish of Marathwada weaves including ‘nawari’ saris for Priyanka Chopra and Nizami-influenced wardrobe for Deepika Padukone. Bhansali approached her for Padmavati as well but having spent three years on these projects, she needed a breather.


When she turned her focus to the expansion of her label, the Hyderabad store happened. Looking around the store done up in indigo-ivory white and grey with a hint of gold, she avers, “Indigo is my house colour, so I had to have it.” Unpolished black stone craft, an elegant Rajasthani miniature inspired painting that accentuates a storage area reflect her interest in crafts. As she showcases her festive, couture and prêt lines with pride, she notes, “The reason we chose Hyderabad after Delhi is the clientèle we have from this city. I feel this city appreciates traditional textiles.” While she talks about taking a contemporary approach to bring bagru prints and indigos into shift dresses and easy staples like long kurtas, the festive and couture section has heirloom worthy ensembles. For instance, there’s the ‘Sunehri Kothi’ line inspired by Rajasthan architecture and Kishangarh miniature art. “The miniatures with plenty of detail show the dedication of the artists. To be able to translate it on clothes is the least I can do. We took a storytelling approach to narrate shringar ras through Radha-Krishna romance, using peacocks, small embroideries and buttis . I am also conscious of having to reinterpret techniques like gotta patti to beat the boredom.”

Her next big project is designing costumes for Chiranjeevi-starrer Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy , a biopic on Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy set in 1840s. “It gives me a chance to use Gadwal, khadi and other textiles from Andhra Pradesh. I jumped at the offer; we also had a look test for Chiranjeevi,” she signs off.

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