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MOMENTS WITH THE LEGENDARY MOHANJEET

— JASMEEN DUGAL

EXCLUSIVE! Born in Lahore, she migrated to Patiala during partition, and followed her heart to New York and Paris. Hers is an empowering story of a girl who travelled to the US in 1952 to pursue Masters in Philosophy and Literature at UCLA, Doctorate at UC Berkeley, went on to become a political correspondent, worked for UNESCO, and then opened her own fashion boutique and art gallery in Paris. That is just the tip of the iceberg. She is the designer of the bold mini-sari back in the Sixties so it comes as no surprise that her roster of clients includes French actresses and Hollywood celebrities like Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda! Her astute vision broadened Fashion's reach, and she injected an industry once staid and white-gloved, with daring, youth and irreverence. Meet Mohanjeet.

 

FROM LAHORE TO PARIS

 

''I was born in pre-partition Lahore and moved to Patiala with my family a night before Independence. I was a curious child, an avid reader and observer, wanting to learn new things all the time! Academically, I stood first in Philosophy at the Baccalaureate examination. I was creative too! I made saris, which I then wore with collared shirts. But society was not open enough to accept a young girl smoking cigarettes from Tiffany holders, riding scooters and meeting men, unescorted. I was stifled and told my father, Punjab Education Director, "I'll go where the sky meets the earth" and he answered, "Go on, run!" A blessing that transformed my life. In 1952, I travelled to the United States to pursue Masters in Philosophy and Literature at UCLA and Doctorate at UC Berkeley. Subsequently, I began writing for The New York Herald Tribune and New York Times, and then I worked with UNESCO.

 

I had by then realized that while people knew all about India within UNESCO, hardly anyone outside the office knew about my nation. In 1962, I returned to India full of ideas and rediscovered my country. But the excessively codified way of life did not suit my independent nature. I met the legendary editor of Indian Express Frank Moraes and expressed a desire to work in an Indian newspaper. His answer, simply, "Don't be crazy! We don't even have toilets for women!" I couldn't fit in, left India again and decided to settle in Paris. Political and cultural subjects remained close to my heart and I continued journalism, repeatedly interviewing Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

 

Who knew Fashion would be my calling? I've never undertaken a formal course in design nor do I work with sketches. I play with prints on cotton and silk, with a carefree, boundless freedom of mind. As a child, too, I dressed differently i.e. different sock on each foot, visible under cuffed salwars; dark sleeveless kurtas; abstract geometric prints; black lace-up shoes; and multi-sized Sikh karas instead of glass bangles… it was the cue to transform my passion into my vocation.

 

Hey, even if I claim to be French, "because the French have never asked me to change," I am at heart deeply Indian and have always wanted to showcase Indian weaves and embroideries — the highest bill. The hand-made, the craftsmanship, the enduring quality, how could such garments deserve less? Propelled by a dizzying forward momentum, I had left India, hating it because of family problems, criticism for non conformity, and not being a marriageable 'Bibi Rani'. But I returned, loving it. Possibly because of a thesis on 'India's Struggle for Freedom' at UCLA, when I had plunged into its history, philosophy, arts and artists, spiritual strength. On arrival, I was subjugated by its textiles, its artisans: handprinted sheer voil saris, Gujrati ghagras, Rajasthani jewellery, Punjabi jutis… and my mind kept working on how I could make our traditional textile craft relevant to the world at large.

 

GIVING WINGS TO MY DREAMS

 

Back then, India was experiencing a money exchange crisis. All talk was about foreign currency shortage. Seeking aid from World Bank and US Treasury, Finance Minister Morarji Desai had imposed tight import quotas and high import duties. For the government, it was tough; for the rich it was unacceptable deprivation; they couldn't get their Kleenex or travel abroad! Among the rich was my elder sister's family. "We'd love to come see you in Paris but there is no foreign exchange" they said until I exploded, "Stop whimpering; come to Paris and make money! Open a shop here! Just bring Kashmir baskets!! Do good to yourself, do good to the nation." I helped them shop, select, buy; running from pillar to post. They accompanied me with decreasing frequency saying, "whatever you choose is fine with us". I always told them, "You have to make it your own, you have to believe in it." Then one day they shrugged it off," No, no, We can't do this. Too much work. We'll just go to Simla for the summer." I was livid!! "To hell with you. You won't, so I will". I had put in time and hard earned money, neglecting my own work. Above all, the bug had caught me.

 

I went to see the austere finance minister and asked him, "You lament about lack of foreign exchange, impose import duties and restrict outgoing currency but why don't you encourage increase in export? India has so much to offer, so much to sell." Delighted by my enthusiasm, he asked, "You think your boutique will influence India's trade?" "Eventually, because others will follow" I promptly retorted. He told me to prepare my project and come back.I took the same plea to The Minister of External Trade and he gave me a letter of introduction for Paul Staib, CEO, Krebs & Co. and I convinced them to invest. At this stage, my life might have seemed unpredictable and eccentric, but to me, it was the most normal thing in the world.

 

Two years later, in May 1964, I exported trunk-loads of Indian textiles into France. And I opened a boutique. It wasn't easy… I opened the boutique with 3,000 francs loaned by a friend, 7,000 borrowed from another. A friend, who recently came into money, joined me. We opened "La Malle de l'Inde". But I was refused the right to use that name. Commerce is cruel! I then chose "Mohanjeet" thinking at least no one could take that away!! My vision was to display and sell Indian craftsmanship in cities like Paris. I singlehandedly curated a selection of items that I thought would fit in with the needs and expectations of the French… well beyond their imagination! And continued to travel several times a year to India in search of the finest fabrics, handwoven by craftsmen from far-flung regions. Each of my collections, each accessory, speaks of a region in India — a cross-fertilisation of tradition and modernity. Take for example, the mini-sari I designed in 1967. It was just a thought! I always wore saris but I had just begun wearing minis… so I designed the hemline of the sari, above the knee. It just happened!! Likewise, I designed gold-rimmed dhotis as wraparounds to make it a globally relevant silhouette.

 

THE BUSINESS OF FASHION

 

I started with white kurtas from Lucknow, Khadi kurtas in different colours, mini saris and gold-rimmed dhotis styled as wraparounds. At once, I got a writeup in French magazine L'Express. My influence had already infiltrated fashionable wardrobes the world over. Every Saturday morning, a queue of smart women was at my door and the press took notice… it caused an explosion in Fashion history! The media loved my work and I was covered by Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan. Once, Princess Caroline of Monaco was photographed on the streets of Paris after shopping at my boutique! Spurred by the response, I didn't restrict myself to France and expanded to Spain, Monaco and the US. I sold to Anne Taylor, Bloomingdales and had a presence on Fifth Avenue, New York. In fact, one of my most memorable moments is how a wrinkled collection, packed hurriedly in a three- penny suitcase, was unfolded in the presence of Diana Vreeland, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue US. Ms. Vreeland featured my fuchsia silk gharara on the opening pages of Vogue!!

 

Life seemed to hum around me. I thought the boutique would run on its own, give me solid income and I could go back to journalism and learning French. You see, Jasmeen, at no point did I decide to diversify from journalism to launch a fashion label. Who knew about fashion labels then? I didn't know what I was getting into. I never do. I just start things, get into things. Take up things on the spur of the moment, then treat it as a challenge. I have never felt there are things I can't do!! But it is business at the end of the day, of which I had no inkling [my Achilles heel]. Business saw many ups and downs as did my personal life and health. Wading in unknown waters, lying awake at nights worrying and wondering what, where, how took its toll. I developed allergies to food and medicines and was sent to France's famous three-week Thermal Cure. It worked and I returned to Paris, charged. We made it to a two page centre-spread in Elle — It was a French wedding in a Rajasthan castle, with the bride dressed in a cutwork Brocade kaftan by Mohanjeet. Actresses Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, and French singer Sylvie Vartan, graced the cover of Elle many many times in my creations, since. The Sixties had begun and I was leading the pack!!

 

I was also the first person to promote Indian artists overseas. In 1993, I opened Grewal Mohanjeet art gallery and exhibited The Masters S.H. Raza and Satyajit Ray. There is, last but not the least, the musical concerts organised at home, with the legendary Ravi Shankar, Allah Rakha, Ustaad Amjad Ali Khan and Zubin Mehta.

 

RETROSPECTIVE — THE SUCCESS STORY

 

My first step on the ladder of success was survival. I could not fail. I had to save my apartment, bought just two and a half years after returning to France, which subsequently made all things possible. I had to lay anchor, push roots in this city, this country, whose soil became mine at first contact. The non-believer in me heard God say 'I know you won't be acceptable everywhere. For you, I have made a country on order. You will love it and the country will embrace You.' God was right. My journalist associate worried, 'what if you fail?' 'Failure never crosses my mind. It won't cross my path' I said. My childhood had instilled in me resourcefulness and razor-sharp survival instincts, which were the keys to success.

 

Second, my inspiration was, and will always be, India; its perception, its standing in the world. I was one hundred per cent sure that my goods stood up in quality to the best in the West — and should fetch similar prices. That has been my lifelong battle… and it continues. I am expensive. I don't indulge in degrading clearance sales! Because I have a grounding in tradition, in the ancient techniques of hand-making luxurious clothes. And my work was rewarded when a French magazine wrote — 'Mohanjeet was in fashion what Jean Debouffet was in art, an unbridled, free and freeing spirit.'''

 

Chalk up that phenomenal success to her pioneering vision, her creativity, her perseverance, her independent streak. Like many of the greats, Mohanjeet continues to be an inspiration to a whole new generation. That means the stylish, unaffected effortlessness of the mini sari, shirt- inspired blouses, dhoti-inspired wraparounds — moving from ancient textile traditions, up the rabbit hole, to global relevance. After all, she was the very first to place Indian Fashion on the global landscape by crafting new modern silhouette with traditional textiles. What will she do next? We'll be watching.
 

MOHANJEET GREWAL
The bold mini- sari Mohanjeet designed back in the Sixties!
 
MOHANJEET GREWAL
Store Window of
 
MOHANJEET GREWAL
ith French writer scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and filmmaker William Klein
 
MOHANJEET GREWAL
Mohanjeet's creations worn by Sonia Petrova on the cover of Elle
 
20-NOVEMBER-2019
 
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