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Fashion
April 05, 2017

In Converstion With Eina Ahluwalia and Kallol Datta

Text by Nisha Jhangiani. Designers' portrait by Siddhartha Hajra. Product images by Prateek Patel. Styling by Nisha Jhangiani. Location courtesy: Sienna Store & Cafe, Kolkata

Though diverse in their sensibilities, what links conceptual jewellery artist Eina Ahluwalia and fashion maverick Kallol Datta is their artisanal ideologies

Ladies first…. You need about two minutes with her to realise that she was never cut out for the corporate structure of software and battery sales that ate up about four years of her career. Wild haired, casually dressed, soft-spoken and nimble, Eina Ahluwalia finally found her calling in jewellery making and she hasn’t looked back since. “I didn’t want to be working 60 hours a week to stay ahead in the rat race. I wanted to travel, spend quality time with family, friends and myself, work at something I loved, and most importantly, wake up late every morning! I had no design education, so I started working with artisans in and around my city (Kolkata), to create contemporary, organic, minimal, geometric silver jewellery. I moved on to do defining courses in Florence, Chiang Mai and Amsterdam.”

Today, her eponymous brand is known as much for its exquisite aesthetic as it is for the intelligent, sensitive woman behind it. “Conceptual jewellery is where the idea is most important, and the pieces are just a way to tell the story. More importantly, it is worn for self-expression rather than ornamentation. My jewellery is my expression, my language, my way to place myself in the world. It is an amalgamation of my explorations of life, combined with the amazing craftsmanship we have here in India.”

Over to the gentleman…. The past doesn’t hold much merit for the boy who has very few recollections of his many moves across the country and the Middle East; what has shaped his personality most has been the many years spent living by himself — hence the supreme comfort in being on his own, with an enviable ability to shun the world out there. Design, from his perspective, is subliminally infused with art; probably a result of a Central Saint Martins degree from London combined with residencies at Khoj International Artists’ Association in Delhi. And it goes beyond the usual boundaries of fashion weeks. An upcoming collaboration with Nikhil Paul of lighting studio Paul Matter, will soon showcase a selection of conceptual lighting for the connoisseur. Says Paul, “It’s been emotional, exciting, challenging, frustrating, confusing and fascinating. Kallol is not the easiest person to collaborate with. But he is the one with whom to collaborate. For Paul Matter, it has been amazing; pushing boundaries and opening up possibilities.”

This unflinching disinclination towards compromise is a common trait between Ahluwalia and Datta. Which is why, one would imagine, that a coming together of both lines of thought would create a series of explosive interactions. Surprisingly, this is hardly so. The two have worked together on multiple projects; she has created accessories for his runway shows and he has contributed silhouettes to hers. What has set the foundation in place has been an uncanny likeness in vision. Datta explains, “It’s happened multiple times. We talk about work and our concepts match. Motifs match. The first couple of times it was scary. Eerie!” Given his predilection for fear and doom in even daily tasks, it’s Ahluwalia’s echoing of this fact that really seals it. “Even though the output or representation may be very different, our personal reflections usually intersect.”

For someone who has initially admired their work from afar and gradually gotten to know them over the years, I have found their friendship and unequivocal support of each other especially touching, given their diametrically opposite personalities. Or is it not really so?

Maybe it’s time to find out….

Down to business. What do you really think of each other?
Eina Ahluwalia (EA): “Apart from being insanely brilliant, he is one of the kindest, most open-hearted, helpful and generous people I have ever met. He has that rare quality of softness, one that makes you feel comfortable to lean on, knowing it’s your safe place. His conviction in his own creative genius is so strong that he has no desire to conform to the herd; he confidently follows his own North Star, even if it’s into unchartered terrain. From him I have learned to give less of a damn about anything!”

Kallol Datta (KD): “She is part of my inner circle. Actually triangle, since I have just two friends in Kolkata. She’s really patient and at the same time particular about things. Every time we meet, I head back home feeling energised and happy. She gives off great vibes.”

Alright, enough with playing happy families already. There’s got to be something about the other one that irritates you no end?
EA: “Nothing about him irritates me, because he always goes out of his way to accept me as I am, even when I disappear for months on end.”

KD: “What bothers me is that our schedules rarely match. Either she is travelling or I am.”

Given what you do, your personal style rarely indicates a love for jewellery or variety in clothing. True?
EA: “I was hoping no one would notice! On a daily basis, I only wear pieces that mean something to me — this has included my EA earrings, a Waheguru necklace, my kada and a ruby ring on my right hand. When I’m going for a big event, I will put in the effort to wear a more prominent necklace and a bangle or a ring.”

KD: “I haven’t gotten this confirmed by a doctor, but I think I am colour blind. It’s only been black for me the past four years — I figured it would make things easier. Almost uniform-like. I have a kurta and cropped Patialas in multiples and whether it’s heading to work, meetings, events, shoots, weddings or funerals, it is the same kurta set.”

But you both are clearly collectors — and I’m not talking about Kallol’s fondness for quality grooming products. I imagine your shopping baskets nod to eclectic tastes…
EA: “One of the most exciting things for me is to go exploring for new things to add to my spaces back home. I love collecting things that somehow reflect me. I read a lot of non-fiction; often books on spirituality and an exploration of the meaning of life. So I started to collect figurines that are in reading pose and now I have more than a hundred; I have run out of places to keep them.”

KD: “I read and I go through phases. Graphic novels by Riad Sattouf, Joe Sacco; photo books, magazines like Elephant. I have multiple film cameras in my bag available at all times. There are so many artists whose work I respond to — Mona Hatoum, Mithu Sen, Prajakta Potnis, Rana Begum, Bani Abidi and Ayesha Sultana. Photographers like Daido Moriyama, Noh Suntag and Newsha Tavalokian. I do have my eyes on certain limited edition, rare books. I enjoy adding to my arsenal of photography equipment and art.”

There’s always a story that drives you both, isn’t it? Give us an insight into the creative process behind a collection or project.
EA: “Pilgrimage, our experiential installation at Lakme Fashion Week 2015, spoke of our shared understanding of the socially accepted notion of beauty, which is so narrow and restrictive that almost no one feels beautiful. We referenced Venus figurines discovered by archaeologists between 35,000 BC to 12,000 BC, and created altars for them, with offerings of all the things we do to change our physical form to look and feel beautiful. We also positioned two rows of benches where women were sitting and judging the guests, followed by an audio hub reminding the latter that they are perfect just as they are. Lastly, there appeared a video with my natural face transforming into a beautiful model-like one, and further into a face that looks like it has had extreme and grotesque plastic surgery.”

KD: “Print stories within my collections are always tools for storytelling, social commentary or just plain rants at times. The biological heart, the foetus print, magnified bones, mating snails, roaches arranged in floral patterns, skin wrinkle prints; they all seem obscure and literal at once. The sensory variables of light, sound, imagery and temperature — these are paramount. I need the viewers to experience what I went through while creating the line. The happiness, paranoia, abandonment — all of it. Music, images, the way models walk on the runway all add up. For Low Res 2017, it was Pipilotti Rist’s I am a victim of this song which formed the soundtrack for four months.”

Is there a bouncing board on whom you test these ideas? A 4 a.m. friend maybe?
EA: “The first person I present a concept to is Atikaa, my sister, who is my biggest and most valued critic. She helps to edit, add and delete with a market view in mind. She also brings in the perspective of a younger audience, and often suggests more exciting variants of the classics I may have made.”

KD: “I am never awake at 4 a.m.”

What about the influence you two have on each other?
EA: “He has managed to get me out of my comfort zone when it comes to wearing his clothes; I’ve always trusted him blindly on whatever he recommends.”

KD: “The fact that Eina manages to get me out of my house is quite something. I’ve discovered restaurants and cafes thanks to her.”

Eina, you’re a travel aficionado — give us some Kolkata tips and tell us what you want to do next so that we can add it to our bucket lists too!
EA:Puchkas opposite Max Muller Bhawan, chai at the dhaba under the Elgin Road gurdwara and evening snacks at Sienna Cafe. For shopping, I would recommend Bai Loom and Kora by Kanishka. Travel gives me utmost joy. A trek to Hemkund Sahib — a gurdwara at 15,200 feet on a glacial lake surrounded by seven mountain peaks — is on my list. It’s supposed to be beautiful. But then, I also want to make time to learn Urdu calligraphy and get better at Krav Maga.”

Kallol, what’s your dream?
KD: “I’ve always wanted to open up a store where I take photographs of people. Polaroid and passport photos. Or work with a perfumery on a fragrance. Or leave everything and relocate to a place where no one knows me.”

For the moment though, he’s content to be left alone with Eina, both sprawled on her couch. Food must be ordered in as she can’t cook more than “Maggie or an omelette”. Diet cokes, wine and beers will be accompanied with chips and pizzas (although Eina will try, and fail, to make this a healthy meal). The air-conditioning is powering away at full blast; and shivering, I figure that this is my cue to leave….

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