Ganesha orchestrates my introduction to Bina Goenka. Sitting under a bower of multicoloured cloth flowers, he is a glistening silvery apparition, looking benignly upon the crowd of worshippers who have gathered to seek his blessings. Bina Goenka is somewhere in that melee, but moves forward to usher me closer for a better view. Too distracted to look at her, I take in the details of the idol while the pundit chants his prayers and sings a bhajan. The jewellery on Ganesha catches my attention. It has been put together rather well, and there is so much of it! This makes it obvious that a jewellery designer has been on the job. The designer materialises soon enough, and after a frantic hunt for our respective footwear, we are in her apartment.
I have been here before, having homed in, following directions closely, to ring the bell and enter the large living room. A servant had ushered me to a seat, and a sleepy dog, curled up in his abundant fur had raised his head and given me a look. I had wondered if he was old, ill, or just tired; but my enquries directed to him had been met with a disdainful lift of the head followed by a black muzzle burrowing back into black fur. Then, on being told by the servant that everyone was at the Ganesha mandal at the back of the apartment complex, I had hastened down.
A very different dog greets us this time. I mean it is the same ball of Apso fur, but the eyes are black and shining, there is a surfeit of energy, and the look I get is triumphant, as he gets lifted in Bina’s arms and carried away to the velvet sofa that she places herself on.
King Louis Kuro has been aptly named, considering the surroundings. Opulence marks the room he inhabits, large chairs with silver arms and backs, indulgent sofas, a Husain on one wall, a restored Ravi Varma on another. Elsewhere there are works by Raza and more Husains. A showpiece silver tea set on a silver tray and a creation by Arzan Khambatta are part of the bric a brac.
My roving eye is noticed. “When I came to this house, it was all ready to live in,” Bina says. “The walls were built and painted, but it was not exactly what I wanted. We had a weekend to move in, just before Diwali, and certain furniture had already been arranged. A lot of it I realised was not working for me. I told them that I wanted the stuff out of the house. I took the car and went to Ravissant and by evening, the furniture was selected, packed and brought in. I merged the old with the new, letting the art that my husband collects, set off the furniture, and by the weekend, the house was ready and looking just the way I wanted it.”
If she comes across as a woman who has her way, it was not always so. Though she studied law, she tucked away all dreams of practising it, when she married and settled into the regimen of home management and mothering her two children. “Being married into a Marwari family that had strict family values was not the ideal situation where I could take up law as a profession. Also after the birth of my kids, I had to devote time to them as well as manage family responsibilities. Considering there were many lawyers in the company already, I decided to concentrate on my kids. But just after my daughter was born, I ventured into garments and then gradually my passion for jewellery took over and I decided to take up jewellery designing as a full-time profession,” she explains.
The taste of freedom is heady. As she ventured into the world of self-expression through design, the path seemed to open up almost miraculously. Even as we spoke, Bina Goenka’s fledgling brand is all set to launch this year’s new collection as soon as the Ganesha festival is over. “This is the 22nd year of our having a Ganesha puja here,” she says. “Now the entire puja has become a symbol of my work. Right from choosing the idol to decorating it, I look into every detail.”
I cannot resist telling her that the silver paint and other chemical nuances I noticed in the idol, despite its breathtaking beauty, disturbed me. She responds quickly. “I run every morning with my dog along the sea, and after the festival, it disturbs me as much to see the idols’ arms and legs floating about. But the creators of my Ganesha are traditional creators of moulds – they find it cheaper and faster. And they have not taken my requests for an eco idol seriously. This year we have ordered a much smaller one, and for next year, I have told the Mandal that if they do not give me an eco Ganesha, I will go elsewhere.” She has further tempted them with an offering of her skills for their benefit. “I have promised to design the decorations for five Ganesha idols which they can offer to their clients.”
Bina’s own ritual for decorating her Ganesha is elaborate. “Dressing a God is like dressing a bride,” she says, adding, “after we decide on the idol, we plan everything, right from getting the dupatta and the dhoti made; the borders, the applique flowers, and the background. All of it is outsourced to the best in each field. When the idol comes, we put all the elements together to dress him. Then I decorate him with my new collection.”
The jewellery on her Ganesha is a mix of semi precious and precious stones. The maang tikka is made of diamonds and rubies and there are other gems, including turquoise which forms the jewellery he wears. “My Ganesha inaugurates my new collections.” Bina says, “The collection is taken off the idol just before immersion, and goes straight into my store.”
The Bina Goenka label is five years old. “I used to design for an international label, but somehow realised our ideologies were different and decided to branch out on my own.” It should have been easy – her husband had a jewellery factory that created pieces for export, but Bina did not see herself fitting into that scenario either. “People think, a rich husband must have made things so easy,” she says, “but I took the hard route, with a loan from the State Bank of India. I needed a factory and used someone else’s space to do my work. Then I was happy to put up my own factory; not realising how the administrative work would drain me, eat into my creative time. But I did not let it get to me, I kept at it,” she says and leans back as if to rest on her laurels.
Part of her success comes from her commitment. “I started with a definite reason for getting into jewellery making,” she says, “and that has shown me the way.”
As the daughter and daughter-in-law of affluent Marwaris, she of course inherited a lot of jewellery. “Elders give you jewellery not thinking about whether it suits your personality or not. A lot of my stuff lies in the lockers and I would often tell myself, I have this much worth of jewellery and feel happy about it. I got into jewellery design by default because I was buying so much of it, pieces that I liked and wanted to wear.”
It would worry her sometimes that there was no standardisation of the metal or the stones she was buying, and there was no way of knowing if a piece she fancied was worth the money asked for it: “That transparency of letting a client know exactly what she was getting just did not exist, so one day I decided to put my doubts to the test and melted some stuff. I realised it was far below the carats mentioned and charged for. And it struck me, that the collection of jewellery, bought and inherited as gifts, could well be just a delusion, not worth what I thought it was worth!”
Design had always interested her – she loved looking at elements of architecture during travels, the shape of a crystal chandelier, a window in a church, the glass domes in Italian Duomos…and she decided to combine that interest with the need she felt to create a business that would sell high-quality jewellery with complete trustworthiness. Paris, Switzerland, Germany, (where she sources her stones mainly from) Spain and London (where she goes to be a ‘nobody’ spending time with her daughter interning there) are places she finds her inspiration from. All of which she felt could fuel her love for creating exclusive pieces of jewellery.
Investing in craftsmen was the first step and Bina has the vision to realise that her enterprise’s future lay in her craftspeople; without them she would never be able to create distinctive pieces. “I do not design a piece,” she says, “I just draw it on the board; the design happens at every stage of the creation, with everyone adding what is required of the metal, the stones. The final piece results, it evolves. I don’t need designers for my creations. I create maybe only 300 pieces a year, but I trust the craftspeople and let them do the painstaking, laborious task they have to, to create each piece.”
Her vision also ensures that the short-lived work life of a craftsperson is not a liability. “They do lose their eyes to a large extent by the time they are 40 or so,” she says, “and I don’t cast them away; to me they are the teachers of the younger line who will take their place.”
It has all come together quite nicely in a short time. “I started with pieces worth a lakh, then five lakhs, then 25 lakhs; now there are pieces that cost a crore or more.”
At the Bina Goenka shop at Grand Hyatt in Mumbai, tastefully designed by Suzanne Roshan, Bina is chatting with a client while I wait for her in her office.
The assistants are busy, pulling open drawers at her desk and taking out pieces for approval. There are chokers and bracelets, and diamond necklaces that range from delicate strings to neck pieces with moving diamonds placed carefully on coiled springs. Delicate lacework chains hold chunky diamond-set cuffs in place, and I watch entranced, enchanted by the workmanship and the variety of designs. Equally exciting is the rich lustre of the stones I see, large emeralds, luminous rubies and tourmalines and a set of pink star rubies from Vietnam, that are beautiful beyond description. Some of the jewellery is really heavy, but Bina advocates such pieces be worn singly – “there is no point in repeating the design on other parts of the body,” according to her, so she does not make earrings to match for a particularly heavy neckpiece.
Bina’s daughter, Avanti, who is visiting, is admittedly not the least interested in her business. Bina is not thinking about it now; for the present she wants to launch sub brands with lower price points, and to expand to London, her ‘second home’. But passions are also hereditary. Even as she watches the pieces going out to be shown to the client, Avanti is admiring them, and making a list of what she wants to carry with her to show to Harrods. And is also checking out what she wants to keep for herself.
“My daughter keeps some of the jewellery that suits her taste,” Bina says, adding that she advocated the choice of jewellery to suit each client’s personality.
Bina’s own favourite is a single strand of rose cuts that has been delicately worked on to make it a jewel worthy of an empress, part of the Collection of Solitaires by Bina Goenka.
Every piece is special, she avers. It would have to be so, to be in sync with the vision she has, of creating jewelllery that will mark the new Millenium: “We have no distinctive styles now, unlike the Elizabethan, Victorian, Mughal or other periods. I am aiming to set a standard and style that can be the benchmark for identifying the jewellery of the present, in future years.”
If she fulfils that aim, Bina Goenka would create jewellery history, of a sort indeed.