Printing is her passion and profession. But Usha Maheshwari is not into newspapers, magazines or books. Her medium is the saree. And she has managed to make a mark in the fashion industry.
Printing queen Maheshwari draws her inspiration from Indian mythology and nature, creating extraordinary prints using indigenous skills. Her work is synonymous with simplicity and subtle designs that connect with the traditional look.
Maheshwari is deeply passionate about her work. It is concealed, perhaps, by her serene exterior, as are the hard times she faced reaching where she is today. The diva of printing was born and brought up in the financial capital of India — Mumbai. Despite being from a typical Marwari family, she always had an intrepid outlook towards life. Since her childhood days, she has walked the walk and talked the talk. I had a penchant for active sports like swimming, driving and skating, she says. Her family looked askance. But that has never stopped me from doing what I liked, she adds.
Maheshwari did her graduation from Mumbais Sophia College and then got married and moved to Calcutta, which remains her base. Initially, she led the life of a dutiful housewife. But things got a bit difficult and Maheshwari, then a mother of two, had to seek legal separation.
It was then that the fighter in her surfaced. With divorce being taboo, not many came forward to help her. Her parents just provided her with a place to stay. She was penniless. This made me realise that I had to work to give my kids a better life. I was good at painting. So I decided to cash in on that. And thus began my venture into printing, she recounts.
This pigment-printing venture had a modest beginning in 1993, when she hired a printing table and designed and printed sarees for her relatives. An overwhelming response led her to open her own workshop, near Lake Town in Calcutta, under the banner of Nikhaar Sarees. She pioneered the concept of discharge printing and introduced it on fabrics like georgette, chiffon, crepe and silk. In 2005, I introduced canvas painting on sarees and foil printing in the subsequent year. This gained immense popularity. However, it was the new concept of digital printing that I introduced on scarves and sarees that went on to become a rage, she says with a smile.
Thats heady success. But, she does not forget the difficult initial days. I had a few new sarees that I sold to my mother, she remembers. The few hundreds that I got in return was invested in buying some sarees and then hiring the printing table to get the printing done. I sold them to my relatives, made some profit and used them for making more profit.
Her first venture Nikhaar specialises in saree printing and manufacture of Indian wear, the basic nature of the business being fabric designing. The organisation has grown from a humble beginning of two standalone printing tables, printing only 10 sarees a day, to a sprawling 12,500sqft printing unit with a production capacity of over 150 garments a day. Her label retails through prestigious design houses of India like Laffaire and Heritage in Delhi, Benzer in Mumbai, Moksha in Chennai and Simaaya and Zenon in Calcutta.
Maheshwari has also taken her creations abroad. She regularly holds exhibitions in London. With quality consciousness as the dictum, Maheshwari designs Indian wear comprising sarees and dress materials, which have a timeless appeal. One of the special features of her sarees is her ability to blend block, screen and hand prints together. The garments thus created are classic and chic, as the focus is always on the textile — its colours, the print, the design and the craft. The USP of the label is modish styling that extends easy wearability and understated elegance to the wearer.
On being asked, what now? she says: I have done my bit and now its time for my kids to chip in and help my business expand. They wont have it as difficult as she did. But thats her learning in life. Says she: To make it big, one needs to have the will to work against the odds.
Based on a conversation with Shabina Akhtar in Calcutta