Sabyasachi at the opening of the Taj’s Khazana store in London. Pictures by Amit Roy
Sabyasachi Mukherjee says hotel staff have been laughing at him “because if you go right now to my room my dresser is lined with acidity pills”.
“The reason for having so many pills is that every day I forget to have lunch — I am having lunch at seven in the evening,” he explains apologetically.
The celebrated fashion designer, who is a youthful 38, does not appear particularly bothered that his meal times have become irregular.
“Who cares if I have such a new lease of life!” he tells t2 in an extended interview at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Buckingham Gate in London.
Previously known as the St James Court Hotel, this is a prime Taj property which has given Sabyasachi a commission which he is enjoying so much that it could well herald a change in direction — from fashion to interior designer.
Considering next year is the 100th anniversary of Indian cinema, the hotel’s general manager, Prabhat Verma, conceived of giving one of its suites some sort of a filmi theme. The Cinema Suite on the top floor — the fifth — was well-advanced when he bumped into Sabyasachi who had come to London for an event at Sotheby’s.
“It happened over a cup of coffee,” recalls Sabyasachi. “Prabhat said he wanted me to ‘help him’. He said, ‘We have done something called the Jaguar Suite and so I would like you to help me with the Cinema Suite.’ I said, ‘No Mr Verma, I don’t work like that. Give me the project turn-key and I will do everything, I will make it a complete experience for the guest.’ Having consulted his ultimate boss, Ratan Tata, ‘Prabhat said, ‘Done. You have the complete freedom to do it.’”
Having gained control of the creative process, Sabyasachi scrapped everything that had been done previously and began afresh with his own vision of a Cinema Suite.
“It is a fairly large suite — there are two bedrooms, one dining room-cum-bar, one living room, a study, a hallway, two bathrooms, one powder room and a kitchen,” Sabyasachi points out. “A family could stay there.”
The Taj group has allocated what appears to be a generous though not limitless budget as Sabyasachi has spent three weeks sourcing all the furniture and fittings he needs. After the structural work is completed, he will be back in London in late August in time for the expected formal opening of the suite on September 15.
The rate per night will probably not be very different from the £5,100 the hotel charges for its Jaguar Suite, another of Prabhat Verma’s ideas that also had to be cleared by Ratan Tata.
Sabyasachi has designed the Cinema Suite as “an ode to old money — it is for a discerning traveller”.
He outlines the four principles he kept in mind: “Tradition which is not something that new money looks up to; culture; there is going to be a whole lot of art in the suite; and education because of the books and cinema that we are putting into it.”
Sabyasachi’s approach has been to amalgamate the ethos of his favourite directors. “It’s a potpourri of (Satyajit) Ray, (Alfred) Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Wong Kar-wai, the Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi, then Guru Dutt, Pedro Almodóvar, (Federico) Fellini... there’s an ode to Sanjay Leela Bhansali [for whose Black and Guzaarish Sabyasachi did the costumes and will soon start work on Ram Leela].
He runs through the items acquired during intensive shopping in antique shops and department stores such as Liberty in Regent Street. He has bought “a lot of chintz, a lot of traditional English wallpaper. I went to iconic wallpaper shops like Zoffany. Most of the wallpaper I am using is hand-printed.”
He has got “rose-printed wallpaper ... I think it is so bohemian. I have great respect for British designers, whether it is William Morris or a contemporary designer like Nina Campbell.”
“All the furniture is either reclaimed, restored or real antique,” he clarifies. “The colonial furniture is outstanding. In fact, I have plans of putting a Planter’s chair in the gentleman’s study.”
He was especially keen to get a Chesterfield sofa. “The whole idea of the suite revolved around a Chesterfield.”
“Through this suite I want to bring people’s attention to the art and craft movement,” he declares. “Almost everything in the suite is handmade.”
And there has been commendable attention to detail. “I have sourced Georgian showers and bath fittings — I don’t have a problem with modernity but there has come a time in our lives where we need to look backward to look forward.”
Sabyasachi has also paid attention to cutlery, “how dinner is going to be served in the suite, how the lighting is going to impact the rooms visually”.
He has gone for table lamp shades with traditional gold lining because they throw out a warm glow. “This lampshade reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem — Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
He mentions the windows. “We are planning to tint them in sepia so you see a sepia-tinted London from inside.”
The predominant colour inside the suite is “red — cranberry red”.
“The whole suite has a certain sense of surrealism and that is the main theme,” he continues. “Chinese lacquer will coexist with British chintz will coexist with colonial furniture will coexist with animal skin. Everything will come together.”
Calcutta has not been forgotten. “I am getting a lot of students from the Government Art College to give me paintings of yesteryear actors and actresses which I am framing. I am getting a lot of leather-bound books from Calcutta — I am getting books from all over the world, (including) Bengali books from College Street. Apart from that we are getting a lot of block-printed textiles from Calcutta.”
He psyches himself up by listening to music appropriate to whatever he happens to be designing. “The music I am listening to right now is a beautiful song by Leonard Cohen, Take this Waltz. Then Rabindrasangeet — Akashbhora surjo tara and Aaj jyotsna raate sabai gechhe boney. And Édith Piaf.”
Sabyasachi certainly has no regrets about his prolonged stay in the UK for this has allowed him to discover a new London — and, more significantly, hidden aspects of his own character.
“I have discovered London in a way I never saw in the last 20 times I have come,” he enthuses. “I love London.”
He feels he has also found himself. “The problem is that when you become successful you become a brand. When you become very successful the last person you have a relationship with is yourself because you are out to please everybody else. I feel like someone who is parenting a lot of children — my factory has expanded, there are people there as employees. I rarely get the time to do something I really want to do for myself. So for me after many, many years this is a relationship with myself.”
“My sensitivity to space is very instinctive — I have always wanted to do space,” Sabyasachi confides. “I am now looking forward to having a store in London. I know I am a good designer and I am not going to be immodest or modest about it, I am just going to be honest, but I am going to be a far better interior designer. I hope this project will open up new doors — may be I will get more offers to do interiors. May be someone in London will say...”
Which public space in Calcutta would you like Sabya to redesign? Tell email@example.com