Sharbari Datta with her trophy on stage at ITC Sonar... and at her Broad Street residence (below)
I STARTED JUST FOR FUN
My label turned 25 this year. In 1991, I did my first exhibition, in a very informal way. I did not have in mind that I would do this as a profession. I had thought I would do it only once, just for fun. People around me were more excited than me… my relatives, particularly my sister-in-law Rita. She encouraged me a lot and the invitation cards were also printed in her name. I would say she had a big role to play in my beginning. The first exhibition was commercially very successful and that gave me encouragement to do the second exhibition. This time we invited the print media and they covered the exhibition very well and that was my first success.
For the second exhibition, I went to Dipankar De (actor) to ask him to inaugurate it. We had done a shoot with the clothes draped on thakur-er kathamo (structure of idols). He liked the pictures and agreed to unveil the exhibition and he really liked my stuff. So all this raised my confidence. Following the exhibitions I started getting a lot of orders, people used to come home to place orders. Gradually the orders started increasing, more people got to know of this address (40/1A Broad Street) and orders started pouring in. And the media coverage continued. I think they found it unique that I was designing for men.
EARLY EXPOSURE TO CULTURE
I had a designing background even before I started my label, because my husband, Alo Datta, had his own label of printed silks. He had ideas but wasn’t very good at drawing, so I used to do most of the sketches for him. Before that he did pottery, I also helped him out with that. So, I was into designing for quite some time before I started my own line of work. From my childhood I was inclined towards the arts… dance, music… I have done a lot of dance shows. Even when I was studying in Presidency College I used to participate in all the dance events. I studied philosophy honours from Presidency, and then did my Masters too, after I got married. I was brought up in a very literary environment, because my father Ajit Datta was a poet and we had literary personalities visiting our house all the time. I have never trained in sketching, or art, but my exposure to culture from a very young age helped me a lot.
PULL OF THE PRODUCT
The product was a hit from the beginning. Then my son Amalin and daughter-in-law Kanaklata started looking after the business and it started growing. But one thing I would like to say is that we have never had to push our sales. People liked the products and came to us. We have been selling from the home studio, which doesn’t even have any signage or advertisements directing people to it. People are drawn by the products only and nothing else. And they are ready to pay the price for it. And the business just kept snowballing.
EVERY TIME I FEEL I HAVE PASSED THE TEST
I have never participated in the fashion weeks… after Lakme started the fashion week, they asked us several times to participate, but we never did. We take all decisions about the brand together, Amalin, Kanaklata and me, and we three have always agreed upon this. We have never really felt comfortable about going to such high-profile fashion events. I always felt I won’t be able to do it, it’s not like I thought I didn’t require that platform.
Even today I am not that confident; even today when a customer appreciates a piece I value it very much… because he is a man and that I being a woman have been able to touch his taste and temperament, that gives me immense satisfaction. Every time I feel I have passed the test. It’s not like I feel whatever I make, people will buy. Every time I feel I have been able to do it… I have been able to please the taste of even a 26-year-old software man… so I have been successful in updating myself to that extent.
VATICAN TO GARIAHAT, STOLE TO DHOTI
My biggest achievement is the appreciation I have got from the people, the industry and the media. I have often been termed a revivalist designer, my work has been called artwear; Prasad Bidapa (fashion promoter) has commented that my work is heirloom material… I feel these are my achievements.
Also, I take pride in the fact that some very prominent men from various walks of life possess my creations. Even the Pope has been gifted my work… a few years back, a Cardinal came to St. Xavier’s College and I was asked to make something for him, so I made a stole with motifs from the Old Testament. Later I got to know that that stole has been displayed inside a glass case in the Vatican, with my signature in Bengali very visible… that made me so happy!
Another incident has always remained with me, I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad about, that Rahul Dev Burman was dressed in my kurta and dhoti on his last journey; Rakhi (Gulzar) told me this later. So, these kind of things are very special to me.
That apart, stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Sachin Tendulkar, M.S. Dhoni and many many more have at various times bought or been gifted my pieces. Some people have even come home to buy, like Kapil (Dev), (Sunil) Gavaskar, (Syed) Kirmani. So a lot of people have worn my stuff. Some things that I think are my achievements are how MF Husain bought my stuff when my label wasn’t even established and no one knew my name; so he bought my work because it appealed to him aesthetically. Also, when other artists like Ganesh Pyne, Manjit Bawa, Bikash Bhattacharjee or Paresh Maity have liked my work, I have been especially happy because I have been able to please these creative people.
I also think one of my biggest achievements has been the fact that I have been successful in changing mindsets when it comes to menswear. I have got Indian men to shed their inhibitions about their clothing. Today coloured dhotis are part of their wardrobe and even the shops in Gariahat are making coloured dhotis… which means I have been instrumental in creating that demand.
Shayan Munshi in a Sharbari Datta ensemble
THE URBAN PATUA
I think the artist tag is very big, I can’t claim that for myself, but I don’t think of myself as a fashion designer either. I have been referred to as an ‘urban patua’ and I think I am like a rural artist. Like they are self-taught and free in their expressions, they don’t follow any grammar, they do what they want to… they paint the leaves blue if they run out of green colour, they place a huge elephant on top of a tree… you find these etchings on the walls and floor of their huts… I find similarities with them there. The difference is that I have exposure to many more cultures, so like I am expressing myself with African motifs or Aztec motifs or Jamini Ray paintings.
I would say The Telegraph has been extremely supportive of my work from the very beginning and that gave my work a major push. Even with The Telegraph She Awards, I am most happy that I got the award in the Creative Art category… this recognition is very valuable to me. Even people close to me, and people who matter to me have called me and congratulated me on that particularly.
Traditional Indian menswear was not part of fashion as such. Sharbari Datta made traditional menswear fashionable, which is worth celebrating — Anjan Dutt
Sharbari Datta’s contribution to men’s fashion has been unparalleled. She is truly deserving of the She Award. It was a privilege to hand over the award to her
— Anupam Roy
As told to Smita Roy Chowdhury
Sharbari’s pictures: Rashbehari Das