Friday, 4 May 2012

Indian jewellery: Umesh Ganjam ~ Perfect setting

(This article was written in 2006)

It's an Indian jewellery brand that the global trade respects, as do loyal clients like the royal families of Nepal and Mysore. Bangalore-based Ganjam Nagappa and Son is a name that has struck international gold ever since a young man named Nagappa decided to explore the secrets of jewellery in the Oriya village of Ganjam in 1889. 

Proud of its past, with a vision for the future, Ganjam is represented perfectly by its logo — the two-headed mythological bird, the Gandeberunda. Its recent honours are significant. Such as the 2002 International Gold Virtuosi award, likened to the Oscars by the trade. Or participation at the Milan Fashion Week in 2003. At the 2005 national Tahiti Pearls contest, Ganjam won top honours in both the necklace and bracelet categories.

Ganjam has a presence in Japan and Singapore, boasting of World Lines by Japanese designer Kazuo Ogawa, the Italian house of Torrini and others at its Ganjam by Design boutique at Bangalore's Leela Palace hotel. The brand is set to open at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace and Tower in May.

Its social conscience is highlighted through its collaboration with Birdlife International, dedicated to the preservation of rare birds in their natural habitats, with the Japanese Imperial Highness Princess H. Takamado as its honorary president. It has also tied-in with the Bone Marrow Donor Programme in Singapore.

At the head of it all is the company's soft-spoken, 50-plus joint managing director, Umesh Ganjam. A man who might have opted to be a pilot, a photographer or even a filmmaker, if life had dealt him a different hand.

During his growing years, Umesh was shaped by unusual influences. Such as a passion for sports, a dream of joining the Indian Air Force. And a deep-rooted identification with his maternal grandparents' idyllic rural lifestyle at Kastur, near Maddur, where forests and folk rituals formed the backdrop to his vacations.

Coaxed into the Ganjam fold, known for its evaluation of the Nizam of Hyderabad's fabled jewellery, he recalls a stint at diamond cutting in Bombay (now Mumbai) around 1974 through the lens of Varahamira's `Jyotishsastra': "What fascinated me? The raw diamond, with a thin skin over it, is beautiful. By human intervention, we could be spoiling it... To me, a diamond is not about how much it weighs. It is about character, about personality emerging."

As if under a magnifier, other facets of Umesh emerge by degrees. His only film, Grahana, based on a Kastur story, won the Golden Peacock at home and Berlinale honours in 1976. Alongside Dhiraj Chavda, he was one of four photographers who documented Hampi for the first time for the Karnataka government, before visually interpreting Kalidasa's Meghadootam. As a natural corollary, Ganjam's recent calendars have featured poetic, tantalising photographs by Prabuddha Das Gupta.

Umesh's first visit to Singapore at 23, on a Government of India trip, prompted a dream: "I saw Chinese and Malayan jewellers, who were selling alongside strong brands like Cartier and Tiffany. I fantasised that, one day, Ganjam would be a brand like them."

The creative streak in the young graduate manifested itself in Ganjam's first boutique at the then new Utility Building on M.G. Road. With wall panels in red and yellow Mysore raw silk, moving beyond the navaratna, it displayed western gemstones at a stylish counter. "The idea was that customers could come in and choose stones, and we'd design individual jewellery for them in either gold or silver. Value was not as important as customer satisfaction," asserts Umesh.

But the Gold Control Act intervened. Ganjam diversified into electronics such as digital clocks, even the selling of HMT watches. Umesh's decade away from the jewellery business reinforced other values. Such as a commitment to the environment. To the rural economy, even to handicrafts, partially inspired by renaissance figures like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Sunderlal Bahuguna. Along with like-minded friends, he set up SAVE (Society for Afforestation and Verdant Earth) and the crafts organisation, Mrichchakattika.

Moving to Uttarkashi to work with the Chipko leader, participating in the Appiko and Western Ghats movements, SAVE worked towards reforesting the Sakleshpur area between Hassan and Mangalore. From 1986-89, they mapped the Karnataka shola lands, a document now with the World Bank. They even won a Supreme Court case that forced the government to introduce unleaded petrol.

But Umesh's commitments are perhaps best showcased within the Ganjam environment. As he mingles with talented designers, extolling their remarkable creativity. Or as he talks sensitively to the Ganjam karigars, the first in India to handcraft platinum jewellery. Even as he lauds the original creations of his craftsmen, his contemporary sensibility is equally at home with Ganjam's traditional karigars, still crafting 24-carat gold over fires fuelled by coconut fibre and paddy husk, like their forefathers centuries ago.

Where would he slot himself within Ganjam? "We're much more introspective, critical of what we're doing consciously. We'd like to benchmark against the best in the world, irrespective of whether we'll become the No. 1 jeweller or not," Umesh responds.

Extolling the perfection of the Kalaishnath temple at Ellora, Umesh insists that his karigars should receive Ganjam's awards alongside its designers. He muses, "In Italy, a skilled jeweller enjoys the same respect as a... sculptor! A brilliant diamond-setter comes in after a lunch with grappa. He parks his Lamborghini in the portico. He sits next to the director... How can our jewellery be flawless when we don't treat our craftspeople with respect or dignity?"

Modestly, Umesh concludes: "We're trying to create the right environment for experiments. I'm very lucky to have good people around me who share this collective vision. Because we have some common interest, we come together. Because we sustain that interest, we stay together. Because of our collective tenacity, we achieve together."

That vision could inspire a Ganjam surge. Perhaps to a future niche alongside Cartier, Tiffany, or Van Cleef & Arpels. 

(The Hindu Business Line, 2006)

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