Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Crafts: The call of northeast India


AT first glance, Bangalore’s ANTS store seems like a mere crafts outlet. It offers cane-handled Tangkhul Naga black pottery and Manipuri kauna reed mats, traditional dai knives in a sheath, elegant Bodo weave wraparound skirts, even coral-turquoise jewellery. But beyond its sunny cafĂ©, where conversation flows easy over cake and cappuccino, lies an invisible but potent mission. For this outlet in upmarket Indiranagar, is more about people than products.

Its intent? To create illuminated entry points for mainstream India into the Seven Sisters and One Brother (Sikkim) states of the often-misinterpreted, little-visited northeast.

This was apparent at its recent festivals of Meitei and Tangkhul Naga food, celebrating the universal language of food. Sourcing ingredients like fermented bamboo and delectable shelled snails from Manipur, the former was cooked over two days by Meitei students and IT professionals. Over 2000 of them live in the IT hub. Biting into Paknam, a savoury pancake of steamed herbs, spices, dry fish and gram flour, we mull over how little Bangalore knows of the Meitei.

The million-strong Meitei are the major ethnic group of Manipur, whose seven clans trace their written history back to 33 AD. Such inputs catapult us beyond familiar connects, such as Manipuri dance, director Ratan Thiyam’s famed Chorus Repertory Theatre, and the iron-willed dissident Irom Sharmila.

Tasting Shingju salad of cabbage, raw papaya and fermented fish, my thoughts race to a March 2010 group exploration of Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. The journey left us full of questions:

When the biodiversity-rich Aruchanal mountains are latent with tourist promise, why is there but a single infrequent helicopter flight to Tawang from Guwahati? Why are Assamese highways the only connections between eastern and western Arunachal? Why are Indian soldiers (not police) allowed to beat up handcuffed suspects in a public jeep in daylight in Assam? The answers are hardly as sweet as the kheer of purple-black rice, grown only in Manipur.

Issues apart, our trip left us memories to cherish. Of women weavers at traditional looms under their chang ghar on stilts on Assam’s Majuli island. Of a Khasi church service dedicated to us in friendly Mawlynnong in Meghalaya. Of the grandeur of Tawang monastery against the snow-steepled Himalayas. The journey only whetted our appetite for Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram and Sikkim.      

Such positive stories from the northeast are the foci of the ANTS store, committed to Fairtrade and Craftmark values. Trichao Thomas, a Naga from the Pomai tribe of Manipur, coordinates its programme to ‘northeastize the mainstream.’ How? Through initiatives like food festivals, readings from ‘Neti Neti,’ a novel by Shillong-born Anjum Hasan, even a mini Naga cultural festival. Unfortunately, historian Ramachandra Guha’s talk on the Naga peace process was cancelled due to the July 2008 Bangalore blasts.

ANTS, launched in December 2007, is an offshoot of the Action Northeast Trust ( Like her counterparts on Majuli, this store showcases weaves by Bodo women like Bongaigoan’s Sheena Basumatary, 38.

In 2002, design student Smitha Murthy from Bangalore’s Srishti school asked Sheena and four others to create samples of traditional motifs as part of a ‘Weaving Peace’ project. Sheena agreed because her husband, a driver, did not earn enough to support their three children.

Three years later, Sheena joined Aagor Dagra Afad, registered to empower Bodo woman weavers. Today, as its assistant managing trustee, she guides 200 others. And Smitha, who reinterprets Bodo weaves as sleek cutaway blouses in sync with urban India, is both ANTS designer and an Aagor trustee. Over the past nine years, Aagor has distributed Rs. 65 lakhs to its 102 weavers (soaring to 400 in response to larger orders), by “crafting livelihoods for the poorest, harnessing strengths of the weakest.” Its sales have touched Rs. 2 crore.

Sheena, who studied only upto Std. 2, says, “The money I earn from weaving has given me self-confidence and control over my life. I’d never imagined that I would one day make important decisions for such a big organization.”

Every product at ANTS couches an unvoiced story from the Northeast, often visualized by mainstream India as an unfathomable, troubled region. This pilot store in Bangalore hopes to use “soft power to mould minds.” Even if changing mindsets takes years, NGOs and the Bangalore intelligentsia can now reach out to the local northeastern diaspora of over 65,000. Perhaps New Delhi and Mumbai will respond as empathetically one day.

For those who long to explore the northeast, ANTS is currently engaged in talks with groups like GypsyFeet, engaged with community-based tourism and local home-stays. Perhaps that will keep hope alive within Awon, Athing and Mimi, the Nagas from Manipur who staff ANTS. For they dream of a united India, sensitized towards the  distant, tantalizing northeast.

 (The Hindu Business Line 2003)

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Lifestyle: All that glitters is ... Montblanc

URBAN Indians had grown accustomed to statuesque, stunning Anna Bredemeyer as the face that launched essentially feminine products over nearly 30 years. That’s why it is quite a shock to encounter her in Bangalore in an entirely new avatar. As the Marketing Manager for Montblanc over the past two years. Miss India 1976 and possibly India’s first supermodel is now the Swiss mega-brand’s ambassador in our country.

The century-old Montblanc, in the popular eye, makes the world’s most superior writing tools, bar none. Over time, it has added watches, leather goods and accessories to its range. Anna was in Bangalore recently with a mission to accomplish ~ to highlight Montblanc women’s jewellery in the competitive Indian designer market, as part of a worldwide launch.

Can Montblanc, one of the world’s top high recall brands, make an impression? “We realized that 50 per cent of the walk-ins into our boutiques were women, who come in to buy gifts for the men in their lives, for corporate occasions, for trousseaus. Montblanc has always been perceived as a masculine brand. So is a Jeep or a Mercedes, but women still drive them,” explains Anna, referring to Montblanc’s exclusive boutiques at Mumbai, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Bangalore. “Since we had a ready platform, we decided to diversify, put out something for women.”

What’s on offer? Three collections in 925 sterling silver, rhodium-plated and platinum finished, to allow for price accessibility. Ranging from Rs. 5,700 for a charm to Rs. 28,000.

No one can think of Montblanc without recalling their distinctive white star. This motif takes pride of place in their Star collection. As a necklace with a dangling pendant that can be re-linked to form an elegant waist chain. Or cycle-link style chains that offer a silver star pendant for day wear, flipping to a mother-of-pearl facet for glamorous nights out. Wrist bands in pink, blue-grey and black are adorned by star cutouts in silver, while similar neck pieces dangle the reversible pendants. Tuning in to the teen and college segment, the collection presents tiny silver pendants ~ a heart, a guitar, a bloom. What better way to commemorate an unforgettable date, a dream concert, a declaration under the full moon?

Montblanc extends the concept of its square Profile watches with a matching jewellery line. With cosmopolitan accents, these pieces offer silver with a twist. Such as star-ended links that transform into necklaces or bracelets. Or two interlocking rings that can be twisted around to form new designs. A Montblanc promise of magic accompanies the ring: “Make a wish, turn the ring and your wish will come true.” But there is no company assurance of the time frame signalled!

Boheme is its most innovative collection. Some of its soulful pieces include rings with amethyst, topaz, crystal or citrine that flip over, Rubic cube-like, revealing moods as varied as those of the wearer. Or cubes of silver that form an elegant chain or locket, each allowing for transformations, cued into our ever-changing, globalizing world.

“We have jewellery that’s right for the young young look, but also with serious undertones for sari-wearers,” Anna stresses, a look she demonstrates in Bangalore in a sheer almond green sari. “Outside India, the feedback has been very promising because white metal is always so in over there.”

The next day, recast in a white shirt over tailored jeans and jewellery to match, Anna proclaims huskily, “Our belief at Montblanc is that jewellery should be worn daily, not stashed away in a safe deposit locker. It only comes alive when it’s worn. The idea was for it to be your constant companion, like our pens. That’s why our jewellery is not over the top.”  


What drives this range? Longevity. Catching consumers young, allowing them to grow into the brand. “Over 10 million users around the world use Montblanc products,” she declares with pride.

Can Montblanc take on the Indian market, where established players like Tanishq, Oyzterbay, Damas and Orra have been wooing customers for years? “At our headquarters, they have studied the potential before deciding to venture into this. I do believe that once people come in, touch and feel our jewellery, they will be convinced. Because when you buy jewellery, you’re basically buying it on trust. Quality is what you want,” Anna reiterates. “Montblanc has always given that in the past. We don’t want to compromise our 100-year reputation by launching on impulse.”

What does this brand offer that’s outstanding? “There are other players, different looks, so much variety. But I don’t see why people wouldn’t take this because it’s not over the top from the price point of view, yet it’s giving you good value for money,” she says in defence of the range.

Given the Indian mindset, would Montblanc consider venturing into the gold segment? “Normally, when we look at gold here, it’s 22 karat. Abroad, it’s always 18k. So, it wouldn’t be an investment, probably more of an impulse buy. So, I’m not sure if we’ll go in that direction in a hurry,” says Anna.

Has Montblanc found the Indian south a conservative market? Anna agrees, “It’s a different mindset. We’re treading very gently. In Chennai, over about seven years, we find it’s slow but sure. But the sales from the boutique will need to justify a large representation to an extent.”

She continues, “Hyderabad, on the contrary, has been excellent. The people I interacted with seemed so rich from a cultural point of view. Whether with our limited edition pens or other products, they seemed to understand Montblanc. People there are into traditional jewellery, but they’ve been coming in to buy ours, too.”  

An unusual facet of the stellar brand surfaces during our encounter with Anna. We learn that the Montblanc Arts Patronage Award is now an established cultural fixture in ten countries. And that part of the profits from their Donation Pens, commemorating famous musicians and composers, goes to specially selected arts projects.     

Montblanc has come a long way since it entered India through its New Delhi boutique at the Maurya Hotel 11 years ago. It is targeting Chandigarh and Pune in the immediate future, followed by at least 12 exclusive prototype boutiques over the next three years. That’s besides 25 pan-Indian retailers.

Given the globe-trotting Indian today, perhaps the Montblanc jewellery range will soar to the heights of the 4810-metre snow-capped peak from which it takes its name. It all depends on whether its star signet will find a mindset to match within the urban market. 

(The Hindu Business Line, 2003) 

Lifestyle: The base line on Botox

Ahem... George Clooney, of course.

BOTOX today is one of the most closely-guarded secrets among the beautiful people who throng Page Three. But what is it all about? Is it medically beneficial? Does it lift both the sagging of the spirit and the face?

Dr. Stefania Roberts, an Australian doctor of Italian descent, married to an Indian IT professional, provided some vital answers in an interview in Bangalore. A sclerotherapy specialist, she currently works as a cosmetologist with Dr. Greg Goodman in Toorak, Melbourne.

She was in India recently for six days for training sessions on Botox in Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi, followed by a symposium in Jaipur. The trainees included plastic surgeons, dermatologists, cosmetologists and ophthalmologists.

“We’re looking at artistry with Botox, its application to the muscles to create a different look,” Stefania explains. “We’re trying to bring in uniformity in Botox applications across the globe. I’m here to share the American and Australian perspectives, so that the Indians can adopt Botox to suit their needs here.”

What is Botox? The drug, which first came to India in 2006, is a trade name for botulinum toxin type A, a neurotoxin produced by a bacterium, Clostridium Botulinum. It has been used to treat neurological disorders over the past four to five decades, according to a press note. As a therapeutic or cosmetic injection, it works on the neuro-muscular junction to stop the release of acetylcholine, known to cause excessive contractions. Originally, it was used to treat, say, cerebral palsy. Now, gastroenterologists even use it to ease a tightening at the base of the eosophagus. It is even said to work in 75 per cent of migraine cases. Botox is currently being tested for use in prostrate problems.  

But what of its cosmetic usage? In 1981, Canadian pediatric ophthalmologist and ophthalmic geneticist Jean Carruthers joined her dermatologist husband, Alastair Carruthers, on a fellowship in California. They proved that Botox could be used to ease frown and smile lines, brown spots and skin creases. Besides, it seemed safe in the long run, with temporary effects from three to eight months. The couple now practice in Vancouver.

An Indian angle? “The Indian population ages very well,” explains Stefania. “In the 1970s, we had quite a bit of migration to Australia. With Botox, what we’re addressing is a very non-invasive technique where we’re injecting a purified protein to relax the muscle. It takes only five minutes to do. We treat mainly the glabella or frown lines, or crow’s feet. Or the muscle imbalances in the lower half of the face, like the sagging corners of the mouth, or the neck muscles to give the jawline more definition. It’s all about looking good, feeling good, and going out into the world.”

What of culture-specific applications? She points out that in Korea, there is a huge demand for Botox shots to decrease the squareness of the jaw. In Australia, it is often injected for people who clench or grind their teeth. The Europeans, she stresses, come across as well-dressed, confident, sometimes with subtle cosmetic enhancement, including Botox.

But, of course, its side-effects on the individual are still cloaked in incertitude. Rare, spontaneous reports of death have occurred, sometimes associated with cardiac arrest, allergies, or even pneumonia.

Stefania’s practice mainly covers Botox fillers, operating on vascular lasers, and treatment of varicose veins in a private hospital. She is a Botox trainer in both Australia and New Zealand .

“I’ve been using Botox for the last ten years. The worst complication I’ve had with it would be a bruise. Or an eyelid could potentially drop, which usually lasts one to three weeks, then reverses itself because a little Botox has gone into one of the little muscles that elevates the eyelid,” she says. “In one or two cases, it has led to a crooked smile for two to three weeks, but it reverses itself. This is the safest procedure that I do. With my vein patients, I’m actually scared I could create a deep-end thrombosis while treating them intravenously.”

Stefania earlier worked in general practice. So, she makes out a case for children as young as three who have been treated with Botox for cerebral palsy. She reiterates the importance of updates in the use of the medication.

That brings us to the glamour value of enhancement by Botox, collagen or other methods. Say, in the revamped features of Michael Jackson. “Personally, I think that’s cosmetic surgery gone wrong,” Stefania says. “I think we need to learn from these people who have taken surgery too far. Jackson’s probably had some Botox along the way, but it’s surgery that’s altered his appearance. That’s facial restructuring. He looks nothing like he used to.”

“In my practice, the procedure is non-invasive. The patient looks refreshed. We don’t change their appearance,” she reiterates.

As larger numbers look to natural therapies for alleviation, where does Botox fit into the overview? “I think there’s a place for both,” stresses Stefania. “If people want to choose a more natural path, it’s certainly there. There will be many who will prefer to age naturally.”

Perhaps with Demi Moore, Sharon Stone or George Clooney in mind, she adds, “We have to learn from the Hollywood stars. The effect of gravity and time leads to sagging. At the end of the day, they will continue to age. Is that a good look? Patients often say: I don’t want to look like that.”

As the global urban individual searches intently for the forever young look, what would her focus be? “I’d be concerned that the cosmetic industry is growing by the minute. There are new procedures happening to reverse the signs of ageing ~ laser to Botox, different forms of lifting. It’s like technology. We can’t reverse this trend,” she says.

As more men join women in seeking out botulinum toxin, there is a yearning to lift the face, and thus the spirit. That would be the base line on Botox.

(I wrote this piece for The Hindu Business Line in 2003)