Text by Mallika Chandra. Photography by Nishanth Radhakrishnan. Art Direction by Mallika Chandra and Asad Sheikh. Styling by Asad Sheikh and Sarah Rajkotwala. Models: Noreen Parinaaz and Vee at Feat. Artists.
Digitally printed silk skirt, corset blouse in red satin, printed organza dupatta, all from Ekaya Banaras; silver floral earring from Amrapali; shirt, stylist’s own.
Palak Shah is not your typical CEO of a typical Banarasi brand. And the secret to her success lies as much in asking the right questions as it does in the answers. “How would Kim Kardashian wear a sari?” she had once asked her long-time collaborator Nikhil Dudani of Feat. Artists. It was while conceptualising Ekaya Banaras’ campaign for their latest collection of saris and lehengas, Ambush, a modern interpretation of the Banarasi handloom speciality Shikargah, which is identified by its hunting scenes and wildlife-inspired motifs. Nothing about the campaign is conventional. Rather than in a jungle or the outdoors, the scene is set in sleek marble interiors, keeping this influential entrepreneur and her sex appeal in mind. Flash photography highlights ensembles featuring a zebra-striped peekaboo blouse with criss-crossing strappy accents in one instance and hot pink tights that are paired with a body-shaping slit sari in the same colour, in another. Presenting such novel pairings is exactly what exemplifies the kind of work Shah and Dudani intend to create each time they work together.
Whether it is offering Banarasi brocade in Western silhouettes like pantsuits and thigh-high slit skirts, or anticipating a demand for selling luxury woven fabric by the metre under the concept of Thaan, Shah has led the cultural dialogue of how traditional textiles can be featured in contemporary wardrobes, for over a decade now, building on her family’s 120-year-old legacy of working with Banarasi crafts.
Her Instagram page serves as, one could argue, one of the brand’s best endorsements. Shah’s love for saris is evident as she posts selfies wearing different drapes with equal ease at weddings, vacations and in her home. “You have to present the product in a way that allows consumers to view the full breadth of mood, occasion and styling it can cater to,” she tells us. With each scenario, she makes the case for wearing Indian textiles anywhere, in a multitude of ways. She isn’t afraid to make bold statements, be it with her unconventional blouse pairings or personal observations. “Thaan Pink > Valentino Pink?” she asks in one caption.
1. Handwoven blue-grey silk sari, from Ekaya Banaras; silver ear cuff and silver ring, both from Amrapali. 2. Handwoven striped lilac brocade coat, from Ekaya Banaras; silver floral earring, from Amrapali; blue corset, stylist’s own. 3. Handwoven blue-grey silk sari, from Ekaya Banaras; silver ear cuff, from Amrapali. 4. Handwoven striped lilac brocade coat, from Ekaya Banaras; skirt, corset and leggings, stylist’s own.
Shah’s innovative briefs have attracted lasting partnerships with like-minded creatives like Dudani, who are challenged by the opportunity to reimagine Banarasi textiles. For Dudani, creating extensively researched looks and unique drapes with Ekaya’s handwoven brocades over the years is akin to “creating sculptures”. Certainly, these experiments have led to memorable campaigns that have presented the sari in surprising sites — like the cricket pitch, as was the case with Ekaya’s collection of saris designed in collaboration with Masaba Gupta in 2019 — and styles, like the hood drape that he created for Ekaya’s Sakura campaign.
Admittedly, Dudani’s favourite campaign was for the brand’s first ready-to-wear line, Kashi in the Clouds. “For that shoot in 2020, my energy was focused into making it as different and memorable as possible.”
Kashi in the Clouds, Ekaya Banaras’ Spring/Summer Ready-to-Wear 2020 collection, shot by Rid Burman.
On a foggy morning in Varanasi, two short-haired women were seen striking a relaxed pose in front of peeling walls, rusty bridges and painted brick towers. They were wearing impeccably tailored Banarasi brocade trousers, paired with casual black tank tops. In another instance, they wore handwoven snakeskin-inspired jackets that were styled with baggy denims straight out of the ’80s. That night, they adorned their faces with pink and green paint while sitting astride a Royal Enfield. One was wearing a bright pink Banarasi brocade pantsuit while the other sported a two-piece set, consisting of an oversized blue jacket and shorts. From the casting to the hair and make-up, the result was a paradigm shift from how Banarasi textiles are usually shot, especially in Varanasi, where a mystical presentation of the town’s renowned ghats and sacred riverbank often takes centre stage.
As a result of their relentless experimentation, Shah and Dudani have come to be known as a formidable duo over the years. Verve asks them to reflect on the various factors that have fuelled their journey….
Excerpts from the conversation….
What are the qualities you look for in a collaborator, and what do you think you bring to a creative collaboration?
Palak Shah (PS): I have always believed in collaborating, for my brand and as a person. Whenever I have collaborated with Nikhil, he has brought in a fresh perspective that has opened my mind to new ways of seeing things and looking at my brand. It’s a way for me to unlearn, learn and grow. He is also a person who I greatly trust, which is why we’ve been working together for so many years.
1. Red tussar silk fabric (used as lungi), from Thaan; handwoven orange tissue dupatta (used as tie), from Ekaya Banaras; coat, stylist’s own. 2. Handwoven blue and golden silk dupatta (used as balloon skirt), from Ekaya Banaras; gold-plated bracelet (used as waist chain), from Amrapali; cardigan and trousers, stylist’s own.
Nikhil Dudani (ND): We had first discussed working together when she had just started [out]. Then in 2017, Palak mentioned that she was looking to shoot her first campaign for Thaan and she asked me to pitch an idea. The kind of freedom that I was given to make that mood board come to life drove me to keep working with her.
There was growth in terms of my own work as well. Someday, we could create a photo book from the work that we have done together and it would have a distinct language. Palak gave me the space to keep coming back and continue developing the narrative from where we had left off.
Valley Of Flowers, Ekaya Banaras’ Fall/Winter 2022 collection, shot by Adil Hasan.
[Photographed by Asad Sheikh.]
Nikhil, what was the brief like? Were you familiar with their work?
ND: I was aware of what the brand was doing and that they [Palak’s family] had been working with Banarasi textiles for a long time. I was clued in to how Palak saw the brand growing. She had made it clear that she wanted Ekaya’s Banarasi saris to look very different from how these saris are portrayed by other brands. That got me excited to work with them. I thought to myself, “I can think of a million things to do with this brief.” A chance like this doesn’t come by often.
And, Palak, where else did you want the focus to be — apart from showing Banarasi textiles in a new way?
PS: I’m an accidental entrepreneur. I’m not from the fashion field. I had studied business management and had intended to get into accounting and finance. So, for
me, the whole idea was to get someone who is an expert at what they do, and Nikhil, in my view, is more than a stylist. He is a mentor. I can bounce ideas off him. There’s never been a situation where I haven’t gotten any input from him. It’s more of a discussion. Over the years, we’ve understood each other’s pulse and discovered what will work and what won’t. I always wanted to create something that is out of the box and breaks stereotypes, but not so conceptual and arty that only we would understand it.
Nikhil is the perfect blend between a businessman and an artist — what my father and I wanted, respectively.
ND: We always review each campaign once it is out. When I find that a campaign isn’t producing the desired numbers in terms of sales because it is too far out, we have a discussion on how we can tweak it the next time. So, we aren’t using the same formula every time. We’re constantly evolving and taking feedback from the customer.
PS: When I started out I was just 21 and we went with the typical formulas: pretty models in “properly” draped saris. Over the years, I started breaking away. Nikhil has helped with that.
For our first collaboration, Thaan, I had said, “Let’s create a buzz and do something really crazy.” And that made headlines like nothing else did. We shot a beautiful campaign together called Mehfooz, in Lucknow, in 2018. That campaign stood out, but it wasn’t due to oddly draped saris or peculiarly shaped blouses. It wasn’t too fashion-forward but proved to be a turning point, a soft transition into that arena. Nikhil and I have tested the waters as we’ve gone on. And we have talked about creating something different each time.
Pixels, Ekaya Banaras’ Spring/Summer 2023 collection, shot by Farhan Hussain.
[Photographed by Asad Sheikh.]
Are you present at every shoot?
PS: Yes. I was present at the Feat. Artists shoot for the Pixels campaign in Assam in February although I was getting married that month. I have learnt so much from our shoots — be it the Masaba campaign or our Ambush shoot. I have specifically learnt a lot from Nikhil — by observing the way he’s styling, how he is thinking. At most, I tell him if it is working or not.
Nikhil, you have been very experimental when it comes to draping. I remember the Sakura campaign, where it felt very new.
ND: I am a keen observer so I do keep tucking away ideas in the back of my mind until someone is ready to use them. Palak is very open to new concepts. Sometimes, they don’t work out and I spontaneously take a different route. With Ekaya, I often look at what we have done in the past and try to update it. From the beginning, I’ve kind of liked “messing” with saris in some sense. It will still look like a sari but it isn’t how we’re usually expected to wear or pleat it. To be given the leeway to display it in an unusual way is key, and it works most of the time. Very rarely will you see two saris draped similarly in two different Ekaya campaigns. For Sakura, which had a very minimal look, I researched Japanese drapes. We decided that they wouldn’t hug the body too much and this formed the crux of the campaign.
PS: But with Ambush, we wanted a more fitted look.
Ambush, Ekaya Banaras’ Spring/Summer 2022 collection, shot by Tenzing Dakpa.
Let’s discuss that campaign. What I found interesting is that the textiles have motifs of hunting and wildlife but none of that is in the imagery.
PS: I sent Nikhil a picture of Kim Kardashian in her bathroom in these thigh-high boots, looking absolutely stylish, and I told him that I wanted my saris to be positioned like that — I wanted them to look as sexy and sensual as she did. Then came the slit sari, the jacket and the glasses, and the shoot became more about the vision and aesthetic that we wanted to portray than the motifs on the products.
ND: When I’m given jungle motifs, the last thing that I would do is place it against the backdrop of a jungle. Since we were looking at Kim as the starting point, I was keener to visualise a space that she would probably inhabit. Marble, stone and grey walls came to mind — I could see her in a minimal space like that.
We made use of rings to drape the saris and this gave them a more fitted look and showed more skin. The blouses had deeper necklines with a lot of tie-ups, and they exactly matched the saris. This is a woman who would wear a head-to-toe print…. Everything was inspired by Kim Kardashian, even in terms of hair and make-up. We cast girls who are perceived as sexy. The research was also about understanding the new-age influencer, a woman who is being photographed wherever she goes, all the time. She doesn’t feel the need to wear a suit at a press conference or a meeting; she can pull off a sari wrapped in a way that doesn’t feel fussy.
The Masaba x Ekaya Banaras collaboration, shot by Bikramjit Bose, for Ekaya Banaras.
Tell us about the Masaba x Ekaya campaign, which got rave reviews.
ND: Masaba was very involved in the process. She had many creative discussions with photographer Bikramjit Bose. They wanted to incorporate movement and depict the sari as functional. They wanted action. At that point, I remembered Masaba’s direct connection with cricket. I was worried it would be too obvious to pitch this, but I did it because I’d never seen an Indian sari campaign showing women playing cricket. So, we built the whole narrative around that.
Shooting it was really fun. The girls had to learn how to play cricket. We intended to cast girls who knew how to play the game, but we didn’t find many models who knew how to. We did find one who could bowl so those shots were quite convincing. And, of course, we made them wear sneakers so that they were comfortable running around.
1. Handwoven striped lilac brocade coat, from Ekaya Banaras. 2. Handwoven blue and golden silk dupatta (used as balloon skirt), from Ekaya Banaras; gold-plated bracelet (used as waist chain), from Amrapali; cardigan, stylist’s own.
How do the weavers react to the campaign imagery? What kind of feedback do you get from them?
PS: The weavers may not have a very positive reaction to every campaign because the campaigns are so unconventional. Even in terms of creating different products, many are hesitant at first. They say,“Yeh chal payega ya nahi chal payega? Yeh kya bana rahe hain?” [Will this work or not? What are we making?] Once, Nikhil and I were trying to see if we could use the back of a weave. My father was working with the weavers, who were quite unconvinced. But, luckily, my father is open to experimentation. The weavers don’t always understand our vision, but there are certain campaigns that they love.
How would you describe your role?
PS: My role is to motivate the various team members at all points, and give them access. Also, to always reiterate that we have to bring something new to the table. The goal of the brand is to not cater only to one audience segment.
Has there ever been any negative response to the campaigns?
PS: I’ve never faced any backlash as such. But a part of the audience found the videos for The Crossing — Natives of Nowhere campaign (2019) unnerving. But again, I think that it was way ahead of its time.
Nikhil, in what direction would you like to see the brand grow?
ND: It’s important that I introduce Palak to individuals whose work is right for her brand. I have facilitated meetings between Palak and stylists who work at my talent agency, and I like what they have conceptualised for her. It fits into the bigger story that we have created and when we make that photo book, I would be happy to see their work in there.
Ekaya is ahead of its time and will be remembered for that. When you look at Instagram, the imagery is very similar when it comes to brands that are dressing women in saris. When we shot for the Kashi in the Clouds collection in Varanasi, it was photographer Rid Burman’s idea to shoot girls who wore their hair short and looked boyish. That was very new for a Banarasi brand. In a sense, they look like two boys walking on the ghats, and that, to me, was pushing the envelope for a commercial brand selling ready-to-wear to women; their clients were not expecting to see something like that. It looked like the kind of imagery I would want to see if I were going to a brand to shop. It wasn’t just the images that spoke to me but also the individuals in the images; they reflect a certain lifestyle that I associate with and relate to. So, these are the kind of campaigns that I would like to continue to be part of.
1. Handwoven green organza sari, from Ekaya Banaras; knit tube top, stylist’s own 2. Digitally printed silk skirt, corset blouse in red satin, both from Ekaya Banaras; shirt and tights, stylist’s own.
PS: We’re going to do more of these campaigns soon.
ND: The Crossing — Natives of Nowhere campaign was also special.
PS: I love that campaign. It’s one of my favourites.
ND: We did push boundaries a lot with that one. The drapes and the headgear were inspired by tribal women. It was a strong campaign, and actually that’s when the talk of the book started.