new york times magazine
April 27, 1997


Mapu tugs his gentleman's shawl against the chill of a New Delhi evening. "It's ahimsa silk," he says of a nubby garment colored the flat white of a Fairway egg. Ahimsa is "nonviolent" in Sanskrit. "There are four types of silk processing. Only one permits the pupa to mature, metamorphose and escape." Gandhi wore ahimsa silk, Mapu says. "He got the idea from Buddha, of course." We are at the opening of a sari exhibit that Mapu organized for the Indian Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage in what may be the one place on earth where godheads get fashion credit. A curator and a Rajput prince, Mapu ‑ his given name is Martand Singh ‑ is also a man generally acclaimed here for the refinement of his eye. Mapu's taste runs to the crisp severity of old craft techniques, making him something of a holdout in an India changing, says The Economist, "faster than at any time since Independence."

Traditional style may be the quickest bulwark to erode. When India joined the global market in 1991, subcontinental fashion got a jolt of Western banality Star TV beamed in MTV and "Baywatch," and almost instantly baseball caps replaced turbans on Punjabi Sikhs. What hipsters from India's vast middle class now covet are Chanel miniskirts, Calvin Klein skivvies, Guess jeans. In the country that gave the world paisley, seersucker, calico, chintz, cashmere, crewel, madras ‑ the entire technique of printing on cloth, in fact ‑ the cool fabric of the moment is matte black nylon imported from Milan. When I mention this to Mapu, he strikes a match and holds it to a Marlboro Light.

Pointing to the saris floating on filament from the ceiling, Mapu remarks: "You couldn't find these in any shop in India. Village people no longer have the patience to go back 400 years to these techniques." While New Delhi's nattering class sips gingered tea, Mapu crouches to finger the hem of a garment so sub­tle it would make an Agnes Martin painting seem overwrought. "This is the absolute essence of a sari," he says of the pale stripes and black ziggurats that took two workers a month to weave. "People assume that we will always have these craftspeople, but at the current rate of change, these skills may soon be a thing of the past." India's wealth, both spiritual and visual, he reminds me, has always been in the villages. Gandhi saw that. He swiped the idea from Buddha, I believe.