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Satya Paul: The spiritual man who created the ‘contemporary’ saree

The renowned designer, who died on 6 January at the age of 79, was known for creating bold patterns that broke away from the traditional aesthetic

Satya Paul opened the first store of his premier design label in Delhi’s South Extension area in 1985. (Facebook/Puneet Nanda)

Satya Paul, who passed away on 6 January, rarely spoke with the media. He preferred to let his work talk—and it always did.

From giving India its first “contemporary” sari to raising awareness about Indian textiles globally, Paul was perhaps the first designer who gave traditional aesthetic a “modern” look. His arc of creating a new design language was embedded in his constant search for spirituality.

In a Facebook post yesterday, while confirming Paul’s death in Coimbatore at the age of 79, his son Puneet Nanda wrote: “Most people are not aware, more than as a designer or entrepreneur, he has been steadfastly a seeker. In the 70’s his inner journey started with going to listen to talks with J. Krishnamurty, later he took sannyas from Osho. After Osho left in 1990, though he wasn’t seeking another Master, he discovered Sadhguru in 2007. He immediately started enjoying the path of yoga and eventually moved here in 2015. He has been a doorway for hundreds of people towards spirituality and all the Masters he was so blessed to have been with. He couldn’t have had a sweeter life or passage... at the feet of the Master. We are sad only a bit, mostly rejoicing him, his life and now his passing with such a blessing.”

It was this search for spirituality that reflected in his path-breaking work, believes Rajesh Pratap Singh, who met Paul in early 1990s while he was a design student and is now the creative director of the label Satya Paul, owned by Reliance Brands Ltd. “Most of our conversations were about spirituality, not so much about design. He was a free-spirited man. He broke the rules, didn’t follow conventions—it was all an expression of spirituality.”

Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, who knew the designer before he became “the Satya Paul of the fashion industry”, also remembers him as an “extremely spiritual person”.

In the mid-1980s, when Sethi was a buying agent, he used to regularly meet Paul, either at the latter's South Extension store or farmhouse in Chhattarpur. “Whenever we used to meet, he used to talk about Sufism, translate Urdu quotes and discuss spirituality,” Sethi recalls. “He was also very invested in his work; he sold it to customer as if he was selling precious gems.”

Perhaps that’s the reason he was among the first few designers who reached leading stores in the UK and France. “Even in Japan he was a big hit; no Indian had reached Japan by then,” says Sethi.

The growth of a homegrown brand

Paul started his entrepreneurial journey young. After running a successful restaurant with his father in Delhi’s Sarojni Nagar, Paul decided to start a clothing shop and export business in the 1960s, hoping it would be less taxing. Soon, he saw enough potential in the industry, so much so that he started learning about textiles and design.

In April 1985, when he opened the first store of Satya Paul as a premier design label, in Delhi’s South Extension area, his sari became an instant hit. It was India’s first “contemporary sari”, figure hugging and digitally printed. Buildings, large flowers, bold stripes, scripts—the Satya Paul sari designs came in patterns, colours and contrasts that broke away from the traditional aesthetic. In time, Paul’s oeuvre expanded from saris to kurtis, ready-to-wear clothing, scarves, bags, and even ties and cufflinks for men, all patterned in his unique style.

“Owning a Satya Paul sari was the thing back then. It was the only designer brand selling sari at the time,” recalls Sethi.

Over the decades, companies he was involved with brought a number of luxury brands from Jimmy Choo and Coach to Emporio Armani and Tumi to India. In 2018, Reliance Brands upped its stake in the company that owned the fashion label Satya Paul, becoming the majority shareholder.

Though the brand Satya Paul’s ownership changed, the designer remained keenly active in the process of how the label evolved.

In her tribute to Paul, designer Masaba Gupta, who was appointed the Satya Paul fashion director in 2012, wrote in an Instagram post: “A true example of an actual BRAND, homegrown. Put in corporate hands at the right time and one with a signature that will stand the test of time. Fashion schools – Please introduce young Indian design aspirants to this brand in schools and various other homegrown brands. We can be inspired by the story of Chanel etc but we must learn what happened on our soil first.”

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