A boat sailing on the Brahmaputra river in Assam, or along the lush waters of Dawki in Meghalaya, are time-honoured stock photographs that scream “North-East India”. However, Guwahati-based designer Arpit Agarwal adds new layers of beauty to these familiar scenes, making us—the onlookers—shift our gaze away from the obvious, towards landscapes and vistas we seldom get to witness.
“When I launched my business NEST by Arpit Agarwal in 2012, I wanted to create souvenirs for tourists coming to the North-East, most of whom flock to Kaziranga,” Agarwal says. “But I didn’t want to follow any established trend.” In a pleasing irony, as NEST approaches its 10th year, he has become a trendsetter of sorts, albeit of the reluctant kind. “Repeat customers are always looking for new things. It can become challenging to keep up with their expectations,” Agarwal says. “With NEST getting popular recognition, some other businesses started creating products inspired by us,” he adds euphemistically, “so I had to take my work to the next level.” In the last few years, NEST has branched out to selling jewellery, stoles, masks, tote bags, and sundry lifestyle products, quite different from its initial offering of notebooks and bookmarks.
In his “View from the Top” collection of notebooks, for instance, we see vignettes of life from a bird’s-eye perspective, painted with pellucid colours, lyrical odes to the cultural diversity of the region. One is a top shot of the classical sattriya dance performance from Assam; another depicts a game of sagol kanglei, or polo, in Manipur, where it is believed to have originated in 3100 BCE. While these luminous imageries open our eyes to new ways of seeing, they also serve as reminders that an umbrella term like “North-East” is shockingly inadequate to describe the plurality of traditions and practices that run through the region that used to be referred to as the seven sister states.
But the growth has been slow and intuitive. In 2010, Agarwal, who trained as a lifestyle accessory designer, was working in Ahmedabad when he fell ill. In his mid-20s then, he returned to Dibrugarh, in Assam, where he was born and grew up. “During that period of recovery, I decided to do something for the region,” he says, “start a venture that wouldn’t require too much investment.” Since his father was in the stationery business, Agarwal put his design training to use and created the first line of notebooks. It was a hit with tourists, selling from brick-and-mortar stores in Guwahati and other parts of the state.
Eventually, Agarwal started supplying to states and cities like Goa, Pune and Bengaluru, opening an online store in 2019. This proved to be a wise decision, enabling direct sales, as the pandemic disrupted the tourism industry, leaving its stakeholders bereft of business for months.
Covid-19 may have made life more difficult for small businesses like NEST but it hasn’t been able to stymie Agarwal’s creative energy. He collaborated with traditional weavers, who had fallen on hard times, to help them sell their stoles. This month he plans to launch a new jewellery collection—one of the more recent entrants to his expanding oeuvre.
A trained jewellery designer, Agarwal has worked with leading players like Tanishq. The finesse of his products and their exquisite finish speak for themselves. His signature style is decidedly muted, a marriage of elegance and minimalism, rooted to concepts that pay homage to the region he comes from.
A pair of Nasoni earrings, gold-plated and made with semi-precious stones, is a nod to the traditional bihu dance of Assam, while the Genesis earrings are inspired by tattoos imprinted on the skins of the Konyak tribe of Nagaland. Markers of fertility, birth, victory and other major life events, the tattoos are laden with history, meaning and mythologies, their value only magnified when reimagined as jewellery. Agarwal has also reproduced these intricate motifs on covers of the Konyak Collection of notebooks, printed on brown paper to simulate the colour of the skin, and rendered through screen printing, an expensive process that doesn’t yield high margins.
Indeed, Agarwal’s finicky quality control, coupled with his relatively low price points, keeps his business confined to a niche, a fact he’s not unhappy with (in 2012, his most expensive notebooks were selling for ₹269; the amount has gone up to ₹369 after nearly a decade). “I am proud that we have had (only) 5-10 complaints about our products in the last 10 years,” he says. “My main reason for not selling my products at high prices is because I want them to travel far and wide, and to make more people aware of the social and cultural nuances in the North-East.”
With the 10th anniversary in mind, Agarwal has been collecting stories from customers about their memories of objects from the region that they own, under #withLovefromNorthEast. Some of these are posted on the brand’s webpage. If there are enough stories of nostalgia, he may go on to create a book as a memento of his journey, he says. For now, he wants more and more people to relish his design and be satisfied with the exquisite quality of his products. “I don’t want to keep churning out new designs just for the sake of novelty,” Agarwal says. “I need to be fully convinced first to create a new collection.”