Opinion | Bibhu Mohapatra is ‘Making in Odisha’
Apart from working more closely with craft clusters in Odisha, 2019 will also see him make forays into e-commerce and potentially retail in India
Halfway through our conversation in the coffee shop of a Mumbai hotel lobby, designer Bibhu Mohapatra’s eyes light up. He adjusts himself on his seat, and turns towards me. “When my mother made pakhala (fermented rice), she’d also roast a tomato or eggplant and make a mash with garlic and mustard oil. There’d be these little bowls of fried things to go with it..." he says, his eyes smiling. After some time, the conversation turns to the Odiya delicacy of sukhua (dried, spiced Hilsa). “The bones get so soft with the salt that you can chew them." The headliner of his food stories comes last. In the upstate New York country home that he shares with his husband, the artist Robert Beard, he has attempted to make the most traditional of Odiya sweet dishes, chenna poda (literally, burnt cheese), with ricotta. “It wasn’t the real thing," he rues.
Although Mohapatra, 46, has spent exactly half his life in the US, where he moved to study economics before switching to fashion, India is never too far from his mind—or tongue. So when he was invited by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik to participate in the Make in Odisha Conclave (11-15 November), the biennial business event of the government of Odisha, he was here in a heartbeat.
Mohapatra’s eponymous label has a presence in North America, Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He has dressed everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Oprah Winfrey. Michelle Obama, who could have had her pick of any designer, chose to wear a knee-length floral dress and jacket by him when she deplaned in Delhi during her state visit in 2015. It was his “wildest dream come true".
The designer’s solid colours, clean lines and luscious fabrics do not scream India. While he has used handwoven silks from his home state in the past, he is now interested in engaging more deeply with Odiya crafts such as pipli applique work and silver tribal jewellery. “Seven years ago, I’d been roped into a project by the textile historian Rta Kapur Chishti. It involved working with weavers from three districts in Odisha... it made me shift perspective," he says. “But I wanted to do things in an organized manner." Mohapatra has now found the right opportunity in his ten year anniversary collection, which he will unveil in February in New York. “A lot of it will be produced in India," he says. His showcase in Bhubaneswar earlier this week was a move in this direction; he showed his Fall 2018 line alongside locally-produced textiles such as ikat and double ikat draped in contemporary styles. “The idea was to show to potential investors that this juxtaposition is a viable one," he says. He also announced his plans to start production in India and perhaps in Odisha by 2020.
The move comes at a time when international design houses are increasingly honouring their sources. Mohapatra points to the French embroidery house Lesage which now openly attributes credit to its Chennai studio. Dior’s artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri was in India just last month as the chief guest for the anniversary celebrations of the Indian couture house Jade, a nod to their professional affiliations. “It’s about giving due credit. I’d be proud of the day my clothes can carry a Made in Odisha tag." Beyond sentiment, this makes business sense to him. “Today’s consumer wants stories. There is a lot of product out there so you can rise above the noise levels by telling an authentic story... The Made in Odisha tag is unexplored," he says.
The theme for the conclave was #IAmOdisha. I ask Mohapatra if he believes Odiyas need a renewed dose of pride, and tease him about Odisha losing the Rosogolla GI tag war with West Bengal (which he claims he doesn’t know about.) “This issue is not about Odiyas or Bengalis... it’s anywhere. If you don’t claim your craft someone else will." How does he think state identities play into the national identity? “Make in Odisha doesn’t detract from Make in India. In fact, the smaller campaigns can help amplify the message," he says.
Apart from working more closely with craft clusters in Odisha, 2019 will also see him make forays into e-commerce and potentially retail in India. He has plans to build a winter home in his ancestral village of Kalipur in the coastal Bhadrak district, where the view is just “rice fields as far as your eyes can go."
The boy from Rourkela who went to an Odiya medium school might now be a favourite for Hollywood red carpet royalty, but a Diwali party at Shah Rukh Khan’s still gives him the butterflies. “I get star struck with Bollywood people. If you put Rekha in front of me, I will melt," he says.
Anindita Ghose tweets @aninditaghose