KUNAL KAUSHIK, 41, remembers a meeting with his friend’s landlord in Mumbai. “That man asked me, ‘you are from Assam, where is it? Is it in Bihar?’” he says. Kaushik had no answer. “It is sad that for years, the northeast has been cut off from the rest of the country, for various reasons,” says Kaushik, one of the top designers from Assam. “But we have not done much either, to show the world what we have. We have so much diversity within each state.” A graduate in graphic arts from Vadodara, Kaushik was fascinated by the weaves of the east, and the unique silks of Assam—muga, eri and paat.
But, when he first tried to showcase these gems to the outside world, the first stumbling block was his own community. “There were criticisms against me in the newspapers,” he says. He remembers one of them, written in 2002, which, though it painted him as villain, was so beautifully written that he actually had to appreciate it. The article wrote about a weaver, who put her dreams into the cloth she was weaving, the mekhla chador, which would have gone to drape a beautiful Assamese woman. But then came Kaushik the villain, and with a pair of scissors, he cruelly cut the fabric, and with it all the dreams and traditions. Kaushik realised he would first have to tackle this issue. He used the same medium to do so, writing extensively in newspapers—explaining how, by creating new garments, he could actually preserve a tradition. It took time, but slowly, there was a turnaround. Kaushik also did the unthinkable by fashioning men’s kurtas out of Assamese silks, usually worn by women. Today, he is one of Assam’s top designers, so packed with work that he only designs on orders. Anyone who has seen Priyanka Chopra draped in that mesmerising muga mekhela in the Awesome Assam campaign is looking at Kaushik’s work. For this season of the campaign, he has dressed her in the Assamese wedding colours—cream and gold in paat silk. Chopra also gifted some of his creations to Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex.
To gain acceptance. Kaushik also spent a long time researching tribal weaves, because each pattern has a story behind it. “You cannot simply cut up a Naga shawl. The motifs could be the chieftain’s, and you will have earned the ire of the entire tribe,” he explained. In those years of struggle, he gave art lessons to children to keep the wolf away from the door. Kaushik’s client base, apart from expat Assamese, now stretches across the world. He does abayas for Middle East clients in paat silk. Kaushik, who won Best Fashion Designer at Tiffany’s Paris Fashion Week, was also invited to present 14 red carpet dresses at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.