It’s a story less heard today and rarely mentioned in history books. But when Niki Mahajan first read about Begum Hazrat Mahal,the courtesan who became the queen of Awadh,the Delhi-based designer was overwhelmed. I was taken in by the courageous spirit of this woman,described as stunningly beautiful. She was brave enough to stand up against the East India Company during the rebellion of 1857 after her husband fled,leaving her,with his many wives and children, says Mahajan. The tale of the fearless Begum (she was 36 when she led the rebellion),admits the designer,convinced her to design a couture collection that would highlight not just Hazrat Mahals character,but be an ode to all the faceless women in history who have not been recognised. There are many popular names that come in historical accounts of the Uprising of 1857. But women like Mahal have been ignored. Not only did she challenge the hegemony of the British but rejected the promises of allowance and status held out to her by them, says Mahajan. Her research also made her aware that Mahal,sold to royal agents as a child to become a courtesan,was not just beautiful but intelligent and warrior-like.
With this story setting the base,Mahajan decided to roll out a couture collection while drawing inspiration from Begums personality as well as the wardrobe of that era.
Seen as her comeback collection after nine years,Mahajan,who has been building her profile overseas for the last decade (she retails out of 150 international stores),will present it formally at a show on September 14 in Delhi. While I have worked with talented craftsmen from Bihar,Rajasthan,Assam and other parts of the country,for this collection I have focused on badla embroidery from Lucknow, explains the designer. A dying art – badla is hand-intensive and laborious – it requires skilled craftsmen,many of whom have long given it up. I located them in Lucknow and got them on board. We managed to rehabilitate 70 families who worked with us on this collection, informs Mahajan.
The collection is divided into five sections which comprises lehenga sets,saris and slim anarkalis. The style and colour palette of the five lines highlight Begum Hazrats own life, points out the designer. The first line in white,ivory and pastel blue signifies the queens grace and progresses to deep red depicting her marriage. The mood is more sombre in the latter half of the collection,as I draw from the period when the Begum rebelled and was consequently exiled. She spent her last years in Nepal after being exiled from India, says she. The exile phase is presented in an all-black,also highlighting badla work. As many as 200 techniques of embroideries have been used to create this collection, says Mahajan.
The choice to showcase this collection much after the couture weeks were over was intentional,admits Mahajan. Its a large collection and I wanted to tell a story that goes beyond a capsule show, she says.