Its a fine December afternoon. Seated in a dressing room at Mumbais JW Marriott Hotel,Nayanika Chatterjee is working on her base make-up for a fashion show rehearsal. To say that the leggy 511 model is a popular face in the industry would be an understatement. Chatterjee has been walking the ramp for as many as 25 years,a rare feat in the ageist landscape of Indian fashion. Her colleagues from the late 80s have long since moved on to other avenues: Marielou Phillips heads public relations and marketing for Chanel India,Ana Bredemeyer is a brand development consultant for the retail arm of Kohinoor Square,and Mehr Jessia Rampal runs a film production company with husband Arjun Rampal,to name a few. But Chatterjees love affair with the runway continues,and she remains among the top choices for any big show in the country.
Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee says he is still under the spell of her jawdropping beauty. You dont book Nayana for a show; you book a star, he says. The couturier recalls the first time he set eyes on Chatterjee. It was his rite of passage into the fashion industry; he had gatecrashed Rohit Khoslas show at The Saturday Club in Kolkata in 1992. He was bowled over by the outfits,as by the poise of the model. You cant be immune to the manner in which Nayana carries herself. Seven years after that show,in 1999,I made it a point to have her wear the finale garment at my NIFT (Kolkata) graduation show, he says.
The Bengali beauty was discovered in 1988 by a campus scouting team helmed by Jeannie Naoroji,better known as Indias first fashion choreographer. Chatterjee was in the first year of college St Xaviers College,Mumbai when she was chosen to walk the ramp for the opening of a grand shopping complex at The Oberoi. The same year saw her model for couturier Tarun Tahiliani. Chatterjees big moment came in February 1989 when she was picked by Pierre Cardin to walk in Delhi and Mumbai at the brands first shows in the country. Soon after,she successfully auditoned for another French brand,Yves Saint Laurent. Pierre Cardin had asked her to join them as an in-house model,and YSL offered her the opportunity to move to Paris and train at Les Atelier. I walked for both brands in India but chose to not go abroad because I wasnt sure about shifting base to France and staying on my own at that point of time. A news magazine,however,played up this bit and I had suddenly arrived on the countrys modelling scene, she says.
And just like that,the Naomi Campbell of India was born. But Chatterjee remained open to guidance and suggestions. Nayana always believed in adapting to the changing times and,at the same time,retaining her individuality. Her longevity on the ramp stems from this balance, says Bredemeyer,her former colleague.
In the early 90s,Chatterjee devoted time to her passion for pottery,signing up for a course in industrial ceramics at National Institute of Design (NID),Ahmedabad,and then training with Pondicherry-based American potter Ray Meeker. With pottery taking up my time,I didnt pursue modelling aggressively,but I kept getting offers all the time from leading names such as Rohit Khosla,Rohit Bal,Suneet Varma and Tarun Tahiliani. Since it was good money and I loved modelling,I continued working, she says.
Her dark skin meant that commercial shoots and product advertisements remained out of grasp. I would get calls for auditions,but then theyd see me in person and realise that I have a dusky complexion,and theyd suddenly find me unsuitable for the ad, she says. But on the ramp,her curly hair and beautiful skin tone made her stand out,says make-up expert Ambika Pillai. Besides,she has never had any tantrums; instead she has experimented with drastically different looks by sporting dreadlocks,punk hairstyles and even wearing a fake bald look, says Pillai.
Choreographer Aparna Bahl says Chatterjee doesnt walk,she glides on the ramp. She has aged beautifully and has a poise that is missing in a lot of models today, she says. This makes her the perfect choice for couture and bridal garments that demand a certain maturity.
Like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss,Chatterjee has debunked the myth of a short shelf life. Marriage and motherhood,considered professional harakiri,have not made a dent in her career. Even after she gave birth to daughter Nayantara in 2002,and moved base from Mumbai to Delhi with her husband,TV actor-turned-real estate professional Gurpreet Singh,she continued to get assignments. Tarun Tahiliani,for one,vouches for her ageless beauty. Believe it or not,she has a better figure now than she did when she was young we were always trying to work around those famous hips, he says.
Chatterjee no longer takes up every show that comes her way. She recounts an incident in 2009 when a young designer,who she doesnt wish to name,asked her to wear a see-through dress that left nothing to the imagination. It had been created just to titillate. I refused to wear the dress and since then,I have been working only with people whose work I believe in, she says.
Despite her successes,Chatterjee has
not allowed modelling to take over her life. When shes not sashaying down the ramp in heavy lehngas,she is essentially a jeans-and-T-shirt person. Over the years,she has worn various hats,working with actor Anupam Khers talent management agency,Celeb International,heading the channel FTV in India for two years,and grooming models. A consultant to Miss India pageants and other modelling contests,her list of proteges includes everyone from Bollywoods model imports Lara Dutta,Priyanka Chopra and
Dia Mirza,to Ujjwala Raut,Joey Mathews,Carol Gracias,Laxmi Rana,Bhavna Sharma and Nethra Raghuraman. Says Raghuraman,A lot of what we are today is because of Nayanika. She taught us humility and patience, she says.
Leena Singh,of the designer duo Ashima Leena,and her daughter Rhea Singh,the strategy director for the brand,remember the day they shot their Autumn-Winter campaign with Chatterjee at a charming gali in Chandni Chowk in July last year. When a sweet-shop owner volunteered to be a part of the shoot,Nayana made him feel so much at ease,you can see it in the energy that came through in the shot. She was unfazed by the crowds and the sweltering heat as she comfortably walked barefoot through the dusty lanes. When she stepped out of a doorway,people were completely awestruck by her statuesque beauty, says Rhea.
The standards Chatterjee sets for the aspiring models she grooms at her academy in Delhi are just as lofty. In todays competitive industry,models face a lot of pressure to look good; we had it easier, she says. Looking back at her career,Chatterjee remembers the 90s the best. The shows were elaborate performances. I remember lip-syncing to the song Black Velvet at a show choreographed by Lubna Adams. At an Abu-Sandeep show hosted at the US Embassy,Arjun Rampal and I essayed the part of Ardhanareeshwar, she says. While shows today are a far cry from such theatrics,Chatterjee says that so long as the ramp beckons her,she will continue to hear its call.
Her make-up now done,she rushes to the ballroom for the rehearsal and strides onto the ramp,vanishing into the sea of bright lights. Nayanika is home.