Fighting patriarchy, one beautiful bauble at a time: Eina Ahluwalia turns the idea of jewellery as feminine on its head
Ahluwalia's seemingly simple trinkets hold much pain, shed fear, take struggles on head-first, and celebrate womanhood that would make the fiercest feminists proud.
‘Top Notch’ is a fortnightly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to fashion’s elite and erudite club.
Pardon the cliché, but most women love jewellery. But here is a piece of jewellery that speaks to you, reads your mind, and tells the world your story. In the world of cinema, we would call that a blockbuster. In the space of jewellery design, it’s best known as Eina Ahluwalia.
Eina Ahluwalia, who founded her namesake label almost 20 years back, has made her oeuvre famous by telling women’s stories. Her seemingly simple trinkets hold much pain, shed fear, take struggles on head-first, and celebrate womanhood that would make the fiercest feminists proud. Ahluwalia wants to turn the idea of jewellery as feminine to jewellery as feminist. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would write years later, and Christian Dior designer Maria Grazia Chiuri would announce a decade later on a simple white t-shirt: ‘We Should All Be Feminists’.
Ahluwalia’s beautiful baubles read words like ‘fierce’, ‘fearless’, ‘azadi’, ‘unfuckwithable’; there's the Sikh kirpan, a fiery and protective accessory.
“Every piece is to serve you as a reminder of your journey,” Ahluwalia tells me from her Kolkata home, which also houses her studio. “These are things that will hold you through. Sometimes you need faith, other times you need love and support, and some other times you need a personal cheerleader. Your pieces are your support structure through life,” Ahluwalia avers. Her website, where she sells them from, describes the necklaces, bracelets, earrings and others as “strong, soulful and spiritual”.
Ahluwalia submits she didn’t start making jewellery to make a statement of any sort. “I just wanted to make pieces that would be meaningful. I didn’t set out to make bridal jewellery or large, statement pieces. I was always looking for fun, easy-to-wear things, and there wasn’t much around in 2003.”
Ahluwalia finished her MBA degree and worked for a well-known corporate for four years, when she decided to indulge her creative bone. “Bengal has a lot of great crafts. I started working with craftsmen and began to dabble with terracotta, metal, jewellery and fabric. Jewellery didn’t require much capital.” Ahluwalia mostly used silver or brass, gold and gold plating, and has also worked with concrete, resin and silicon.
Consulting with an export factory, trade shows, studying the craft in Italy and the Netherlands, and fashion week stalls ensued. Her sister Atikaa, armed with a fashion merchandising degree from NIFT, New Delhi, joined her. By 2009, Ahluwalia began researching in story or narratives through jewellery. She felt it needed more purpose than just ornamentation. Using this strategy, she became India’s first conceptual jewellery designer. As a designer she would tell a story, the jewellery became only the medium.
In 2011, for example, she developed the ‘Wedding Vows’ line. The collection was a strong comment on domestic violence that an alarming number of women suffer. Ahluwalia used motifs of power and strength, like kirpans and ceremonial swords instead of a mangalsutra, or trident earrings. It was an unusual theme, as women who have suffered domestic violence don’t want to talk about it, leave alone display it.
“My sister Atikaa had endured domestic violence at the hands of her then partner. She didn’t tell our parents or me about it. But when she did, we managed to retrieve her from the situation and file a case against the man. I was outraged. She was one of the coolest people I know, and for her to endure this pain and not talk about it, it was hard for all of us. I started reading about the act (Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act). I began to realise that the reason it exists is because we don’t talk about it. Men go on as if life is as usual, and women bear the shame of it. I wanted to remove the shame, and remind women that they need to love, respect and protect themselves first.” Ahluwalia used this line at a collection at the Lakmé Fashion Week, with words from the Act printed on saris the models wore with her new jewellery. Last year, Eina and Atikaa came out with an eight-minute video talking about the violence women faced during the COVID-induced lockdown.
In 2011, a UK-based store wanted Ahluwalia to join their ecommerce site. It required no investment from her label, and Ahluwalia then understood the value of the internet. “We built our own website and began selling online. It was getting to be tough to work with physical stores and on consignments.” Ahluwalia and her baubles have been featured in the New York Times, British Vogue, CR Fashion Book, InStyle UK, Madame Figaro France, and every Indian fashion magazine. Her jewels have been worn by Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor Kha, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor as well as Waris Ahluwalia and Delilah.
In 2015, she came out with the ‘Paradisiac’ line. This was developed as a comment on how women are pressurised to look a certain way. “Even if a perfect woman did exist, she wouldn’t be allowed to feel beautiful,” Ahluwalia states. She discovered Venuses from different part of Europe, dug up by archeologists across centuries. Several of them were rounded figures, as if being so was a totem of abundance.
Ahluwalia, at 45, says she has never married, and is not looking to get married either. “At first it just never happened but now I think it’s a conscious decision. Marriage changes the dynamic of a relationship,” she adds.
We’d like to say Ahluwalia is staying true to her feminine/feminist craft, but then that would be another lazy trope.
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