Satya Paul passes away: A fashion pioneer and visionary who was 'influenced by all the elements of life'
By recasting the sari — which, since the days of the Indian freedom struggle, had come to become a symbol of Indian nationalism — through his itinerant imaginations, Satya Paul imbued the national garment with a transnational spirit, capturing the mood of that period.
Satya Paul, the legendary fashion designer and yogi, whose lasting contribution lies in rendering the sari in visionary forms and laying the bedrock of unconventional design-thinking for future designers to build on, died yesterday at the Isha Yoga Center in Coimbatore, aged 79.
Along with his son Puneet Nanda, Paul began his eponymous brand in April 1985 as a colourful outburst of vivid prints and bold patterns. Largely attributed as the first designer sari brand in India, it punctuated the traditional aesthetics of the sari with ‘art-to-wear’ garments that were imprinted with diverse elements: Cyrillic script and Japanese calligraphy; paintings by Picasso, Klimt, Mondrian, and Raja Ravi Varma; portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, and Sita; and even the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. The brand’s 2003 reproduction of SH Raza paintings on silk scarves are collector’s items today.
“I am influenced by all the elements of life around me,” Paul said, in a 1988 interview with the New York Times. He added that while others were dabbling in the art of fashion design, he was the first to introduce choreographed ‘collections’ in India, in the style of Paris fashion houses.
As creative director of his brand, most of Paul’s design output came in the 1990s, the early years of India’s economic liberalisation. His designs were modern, quirky, and refreshing for those times. They are also cultural artefacts. By recasting the sari — which, since the days of the Indian freedom struggle, had come to become a symbol of Indian nationalism — through his itinerant imaginations, Paul imbued the national garment with a transnational spirit, capturing the mood of that period. Soon after, in 2000, the designer took a backseat by appointing his son as creative director. Detachment from his success, a trait displayed by the reclusive designer throughout his career, came from his lifelong passion, spirituality.
Born in the Layyah district of Pakistan in 1943, Satya Paul migrated to India following Partition. His first entrepreneurial venture was a restaurant in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar which he ran with his father. Thereupon, he entered the textile business with the thought, he once said, that it would be less taxing. Never formally trained in design, Paul had begun to design his own clothes and those of his friends while still in school, and opened two stores, Handloom Emporium (renamed Heritage) in 1968, and L’affaire in Delhi in 1980. By the mid-1970s, he was exporting fabrics to high-end stores in Europe and America such as Paris’s Galeries Lafayette and New York’s Bloomingdales.
In 1982, Paul gave up his business, distributing it between his brothers, and moved with his wife and two children to Rajneeshpuram, the controversial Osho commune in Oregon. Nanda, only 12 at that time, decided to leave school and worked in the video department at the commune, which triggered his interest in photography and graphic design. “Many people are not aware, more than as [sic] a designer or entrepreneur, he has been steadfastly a seeker,” he wrote of his father in a Facebook post. Upon their return to India, brimming with his spiritualism, art-prints, and impressions from his various travels, Paul launched his brand. Both father and son quit the brand in 2010, and Paul subsequently found Sadhguru in 2007, immersing himself in Yoga.
At the time of his death, he had been living at the Isha Yoga Center with his family since 2015. Following a stroke on 2 December 2020, he had been admitted into a hospital and was taken back to the centre upon his wishes. “He couldn’t have had a sweeter life or passage... at the feet of the Master,” wrote Nanda. “Those who have been with him at any point in life would recall him as one who showered his love without hesitation or any barriers. I can attest to him having lived in totality and left fulfilled in every possible way. It is the greatest testament to him as he went joyously, without fear.”
The Satya Paul brand, over the years, has diversified into other products such as ties, bags, and most recently, a menswear line. The designer Masaba Gupta helmed the brand between 2012 and 2016, introducing lipsticks into its lexicon of zany prints. This year, the brand announced Rajesh Pratap Singh as creative director with a renewed focus on artisanal textiles and menswear. As a student at NIFT Delhi, Singh first met the designer in 1993, who went on to sponsor handwoven fabrics for his final-year collection. “An extremely generous, creative, and inspiring pioneer of the Indian fashion and textile industry, he lived a pure and beautiful life,” Singh told Firstpost.