KANAKAVALLI JOURNAL

NOVEMBER VIGNETTE : RIDDHI MUKHERJEE - FULL CIRCLE

NOVEMBER VIGNETTE : RIDDHI MUKHERJEE - FULL CIRCLE

Riddhi Mukherjee, Kanakavalli’s November Vignette, is a doctoral student, a university professor, a voracious reader, and a lover of saris and all things beautiful. In conversation with Aneesha Bangera of The Kanakavalli Journal, Riddhi reminisces about her childhood—from days of mischief with her twin sister to lessons in independence from her parents. She traces her journey from the world of academics to investment banking and back again, coming full circle and finding her place in the world. Riddhi inherited a deep love for the sari from her mother who is her style inspiration, and she celebrates the sari through her popular Instagram profile. Opening up about the many joys of being a teacher, and her commitment to environmental sustainability, Riddhi gives us a glimpse of her multifaceted personality and life. Taking the time to browse through the Kanakavalli repertoire, Riddhi curates a selection of beautiful kanjivaram saris that reflect her fascination with the weave.

Full Circle

The wonder years

I had a very traditional upbringing, yet my parents firmly believed in giving their daughters a level of independence that not many others of their time did. They encouraged us to do what we loved, never forcing their own ideas upon us. My sister and I have been very comfortable making our own decisions ever since we were very young. Our home was filled with love and affection; our parents were protective, but ours was a happy, liberal childhood.

Above (clockwise from left): Riddhi and her twin sister Prama pose with their grandmother and parents; the twins as babies with their grandmother; in their father's arms.

My twin sister’s name is Prama, an old Bengali word meaning one who has perfect knowledge. Riddhi is a Hindi-origin word meaning prosperity. When our parents named us, they envisioned the union of knowledge and prosperity. My sister is the other half of my heart and soul. We barely quarrelled at all while growing up, and I never had the need to call any other friend my best. I was her biggest fan and she was my discrete confidant. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be her confidant because I had this overactive moral compass, and would share any secret she told me with my mother almost immediately!

In school, Prama and I were so identical that our teachers had a hard time telling us apart, and we often used this to our advantage. In Grade Three, our teacher decided to separate us into different divisions. I will never forget that day—we felt as though our souls had been torn in two. My mother, who always looked for the silver lining, comforted us saying that this would be good for our social growth. I, on the other hand, still haven’t forgiven our Grade Three class teacher!

After school, Prama and I went to Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata—she studied Economics and I was in the Zoology Department. She was more extroverted, while I kept to myself. She had a huge circle of friends, and many social engagements, even during college hours. So, in my free periods, I often pretended to be her in the Economics Major class. I would sit right up in the front row, diligently taking notes and not understanding a thing. And nobody had a clue.

Above (left to right): Riddhi and Prama dressed in their mother's beloved wedding saris at age six; the inseparable twins at age five; Riddhi and Prama at Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata in 2018.

After college, our career paths took us in different directions, but we remain deeply connected. We have lived in different cities for the last eight years, and now she is in a different country. But it seems that as we grow older, our bond only grows stronger.

An academic at heart

I had always been a good student, and I especially loved the biological sciences. It had been a foregone conclusion in the family that I would forever be an academic, and I decided to do my post-graduation in Zoology at Presidency College Kolkata.

Even though I had already started planning for my doctoral studies, when I graduated at the top of my class I decided to take a different path and get a taste of corporate life. I ended up starting my career as an analyst at a stockbroking firm, as strange as that sounds for someone with a Master’s Degree in Zoology! I worked through the 2008 sub-prime crisis and market crash, doing market analysis and risk management. I saw how fortunes could dwindle in a day, watched as dreams often turned to dust, and thus came of age in the world of stockbroking.

After arming myself with an MBA degree, I started my second stint as a professional in a bank. I enjoyed work and I learnt a great deal, but at the back of my mind I knew this was not what I was meant to be doing. So, I decided to shift gear again and applied to my Alma Mater for a PhD. I was very fortunate that they welcomed me back, and also offered me the opportunity to teach at the University.

I don’t regret any experience I had, even though I took my time returning to the field I loved. I look back with a lot of fondness at my stint in stockbroking, especially since that is when I met my husband! I now teach several subjects at the University, including Research Methodology, Strategy, Indian Market Business Environment, and the one that is closest to my heart, Environmental Management & Sustainability. I feel like I’ve come full circle, and my research is a combination of all the fields I’ve studied and worked in.

Riddhi wearing Kanakavalli at an annual event at the University, with all her students

A teacher’s joys

I find teaching immensely satisfying. I interact with students aged between 25 and 60—in my current batch, I have a retired professional who has decided to return to college. Thus, I’m teaching students who are absolutely fresh out of their undergraduate programmes, as well as those with over 30 years of work experience. My role is to make classes equally interesting and worthwhile for every student in attendance. When I’m able to do this, my work becomes all the more rewarding.

I could speak endlessly about the joys of teaching. I get to learn so much from my students—I’m always excited to listen to what young people have to say about the crises facing our world. I enjoy making my students think and encouraging them to express themselves. The ideas and solutions they come up with are often ingenious. My greatest joy is the satisfaction I derive at the end of the day from the knowledge that I’ve given young people something to think about—something they might never have given a thought to.

My job as a teacher is always evolving, and the novelty never ceases to amaze me. I absolutely love what I do, and I keep in touch with all my students, even after they have graduated.

Finding sustainability

While doing my MBA, one of the subjects that most resonated with me was Environment Management and Sustainability. The professor who taught this course, who is now my PhD guide, inculcated a love of the environment in me. I grew acutely conscious of the way I live and use resources, and have made many changes in my day to day lifestyle.

My thesis paper is on climate change and the decline of bee populations. I’m working with beekeepers, communities engaged in beekeeping and wholesalers of bee products in West Bengal to understand how their livelihoods are being affected. My research attempts to trace the reason for the decline in bee populations, with recommendations of sustainable practices to revive them.

I believe that everyone can make small changes in their lives to be more conscious of the environment. I do little things to save water and electricity, avoid the use of plastic, and attempt to find organic options where possible.

I try to eliminate any kind of waste in my lifestyle, and this is what led to the upcycling of my mother’s Benarasi wedding sari.

A sari, reinvented

In our culture, a bride receives a Benarasi sari from her maternal side of the family when she gets married, as well as one from her in-laws. My mother’s wedding saris are gorgeous; one pink and one turquoise blue with a red border. I have been besotted with the turquoise one for as long as I can remember. When we were children, my mother would dress Prama and me up in these saris every Lakshmi Pooja.

We both got married in 2012, and my mother gave each of us one of her beloved Benarasis. The turquoise sari I inherited is almost 45 years old, and is still one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Last year, I brought out the sari to wear, but found that it had become quite threadbare—it was finally falling apart. I was heartbroken that I would not be able to wear it again, and I was about to put it back in my cupboard when I had an idea.

Above (from left): The last time Riddhi wore her mother's gorgeous wedding sari; when she realised she couldn't wear it anymore, she had a part of the turquoise Benarasi framed so that the memories woven into the sari would remain alive.

Instead of hiding it away on a shelf where it would lie forgotten, I decided to frame a part of the sari. This way, I get to see it hanging on my wall every single day, sharing its beauty with anyone who visits me. This sari is such a big part of my life—from my mother’s wedding, to wearing it as a child, to receiving it as a gift for my own wedding. I might not be able to wear it anymore, but it now adorns my wall, reminding me of some of the most special moments of my family’s history.

Discovery & rediscovery

My sari inspiration is my mother, Chaita. To me, she is the ultimate style diva. The big bindi that I wear on my forehead—which people now associate with me—is my attempt to emulate my mother. Her aesthetics and knowledge of the sari and all things artistic have rubbed off on me, and we have long discussions about textiles, weaving patterns, and cultural influences. We wear saris together on special occasions and festivals. The sari truly binds us together.

India is such a vast melting pot of cultures and traditions, and social media has helped me discover weaves I’d never heard of before, that were not available in West Bengal. Now, I share these finds with my mother, and we love to talk about the new saris we come across—Patolas, Ashavalli brocades, kanjivarams.

My mother and grandmother both wore saris every single day, at home, for special events, at the office. I loved the sari as a child, and I continue to believe that it is the most elegant garment. There is a richness in the sari, and I think this is a reflection of our traditions and culture. I feel fortunate to be able to wear saris to work almost every day.

A virtual community

I’m an 80s child, and Instagram is something a millennial cousin introduced me to. I decided to try this new platform, and when I wondered aloud about what I would post, my cousin suggested I focus on my love for saris. I did so, and somehow the amazing online sari community found me. We connected instantly and now I have a whole group of virtual friends, some of whom I’ve never met. The love for the sari has bonded us so strongly that they are now an intrinsic part of my journey. I also discovered Kanakavalli on Instagram, and for that I am forever indebted to the platform.

I also use my profile to write about the books I have read and loved. I have a huge collection of books and I am a voracious reader, often going back to re-read my favourites. I’ve never been able to use e-readers; for me the book is something tangible and that is what I cherish about the experience.

On tradition and beauty

Tradition brings meaning to our lives; it underlines who we are and what we strive for. It is the fulcrum that balances out the generational gaps, unifying us across the past, present and future.

If you ask me, beauty is when you are being unapologetically yourself; perfectly comfortable in your imperfection. It is when you are truly yourself that the goodness of the soul surfaces, reflected in your face as a lovely glow.

On the kanjivaram

As Bengalis, the sari we grow up with and hear our mothers and grandmothers talking about with great reverence is the Benarasi. But things are changing, and Bengalis are now choosing kanjivarams for special occasions and festivals. At a time when there is so much dividing us as a country, I believe that the sari can be unifying. Thus, I have embraced the beauty of the kanjivaram.

I find in this craft a unique amalgamation of three things—bold and rich colours, exquisite zari, and a beautiful texture. What draws me is the incredible richness of motifs. I have never encountered this beauty of detail—from horses, lions and two-headed birds, to intricate floral designs and chakrams. The other thing I love is the korvai border. I am intrigued by this art of interlocking body and border together—the craftsmanship is truly unmatched.

My Vignettes sari is special because it was my first Kanakavalli buy. I bought it for my cousin’s wedding about three years ago. It showcases the very facets I love most about the craft—rich colours, a striking border, and exquisitely detailed motifs.

Above: Riddhi is wearing a classic kanjivaram in ink blue shot with orange, embellished with checks enclosing chakrams. Horse and floral motifs in orange also adorn the body of the sari, while the red pallu features a seeprekku pattern edged with peacocks and horses in gold zari. Riddhi’s mother is wearing a Kanakavalli kanjivaram in red shot with orange, adorned with checks enclosing peacocks and chakram motifs in red. Peacocks, paisleys and winged horses adorn the pallu.

- Riddhi Mukherjee, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera

View Riddhi's guest curation here. 

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