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Article: KANAKAVALLI VIGNETTES : Pareina Thapar - Inside, Outside

KANAKAVALLI VIGNETTES : Pareina Thapar - Inside, Outside

Pareina Thapar, Kanakavalli’s April Vignette, is the co-founder of Longform, one of India’s leading communication strategy firms that focuses on ‘the business of good living’ by going deeper into a brand’s narrative. In this delightfully freewheeling conversation with Aneesha Bangera of The Kanakavalli Journal, Pareina traces her journey through objects and memories, while exploring ideas of identity; of being settled and unsettled. Having been taught to question everything while being respectful and appreciative of tradition, Pareina brings an objective curiosity to her life and work. She is a voracious reader with a deep love for stories, seeking patterns in language, and celebrating storytelling through her work with brand identity and culture. Travel is essential to Pareina, as is surrounding herself with beauty. Her relationship with the sari has evolved over the years, from being formal dressing when she was a journalist, to becoming occasion wear when her sons were young, and now returning to her everyday wardrobe.
Taking time out of a busy schedule, Pareina curates a beautiful selection from Kanakavalli’s repertoire, reflecting her love for the stories of warp and weft.

Excerpts from the conversation below...

Inside, Outside

A rolling stone : My grandparents were from Lahore and Sindh in pre-Partition India, while my parents were children of the Partition. They were odd Punjabis who had settled in Pune. My parents spent many years on the move before making a home in Lucknow, where I grew up. For my generation, travel was not a part of everyday living unless your parents were in the Armed Forces, so we were unusual in that way. I changed seven or eight schools before Class 5, but spent my formative years in Lucknow.

Above: Pareina's parents, who taught her to question tradition even while respecting and celebrating it.

My father was a ‘rolling stone gathers no moss’ sort of person, and I learnt a lot from the ease with which my parents navigated ideas of identity. Most people in those years had a constant yearning to return to their roots, but our family didn’t think too much about those things. Lucknow was a city steeped in tradition, where I often heard the phrase ‘hamare yahan aisa hota hai’ or ‘this is the way we do it here’. I think it can be beautiful to pay tribute to tradition in this way, but only as far as it comes with acceptance.

I cherish the worldview that my parents gave my sister and me: teaching us to respect the way people do certain things, but never letting a way of doing things define or limit us. They taught us that it is important to celebrate identity and tradition, but it is also important to understand context and to question everything. Your truth doesn’t have to be mine—we may ultimately arrive at the same idea, but it has to be through a process of enquiry. As a result of this, I have always found myself to be something of an insider and an outsider in every context. I quite happily occupy a middle ground, going with the flow and seeing where it takes me.

Perhaps seeing my father embrace things that on the surface seemed contradictory had a great influence on me—he is an engineer who became an economist, a self-proclaimed atheist who resisted the narrow boundaries of religion while studying astrology, a practicing homeopath and a brilliant mathematician who can speak eight languages!

Threads that connect : I met Bandeep Singh, a self-taught photographer, when both of us were starting our careers at Business Today. We worked together for five years and continue to be very close friends; he is a soul brother to me. When I was pregnant with my first son, I was going through a magical period of self-discovery, and the experience of pregnancy left me feeling wholly enlightened. One afternoon I asked Bandeep to come over and capture this feeling through a shoot. It was a simple, whimsical day. This is the only photograph I have framed—I’m sure I have the negatives somewhere, but I’m a terrible keeper of memories. Instead, objects filled with memories surface occasionally in a box somewhere, and I find such joy on those occasions.

Above: A black and white photograph of Pareina and her husband taken by her dear friend Bandeep Singh when she was pregnant with her first son.

While I was pregnant, I was reading the Vedanta Treatise by A. Parthasarathy, recommended by a friend’s father. Having been a student of Philosophy, I was struck by its depth and beauty. And so, we named our first son Vedanta, which means seeker of knowledge. We named my younger son Aditya (which means ‘sun’) even before he was born—a name chosen by my husband. The night before I gave birth to him, I discovered that it was Chath Puja, the festival of worship of the sun. I do believe that there are divine patterns, or signs of the universe blessing us—or maybe we just find them because we’re looking so hard.

I met my husband when I was 18. He was in Delhi studying at the School of Planning and Architecture and I was in Lucknow. I moved to Delhi when I was 21, and he pushed me to find work that challenged and excited me. In some ways, we’ve grown up together and it’s been a fabulous journey of nine years of dating, 23 years of marriage, and counting. Being with someone who you’re fully comfortable with makes everything so much easier and happier. He’s a wonderful father and so supportive of our children’s passions.

Little treasures:  The whole notion of gifting has changed so much in the last few years—I think access to money and the ease of shopping have made gifting much more commonplace. Some years ago, none of us bought flowers even for loved ones, let alone for ourselves. Everything had this quality of rarity, and because of this, every gift was truly special.

Above: A handwritten calligraphy note Pareina received from her friend Bandeep Singh on her birthday during lockdown last year - a gift she will always cherish.

I treasure thoughtful gifts given by friends. Just after we got engaged, a dear friend Akanksha stayed up all night to paint a ring by my husband’s bed in the single room he then lived in. That was a very precious gift.

Another gift I will never forget is a photo Bandeep shot of Abida Parveen Ji singing. He dabbles in varied mediums, and has recently been working with calligraphy. Our birthdays are ten days apart in June, and he’s always sending me the most thoughtful things. This beautiful handwritten calligraphy note was his gift to me last year during the lockdown for my 50th, and it is something I will always treasure.

Reading between the lines : I’ve recently started putting three books at a time on our coffee table. This way, the books aren’t just gathering dust on our shelves, but get picked up and read.

Above: The books currently out on Pareina's coffee table - Gulzar's 'A Poem A Day and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi's 'Quabz-e-Zaman'.

One of the books currently on my coffee table is Gulzar’s “A Poem A Day”, an incredible book of poems from numerous regional Indian languages. To me it is a tribute to language, which is such an integral part of identity to all of us in India. It’s so inspiring that at the age of 76, Gulzar spent eight years on this work, which features 365 poems by 279 poets in 34 languages, translated by him from English to Hindustani. It has made me think differently about language—about what is lost in translation, and what cannot be articulated in English.

The other book on the table is Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s “Quabz-e-Zaman”. I don’t want to lose my working knowledge of Hindi, and have been trying to read more in the language lately. Faruqi’s life story is fascinating, and I enjoy reading his works.

Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending is one of my favourites—full of pathos, but so beautiful. I find myself picking it up repeatedly, even though it makes me cry.

Seeking stories : I’ve always found the way people organise their bookshelves fascinating—by colour, subject, alphabet... The only thing the books on my shelf have in common is the fact that they inhabit a common universe in which they have appealed to me. I love to read the phrases on the spines—every word evokes something in me. Even if I look at a shelf right now, I can see: If It Is Sweet, The Stories of Songs, Life After Life, Line of Beauty, Madhushala, Silent House, The Famished Road... There is something so lyrical and so lovely about these words coming together. I believe that even if a book has enriched you with a single line or a paragraph, it has done something wonderful.

Above: The books on Pareina's shelves don't follow any particular order, and she finds beauty in the evocative way in which words come together on their spines.

I’ve always enjoyed discovering stories. I decided to join Lucknow University at a politically volatile time. As I navigated the world of student unions and protests, I decided to work part time. I joined the Marketing and Sales division of Indian Express, riding around on my moped and collecting ads to earn money. This experience gave me a new lens through which to view the city I’d grown up in.

At 21, I moved to Delhi for an internship with A&M Magazine. There I was taught to look at things from a brand’s point of view, through case studies and visits to factory floors. I enjoyed the process of meeting the people that humanise a brand. I discovered that every brand views its product as a symbol of sorts, and there is always a story to be told. While working with Hero Cycles, I learnt that the cycle was so much more than a cycle—it was an embodiment of empowerment in India. I found this absolutely fascinating, and brought these perspectives to my next job with Business Today magazine, where I wrote more journalistic pieces on marketing and HR.

My fascination with brands, combined with my love for storytelling, brought me to the world of public relations, where some of the first brands I worked closely with were Wills Lifestyle and Olive Bar & Kitchen. Each name was about building an identity that was authentic and lasting. AD Singh of Olive was very clear that he wanted his restaurant to be a melting pot of conversation, culture and laughter over good food, and this idea was reflected in everything from the meticulously crafted menu preambles to every event. Sabyasachi is one of the country’s most definitive and iconic brands; one that is shaping the cultural identity of an entire generation. I have been working with him for over eight years now, and I learn so much from him every day. He is one of the most forward-thinking people—like a crystal ball gazer with a Midas touch—and a wonderful human being. I also spent a decade working with Cartier, the very epitome of luxury. I have not had the access to an Ivy League education, so partnering with brands and people like these is the best real-life education I could have ask for, and I am grateful for that.

It’s heartening to see more and more homegrown Indian brands leading an entire cultural change, from Good Earth with its 25-year journey, to Raw Mango and Pero, to much younger brands like Bhaane, Karan Torani and Varana in London. All these labels are showcasing their ideas of India and it will be interesting to see how these stories continue to evolve.

Journeys of discovery : Travel is an integral part of who I am. My husband and I have been doing road trips to Ladakh via Manali and Kashmir since our children were very young. It can be hard to take time off to travel with a busy job, and it hasn’t always been easy to run a company while raising two growing children. I am fortunate, however, to have the most wonderful business partner in Neeta Raheja, who is like an elder sister to me and a godmother to the boys. She invited me to join hands with her in her PR agency VTY, now Longform. Thanks to Neeta and the way we work together, I have been able to take a month off every summer to travel with my family, and these have been some of the most memorable times.

Having only visited the region in the summer, I decided to visit Kashmir in the fall some years ago, when the leaves of the Chinar trees change colours. I travelled with friends three times over a 45- day period to watch the glorious autumn hues take over the landscape. I also had the chance to travel to Ladakh again with my dear friend Bandeep this winter, which was an altogether different and a magical time to be in the mountains.

Above: A statue of the Goddess Tara from one of the family's many road trips to Ladakh in the summer

As we travelled to Ladakh over the years, I began to reflect on Buddhism and its philosophy, and became fascinated with the idea of the deity Tara. I think there are always invisible threads that connect you to places and things. If I ever had a daughter, perhaps I would have named her Tara! For me, Tara embodies a certain feminine energy which I feel many women haven’t explored or celebrated fully. I often feel that as women we live in deeper state of conditioning.

Finding freedom : When you think about roti, kapda aur makaan, the first sense of identity often comes from food. Feelings of nostalgia are built around the flavours we grew up with, while the best cure for homesickness is the taste of home. Our traditional clothes also connect us, even today when many of us have a far more global sense of dressing. My sister lives far from home, and I know that saris make her feel closer to us. And finally, there is one’s actual home. For me, home is what you make of it; the energy within it. For my husband, an architect, our home as a physical structure is important too. I love the idea of home as something to come back to, but I am wary of the idea of owning and acquiring things too much. We are currently building a house in the mountains, and for me what’s most important is to create a space where our friends and family can also feel at home.

Above: Views from and of the beautiful home that Pareina and her husband are building in the mountains.

While doing up our flat, we broke down one wall to create an open lounge space. My husband built a jaali-style separator that we have filled with whimsical objects: a wooden puppet, a tinman, a little doll, a plant, a souvenir from Turkey... I like to keep things simple and easy, and nothing in our home is very sacrosanct. I keep telling myself that I should acquire a really big, beautiful painting, or a luxurious carpet someday. But when it comes down to it, I think I’d rather travel, and appreciate beautiful things in museums. I don’t want too many acquisitions, and I never want to be tied down by things, however valuable they might be.

Above: Whimsical corners of Pareina's lovely home in Delhi.

I like to find ways of staying liberated, and maybe that’s why I decided to shave my head when I turned 40. I observed how our relationship with ourselves can change when we look at ourselves in new ways or at how others perceive us. It was interesting to observe reactions and how identity is perceived. I suppose it’s about finding little ways of letting go and stepping out of a comfort zone. These experiments are perhaps a way to try and stay liberated while staying grounded.

Above: When she turned 40, Pareina decided to shave her head as a way of staying liberated.

Laughing matters : My father always had the best laugh; he really giggles like a child. He isn’t the one who cracks the jokes, but the one who really appreciates humour. He loves PG Wodehouse, while my mother, also a voracious reader, is a very joyful person. She is full of energy and is very action oriented. My sister and I have memories of our parents laughing out loud behind their glasses while reading, or while watching ‘Yes Prime Minister’ on television. I love comics—MAD, Calvin & Hobbes, Tintin, Asterix, Peanuts, and so, comic book collection editions made great presents for the boys when they were young. I’ve always been drawn to the whimsical—I like to visit doll museums and puppet shows and musicals when I travel. I think humour is important; being able to laugh with others and also, hopefully, to laugh more at yourself.

Above: Pareina inherited a love for laughter and comics from her parents, and has passed this on to her children in the form of comic book collections.

On beauty & tradition : Beauty is the essence of life to me—I think it’s important to consciously surround yourself with beauty. We can live surrounded in beauty, finding it in the perfection of a flower, reading a book under a tree, discovering ourselves in a piece of music, in serving and being served a lovingly home cooked meal. What makes you pause and enjoy the moment is beautiful.

I have had a conflicting relationship with tradition—I love to celebrate it but one part of me is always questioning it. It’s important to understand where tradition comes from, to respect it and then ask ourselves if it is important to us and whether we enjoy it as a result of conditioning or whether it stirs something deeper within us. Coming back full circle to embrace what is given to you after dissecting it always seems more fulfilling. The freedom to dissect should be sacrosanct.

Of warp & weft  : Growing up in Lucknow, I always loved the sari; it was my favourite garment and I enjoyed seeing my mother in saris. I remember that stitched saris for children were available in Pune, and my grandparents would buy them for us. We were thrilled by the sari which was a sort of costume for us back then.

When I came to Delhi, my editor at Business Today told me that as a young reporter in a room full of far more experienced people, I needed to represent the magazine and hold my own. This was when I really turned to the sari as formal wear. It was one of the cheapest investments, because you could repeat it, lend it, wear it with different blouses and really make it last. We all had our mothers’ wardrobes to delve into, and would borrow liberally from each other. My favourite sari was Pune’s Narayanpet cotton. It was a part of my everyday wardrobe like the chikan kurta. In my early 20s I was be very comfortable in a sari, but I did not know the fascinating stories of warp and weft behind each one.

When I had children, I stopped wearing saris for a while—I couldn’t wrap my head around wearing a sari and being yanked around by a three-year-old, and so it became occasion wear. Around the same time that the sari came back into my everyday wardrobe, I began to work with Ekaya and then soon with Swati and Sunaina. Working with Abraham & Thakore I witnessed how skilfully they modernised the sari, while playing with stunning weaves such as Ikat or crafts such as Bandhini. Ally Mathan of The Registry of Sarees is doing some stellar work on the ground to revive regional weaves and working with her has been extremely satisfying.

And last, but not the least, there is Sabyasachi. Given his vast influence, his interest and commitment for revival of the sari is widely accepted. If I ever asked him what I should wear, his answer is always to wear a sari, a weave that I like.

It’s exciting to see how much the world of fashion is flirting with, experimenting with and embracing the sari and it continues to evolve and grow.

Pareina is wearing a deliciously soft handcrafted silk sari from Kanakavalli’s Summerheart collective of Mandanila saris, featuring bands and stripes in gold zari, black, magenta and teal blue. Gold diamond and chevron patterns adorn the borders amid hints of magenta, while the pallu features pink bands and stripes.

On Kanakavalli : I first visited Kanakavalli in Coimbatore and I was blown away by the bungalow and how well curated the store was. I think this is just the way a sari should be showcased, with understated and thoughtful elegance. I loved the 9 to 9 range of lighter saris for work and everyday wear. I also loved the Summerheart range of light silk saris with a modern palette that is innovative and interesting. I’ve worn this one like a uniform—in Delhi’s winters, at the Jaipur literature festival, and dressed up with jewellery for evenings out.

- Pareina Thapar, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant.

View Pareina's accompanying guest curation here.


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