Rashme Diwan, Kanakavalli’s September Vignette, is a force of nature. A former professor of fashion design, a collector of beauty, and a survivor of cancer, Rashme has forged a path of her own; one that is inspired and inspiring. In this conversation with Aneesha Bangera for The Kanakavalli Journal, Rashme reminisces about her childhood, telling us how she went from being a high schooler who didn’t want to go to college, to a student of dressmaking who stayed up all night working on assignments. By the age of 21, Rashme had taught herself everything she could about design and was invited to join the faculty of her college. She describes teaching as a deeply fulfilling journey of learning, and her own sense of style as dramatic.
Ten years ago, Rashme was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, an experience that transformed her approach to life and relationships. Forced to slow down post-treatment, Rashme remains at once pragmatic and exuberant—embracing the changes she’s had to make and always finding the silver lining in every situation.
Browsing through the Kanakavalli repertoire, Rashme curates a selection of saris that reflect her dynamic and colourful spirit. Excerpts of the conversation below…
A journey of self-discovery
I spent much of my childhood in Delhi, and one of my most vivid memories is of my mother knitting on the veranda in the winter sun. I was fascinated, and asked her for a pair of knitting needles, but she worried that I would hurt myself. Nothing could stop me, however, so I broke off two sticks from an old broom, took a little wool, and figured out a way to knit. When my mother saw me, she immediately gave me her needles, and taught me everything she knew. Knitting together became our daily ritual.
My mother was not a trained seamstress, but she was very skilled and would tailor all our clothes. I remember when I was in the second grade, we had a school concert and my mother made my costume—a long skirt with zari borders dotted with silver motifs that had to be tacked on. I gathered the leftover material and sowed a dress for one of my beloved dolls. I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face when I showed it to her! She was amazed, and realised that I had very naturally picked up the skills I watched her practice.
Above (clockwise from top left): Rashme as a child with her mother who inspired her love for fashion and style; All dressed up with her gorgeous mother; Rashme with her brother on Rakshabandhan; With her sister Sheetal - featured in Kanakavalli's last Vignette - and their mother.
We soon moved to Bombay and my new school was very academically focused, which I didn’t always enjoy. In fact, by high school, I declared to my family that I wasn’t going to study any further. Fortunately for all of us, my brother, who was then in college, knew many young people who were choosing vocational training and polytechnic degrees. He encouraged me to apply, and that’s how I ended up enrolling in a dressmaking course at Sophia College. One of the reasons for this choice was that my mother made all my clothes, and I worried how I would manage once I got married and moved away! So, I wasn’t really motivated by some great passion or inspiration—but the very practical aspect of needing to make my own clothes. I was lucky, though, because I found that I’d stumbled upon something I really loved.
The course was focused more on dressmaking than design, though, so I had to teach myself everything I know about design. I would spend hours at the library, poring over books, learning how to sketch figures and dresses. I’d attend as many conferences and lectures as I could, to stay updated on the latest techniques and patterns. There were days I’d spend hours working on assignments, so consumed that I’d forget about everything else, including my meals. I would often be up all night working, prompting an old neighbour of ours to ask if I was studying for a PhD! And so, I went from someone with no interest in studying to a student of fashion who could not stop working. ]
Teaching to learn
After the course, I was offered the chance to teach at Sophia, an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I was excited, but also nervous—I had very little confidence in myself at the time. One of the things that motivated me, however, was remembering how hard it had been for me as a student, trying to find my own way in the field of design. Fortunately, I had all the notes I’d collective over the years, which helped me guide my classes. I realised that I needed to give my students creative assignments, and I was rewarded with the beautiful ways in which they tackled their projects. They have all gone on to do so well, and it is so fulfilling.
Above: Rashme with her students of dressmaking and fashion design at Sophia College.
I think being a teacher is a journey of constant learning. I have learnt so much from my students—they would come up with the most incredible and creative ideas, often leaving me in complete awe.
Some of the most memorable moments from my life as a teacher have been from the annual fashion shows—moments that have left me with actual goosebumps. I still love attending college shows and enjoy them far more than big, professional ones. Professional shows and brands are always focusing on designs that will sell, while college students do not face that kind of pressure. It is always fascinating to see their creations.
After ten years of teaching, the Technical Board of Maharashtra instructed our college to change the two-year Dress Designing course into a three-year Dress Making and Fashion Designing course. At the time, I was the examiner for the Costume and Fashion Illustration subjects, so I was invited by the board to create a new syllabus. The syllabus was accepted and implemented, and this was a huge honour for me, and one I will never forget.
Surrounded by beauty
Thanks to my mother stitching all my clothes when I was younger, I think I subconsciously developed an awareness of style and beauty very early on. Of course, my studies and my career helped me hone this further. My aesthetic and sense of style can be captured in just two words—dramatic and bold. I like to make a statement in the way I dress. Often, I go a little too far, and I need someone to tell me to pare it down. Before I got married it would be my sister Sheetal or my mother, and now it is my husband, who has nicknamed me Flash Gordon! I love to wear big rings and startling accessories, and while he sometimes teases me, he never interferes in my decisions.
Above: Rashme defines her sense of style as bold and dramatic, reflected in the way she dresses and in her home.
I like to add a bit of drama to everything I wear—so I look for clothing, accessories and jewellery that can do that. I think the way we dress is a form of self-expression, and I’m happy projecting my personality through my style.
I also love to surround myself with beautiful objects. While growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on ourselves, so when I started earning, it was like a new phase of my life had begun. Nobody could question the way I chose to spend my money, and I made the most of it! I blew my first few salaries on three or four pairs of shoes, which was such fun. Gradually, though, I started picking up small objects and collectibles. It started with a small tray here, a ceramic piece there… and then I couldn’t stop.
My father was worried about the way I was accumulating things and he gave me some very wise advice to save for my future rather than spend on things that wouldn’t last. I realise now how much meaning his words had, but at that time, I didn’t pay much attention. There has never been a kinder father than mine, though. He was lovely and never interfered in our lives, beyond sharing his wisdom every now and then. My mother, on the other hand, encouraged my new habit. She would point out beautiful things to add to my collection—always wanting me to enjoy myself without holding back.
I don’t really have memories attached to each object that I have collected—I chose them for their sheer beauty! I’ve picked them up over the years from many places—on my travels, at exhibitions, and even from second-hand stores. I love juxtaposing traditional or ethnic Indian pieces with more eclectic objects or distinctly Victorian artefacts. I think these diverse objects really complement each other.
One of my favourite pieces is a Cupid statue that is blowing a kiss. I fell in love with this piece when I set my eyes upon it years ago, and I’ve placed it in a way that it faces the entrance to the house, so everyone is welcomed into our home with love.
Above (clockwise from top left): A Cupid statue that welcomes guests into Rashme's home; A statue of a lounging lady that Rashme loves; Rashme's dressing room, filled with colourful accessories, statement objects and jewellery that she has collected over the years.
Another piece I love is a statue of a lounging lady who is placed on my terrace overlooking my bedroom. I found it at a recycling shop that occasionally sold second hand pieces, located on my route to college. These days, I control myself from buying more objects—every time my brother visits, he asks if this is my home or a shop!
A turning point
At the age of 55, I was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. The initial shock hit me hard. I didn’t know whether I needed to start saying goodbye to my life and loved ones or whether I could plan for a future. It was so hard to see the way my family was affected by the news—the constant sadness and the tears in their eyes. Fortunately, I had the most wonderful team of doctors and nurses who were very honest with me about my prognosis, but also very reassuring. They gave me the confidence I needed to face one of the hardest periods of my life. While hearing from other patients at the hospital occasionally triggered fear and anxiety, I managed to stay positive. I decided that no matter what—even if I only had a few years left—I would live my life to the fullest.
While I was undergoing treatment, my sister Sheetal’s friend invited me to join a meditation centre. I had never imagined I’d be the kind of person to try meditating, but after I was initiated into the practice, I felt wonderful. I had discovered a very powerful tool that helped me focus my mind.
I was lucky that I ended up sailing through the intensive cancer treatment—surgery as well as several sessions of chemotherapy and radiation—without too much pain or discomfort. The experience, though, changed me in a profound way. I was overcome by a sudden sense of love for those around me. I used to be the kind of person who argued with everyone all the time, but suddenly I started to just let things go. When I recognised how much my family and friends meant to me, I realised that the little things didn’t matter.
Unfortunately, due to the chemotherapy that was administered through my right hand, I started to lose my grip on that side. For a long time, I insisted I was fine, but one day while cooking, I suddenly lost feeling in my right hand and dropped a pressure cooker. At that moment, I realised I needed to accept my new reality and move on. I had to stop teaching, and I had to slow down.
It was very frustrating in some ways, because I had always been very independent, but now even dressing myself was a challenge. The way I used to dress involved a lot of tucking, draping and pinning, and now I can barely hold a pin. I can’t feel the clasp of a necklace. But it’s okay. So what if I can’t use a safety pin or put on some pieces of jewellery? I’ve learnt to adapt, look on the bright side, and dress for comfort. I’ve devised ways of knotting fabric instead of pinning it up, I’ve chosen new kinds of accessories to wear, and most importantly, I am healthy, ten years after my diagnosis.
I’ve had such a wonderfully hectic life. I’ve been working since the age of 21. I got married when I was 32, and had my daughter when I was 33. I would be up at 5.30 every morning to prepare feeds and clothes for my baby before going to work. Classes would begin at 8.30am, and I’d come back in the afternoons dying to sit down with a cup of tea, but would first have to attend to my daughter. As she grew up, she still needed me, and there were days I thought I’d never get to have a quiet cup of tea ever again!
I’m grateful today for the time I have. I enjoy watching films, and doing a little bit of housework. But, to be very honest, I’m quite happy doing nothing, just lolling about and gazing at my plants!
On beauty and tradition
I find it very difficult to define beauty. It exists all around us—in nature, in colour, in art. For me, though, the word beauty conjures up an image of a candle flame. I am always mesmerised by the light it creates—and how the flame dances in the slightest whiff of a breeze. I can barely look away, and I keep a small diya burning day and night, always in my line of vision. I find that a flame radiates positivity and beauty.
I believe that traditions are so beautifully woven into our lives that we often don’t even think about them. I was brought up with several traditions that I imbibed quite unconsciously, and I still hold on to. I think it’s wonderful to live with the traditions you enjoy—because they’ve been around for so long and they aren’t going anywhere. But if you resent some traditions, or if they bother you, then it’s absolutely fine to let them go.
On the sari
I don’t wear saris very often, but I love the drape. I love the fact that one can always very safely invest in a gorgeous sari! I admire women who wear it so easily and beautifully. I am also enthusiastic about the way in which the sari is being reimagined and reinvented for a modern world—paired with belts and shirts, or woven with pockets! I like the traditional form of the sari, but I think a slightly contemporary touch can only add to its beauty and help keep it alive.
Above: Rashme with her husband and daughter; With her family - Rashme stitched several of her daughter's clothes for her when she was younger.
My daughter always admired the way my mother so effortlessly wore saris, and she loves the drape too. I know that my sari collection will be safe with her!
When the Kanakavalli exhibit came to Bombay, my sister and two sisters-in-law all descended upon it. Lately, yellow has been my favourite colour, and I immediately fell in love with this gorgeous kanjivaram. When my sister pointed out that it was a bridal sari and I’m a woman in my sixties, I was a bit embarrassed. But I had set my heart on it and I picked it up. I’ve chosen to drape this sari in my own way, to show that it doesn’t have to be only for a bride or a wedding. A kanjivaram like this can be draped as a semi-formal outfit, and I think it still looks stunning.
Rashme is wearing a gorgeous Kanakavalli kanjivaram in yellow, adorned with floral motifs in rich silver zari. The borders feature twill patterns also in silver zari.
- Rashme Diwan, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant.
View Rashme's accompanying guest curation here.