Miss India 1986, supermodel Mehr Jessia understood the short life of a model. A model at seventeen, she retired at twenty-three, for a life of domestic bliss. I met Mehr, now a ravishing Bollywood wife in her supersized, airy, modern apartment in Bandra that overlooks the sea.
A part of the drawing room is built like an open terrace and the sea shore with lapping waves traps your gaze every time your eyes dart towards the horizon. A mother of two girls, she looked as slender as she has always been; elegant in her blue jeans and navy blue cotton top, her hair in a ponytail. Her husband Arjun Rampal, also a former model, sat in a corner towards the French windows wearing a red bandana and talking into his phone. The voice that bounded back to us was guttural and resonant, like in his films.
‘I am a Parsi. I eat rice all the time. It was only after I gave birth to my second daughter that I stepped inside a gym,’ said Mehr. Her face, scrubbed clean seemed that it would wrinkle before its time but clearly the laugh lines around the eyes would precede other concessions to age.
Mehr went to the Miss Universe pageant by preparing for it with Rs 5000 given to her for three costumes. She was dismayed when she found that other contestants had dozens of dresses and matching shoes with all of them. She told me that her way of staying on top of pressures was to try and remain happy.
Besides as she emphasized, the industry was not so bitchy and crazily competitive then. ‘We did things for each other, jumped in to a flight to go and walk for a designer friend in another city,’ she said adding that there was comfort in familiarity. To her the current crop of models looked like assembly line products. And as she emphasized, nobody could tempt her with a Bollywood offer.
What could clearly come across was that Rohit Bal is unafraid. To create originally, you have to drive away your fears. That is why Indian fashion has needed him and will continue to depend on his legacy, his design, his thoughts, and his boisterousness. His Anarkalis will outlive him not because the cream-coloured mulmul is like a baby’s wrap, but because they breathe independence. India wants to wear that now more than anything else. There is so much colour about him, all dyed in white.
In many ways, Rohit Bal is also one of the most passionate ambassadors of the gay community in India. His male models openly love each other on the ramp. They wear sindoor and nathnis and smooch with abandon. These actions may have been scoffed at by society and debated by the media. but they cannot be dismissed. Bal isn’t like the late and equally, if not more talented, designer Rohit Khosla who kept his personal life veiled from the world and died prematurely at the age of thirty-five on February 16, 1994.
When I was researching this book, many people told me that unless I contextualized nostalgia about Indian fashion, I wouldn’t know where it is heading. They were right. ‘You can’t write a book around the Indian fashion industry until you understand who Rohit Khosla was and what he stood for,’ someone said. ‘You can’t write a book till you speak to Bina Ramani, model choreographer Vidyun Singh... and people from those days,’ said others.
I could not nail down every interview. But Rohit Bal singularly provoked both the nostalgia and the futurism that Indian fashion has in its warp and weft. He is not the Manish Arora of Space Age kitsch, nor is he is the Wendell Rodricks of research, reasonability, and resort wear ease. Rohit Khosla has long been dead but Rohit Bal stands for the Indian fashion industry as it is today-its triumphs and quirks, its failings, vulnerabilities, and resilience. A psychoanalyst also one of his admirers, rightly says, ‘There is something about Bal’s imagination which translates into his couture, which is restless, fresh, deeply Indian, yet universal.’
Rohit Gudda Bal doesn’t do drugs. The Raja doesn’t need the Powder Room.