A visit to Kolkata is incomplete without a visit to Raj Mahtani’s flagship jewellery store located in the lively Park Street. The flamboyant designer stresses on the importance of the influence of the city on his creative DNA. “We are all from the hallowed Tagore tradition,” he states.
Raj Mahtani is the descendant of Satramdas Dhalamal—the most famous jewellers of Kolkata, and although he feels privileged to belong to such a famous lineage, he is even more proud of the city he belongs to. He says, “Kolkata is the city of intellectuals. People here prefer books over Bollywood movies. As children, we were introduced to Rabindra Sangeet, while kids in other parts of the country were shaking a leg to Bollywood songs. I used to live in a huge haveli with my extended family and every night, my grandfather would get some classical dancer or singer to perform for the family, and we would invite our friends too. I grew up in a milieu of my father reading an English novel every night, rather than poring over the day’s collections.”
He goes on, “The result can be seen in my approach to jewellery design. I am constantly searching for ways to intellectualise my jewels and make them relevant for the modern, chic, intelligent woman. My ideal customer is the lady who shops in Paris, parties in Ibiza, and has long conversations in New York about everything ranging from art and music to human rights. In fact, one of my best client sits on the board of the MET (Metropolitan Museum of New York).”
One look at the store’s front window, which surprisingly doesn’t feature Raj’s jaw-dropping jewels but instead displays art pictures of the iconic photographer Dayanita Singh, and you will understand his vibe. surprisingly, the artist herself goes to the store every now and then and changes the pictures that are on display. Raj smiles and shares, “It’s become a part of the culture landscape of Park Street – Dayanita’s works at the entrance of Raj Mahtani’s store.
I don’t even know when she changes the display. It’s just beautiful that she feels this is the right place for her work to be showcased. It’s apt for the store and for this street, too.”
The jewellery store is the equivalent of Ali Baba’s cave. Stacks of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and rings are displayed next to valuable art, furniture, and antique pieces that were picked up over the years by the master jeweller. Raj sees his Kolkata store as a museum where people should experience the best craftsmanship the city has to offer. “I am fascinated with Russian jewellery and antiques because of its grandeur and opulence. The czars encouraged beautiful enamelling work; they loved fabulous emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. I also love the Mughal influences of India – the minarets, forts, paintings, and jewellery. The Ottoman empire, the Mughal period in India, the South Indian traditional arts and the Chinese culture – in a way are all linked. These are the great civilizations of the world that played such a significant role in precious jewellery and artefacts. You will find all these influences in my jewellery,” he adds.
The designer is notorious enough for not wanting to ride the Bollywood endorsement bandwagon, the favourite route of most jewellery brands. He explains his reluctance by saying, “Bollywood styling is populist and aimed at the masses. My jewellery is not for the masses. I’ve never chased Bollywood because it does not influence my sense of style. My jewels are for a woman who is globally-exposed, confident, strong, and really doesn’t need a woman from Bollywood to tell her how to dress and what to wear. Having said that, Kareena Kapoor Khan has worn my jewellery, Preity Zinta is a client and friend, and Priyanka Chopra has bought jewellery from me.” With a sardonic smile, Raj adds, “Also, Bollywood actresses don’t like wearing necklaces, and I am famous for my necklaces!”
His necklaces have graced some serious occasions. People still remember the diamond whopper that Nita Ambani once wore for a family function. Other clients who have flown into Kolkata on chartered jets to shop for that exclusive piece-de-resistance at Raj Mahtani’s store are Shobana Bhartiya, Neeja Birla, Priya Paul, Bina Modi, Reena Wadhwa and many more. Kolkata's most intellectual women, like art promoter Rakhee Sarkar of the Anand Bazaar Patrika group and designer Anamika Khanna, are invariably spotted wearing the designer’s pieces.
Raj tells us that he wants his jewellery to be worn in a matter of fact way. “I am so averse to precious jewellery being worn the traditional way, only at weddings with maang tikkas, laddis, chokers, etc. Precious jewellery should be worn everyday – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Be a diva. Make a bold statement every moment of your life. Never confirm. It’s the death of your soul.”
Where does he see his role in the vast pantheon of Indian jewellers, we ask. He replies, “I want to be the catalyst that tells customers that while they are buying precious gold and diamonds, which are a great investment, they are also buying a piece of art that can become something for future generations to be inspired by. Also, Indians always treat jewellery as the accessory. It’s time we treated clothes as the accessory and jewellery as the star. When I interact with my clients, I encourage them to look at jewellery as an intrinsic statement of their personal style, not as something their family wants to buy.”
Says the man who has showcased his jewellery at Paris Fashion Week, “For me, the Raj Mahtani woman is bold, confident, very aware of her money and power but refuses to make a big deal about it. When she wears a piece of jewellery, it doesn’t own her, she owns it. It’s not the size of the bauble that matters but the size of the personality that does.”