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November 23, 1999


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The Rediff Enterprise Interview/ Shyam Ahuja

'I insist on simplicity. That is the key to my designs'

Beginning today, begins an occasional series of interviews celebrating the spirit of Indian enterprise. Today: Shyam Ahuja, the caliph of the carpet.

Shyam Ahuja The legend of Shyam Ahuja and his magic carpet has grown over the years. Today his dhurries drape homes of the rich and the famous all over the world while he shuttles between Paris, New York and Mumbai. Recently in India to launch a colourful book on his work, Ahuja described his long and equally colourful 30 year haul from being a nondescript wool trader to one of the world's most celebrated home accessory designers in an interview to Pritish Nandy.

When and where did the Shyam Ahuja dhurrie begin?

In 1969, exactly 30 years ago. It was very accidental. I was a wool buyer for Chattersfield in New York. Before that I used to work for my father. The day Kennedy was assassinated I struck out on my own. The designs in those days were the traditional Indo-Persian stuff and it was getting very boring. I was looking for a break. It is tough there. You can never get an appointment to meet anyone. Everyone is too busy.

So what did you do?

Frankly, Mr Nandy, I still don't get an appointment to see anyone. I always gatecrash. Everyone abroad is very busy and today with all this voice mail stuff, it has become almost impossible. So much so that even when it comes to airline bookings or to reconfirm a flight you cannot get across to anyone. Press 1 or press 2 or press 56, one never gets to speak to a real person. So I have mastered the subtle art of gatecrashing.

Where did you gatecrash?

Everywhere I went I was abused and thrown out. They told me how Indians are unreliable, how their quality is shabby, their goods never come in time. It was so bad, the abuse, that I felt like throwing up. One day, while hanging around there, showing my catalogues, colours, designs I bumped into the Mexican trade commissioner in New York. He said: You will never make it this way. Go to the designers building. That is the place for exclusive merchandise. The kind of merchandise you cannot get down the street in any store. But, remember this: You must be exclusive, new, highly priced and you must present your work with a great deal of ambiance.

Is that how you positioned your brand from the very beginning? Exclusive, new, high priced and not easily available in the store down the street.

That's right. I went for exclusivity. Snobbishness. Mr and Mrs Ford would not like to have silks that are available in Bloomingdales.

How did you achieve that?

Through the D&D route. Designers and decorators. I did not do retail though many retailers today sell our stuff and earn huge money.

Where did you sell your first dhurrie?

I was trying to sell carpets but the first order I received was for an all-cotton, flat-woven dhurrie. Irwin Corey was the client and I wrongly thought he was looking for something cheap. He wasn't. He was looking for something new and different.

Since I had never made a dhurrie, I did not even know where to begin. So he gave me this piece and asked me to make a six feet by nine feet dhurrie in the same design, in cotton. I said I would try. I came back here and started looking for the craftsmen. I found there were no private workshops making dhurries. Only prisoners made them in jails during the British years. So that's where I started looking around. Only to find that dhurries no longer existed. They had vanished!

Where did the prisoners learn the skill?

They were taught it in the jails. In fact, there was a long tradition of dhurries being made in jails. Particularly in Rajasthan.

There's this story about the maharaja of Bikaner who once went to England and asked his manager to buy him the best carpet. His manager scoured the entire market and found the carpet that looked and cost the most expensive. He brought it to the maharaja who unrolled it, only to find that it was made in one of his jails. Carpet and dhurrie making in the jails was a very, very profitable industry but after the British left, it languished.

There was only one weaver left. His name was Sakhrullah. He had packed his belongings, sold his house and was on the verge of going away to Pakistan when I reached him and asked him to make me that first dhurrie. He did. He is still here today and he is a very, very rich man and a competitor of mine.

What did your buyer say when he got the piece?

He sent me a telex saying it was fantastic! He asked for six more. I guess he saw potential in it. Designers are extremely creative people. They know when the time is ripe for a change. They know when the market has had enough of something. The blues and reds. The Persian carpets. We needed something softer. Something in pastels. A breath of fresh air. That's how it all started. One thing led to another and the whole scene changed. Now I have over 2,000 designs in my archives!

Do you work on designs given by others?

Initially we did. Now, no more. We redesign.

Redesign? What do you mean?

I would not say we design. We pick up designs and these become ours. From architecture. From saris. From life. We then chop and change and redesign the stuff. I insist on simplicity. That is the key to my designs. I hate anything fussy or busy.

You design it all personally?

One hundred per cent.

Where is the design implementation centre?

In Mumbai. Here we put it on graph paper. We make changes. We make changes again and again till we are happy. We try out different colour schemes. We make six pieces. Then we see the market reaction. If the reaction is good, it goes into the line.

Where does manufacturing take place?

In UP, where we have two factories. What is unique about us is that we design, manufacture, ship, market. There's no one in between. The only thing we go out for is the procurement of cotton from the societies in Kerala. Everything else is done inhouse.

What about the woollen dhurries? Where are they made?

On the Kipling route. Down the Ganges. In UP.

The silks?

In Rajasthan.

How does the system work?

We give the yarn to the weavers. They take it to their huts and work there. We supervise them. We pay between Rs 100 to Rs 200 per foot to them, depending on the design, the quality. It is a cottage industry. There's this one guy Habib who has worked with me for 25 years. That's how you get perfection. By giving the weaver the same design again and again.

Was it difficult to break into the global market?

Not at all. Our designs were unique. So were our colours. They caught on easily.

What is your turnover today?

About Rs 25 crore. Not much after 30 years but then we are not in the volumes business. We are into quality. Those who buy our works and sell them earn a turnover in excess of Rs 300 crore a year. I am happy with that.

Where do you live?

A I share my time between Paris and New York. Paris I love. New York is very good for work. I come to Mumbai once in a few months.


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