When I was a little girl, I remember playing dress up and draping around my mother’s dupattas all over in weird angles. I used to strut around thinking I was the coolest little creature, except that I really wasn’t. Ujjawal Dubey of Antar Agni follows the same method but with a far more refined skill set and he doesn’t even sketch. He stands in front of a huge mirror at the label’s workshop in Noida and plays around with the fabric, keeping in mind how it would look on varied body shapes or if the fabric would fit well. The end result is his deconstructed drapes that are as masculine as they are feminine. That’s the thing about Ujjawal’s pieces, they are so very potent, every little stitch and knot questions the age old definition of masculinity and it’s markers. They’re fluid, they astoundingly defy rigid structures and norms.
Ujjawal’s tale is one of personal growth and ambition but not of greed. It was on a pleasant, sunny morning he narrated how it all began. Hailing from a small town, Gorakhpur, nestled on the edge of Nepal in north Uttar Pradesh was a young lad who wasn’t very aspirational. He was content with the mere idea of being an engineer since he was fascinated by the architectural aspect of it. His admission to NIFT Kolkata was a fluke. A chance encounter with a NIFT admission form while filling engineering forms was what led to Antar Agni. He never had any big city dreams, he further elaborated, 'I am ambitious but not in the literal form of it that one sees in contemporary times, I am ambitious for my own self, from within, that’s a different kind of ambition I think.' Even a degree in textile wasn’t enough to pique his interest in clothing.
As Ujjawal interned with the designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil, his focus was on sports and graphic design. It was towards the very end of his stint with them that he started working with apparel. Around the same time, he was contemplating more existential questions of life. He told me, 'While working I constantly questioned how one grows? I was in Delhi but what else? One can go places but I had no drive for that. I was digging for mental growth. I didn’t want to restrict myself so I started trying various things. I got into scriptures, I began exploring my spirituality. I basically struck out things I didn’t know. I eventually stumbled upon fabric.' Fabric was something he knew well which was why he decided to add his unique finesse to it. It was not only a tool to innovate with but also one for meaning making. The conversation moved onto Antar Agni’s atypical and flamboyant constructions and striking the balance between utility and art. He added, 'The kind of person that I am, I want garments to be wearable, I can’t do avant-garde. Also considering the fact I was away from home, I had to do things all by myself. I had to think of styles that set a statement and were fresh for this genre. I wanted to make it as real as possible. Wearability was and is the key for me.' Antar Agni started as Ujjawal’s attempt to find middle ground between the uber casual t-shirts and jeans and the heavy fineries of wedding wear. What it stands for today, is simultaneous existence of something old and something new. Ujjawal’s more philosophical side emerged as he attempted to define his practice. He explained, 'My neutrality defines it. Not here, not there. We are like water, we take shape differently in different situations. We are fluid. We are constantly looking for solutions and we just adapt.'
My conversations with designers can never be complete until I touch on the S word. With how overused sustainability is in the present scenario, it is easy to feel uninspired as people harp on it in the same repetitive manner. Yet, I still initiated the conversation because listening to different perspectives is simply riveting. Ujjawal refused to call Antar Agni a sustainable label, he called it a conscious brand. His thought process was fairly simple and he spelled it out clearly. 'A term like that has merely come from the West. It has percolated down to India but the thing is we’ve always been sustainable in some or the other way. It’s there in our blood, we do tend to consume more but if you think about it, our mothers would always keep and use the interesting boxes. Our clothes would always trickle down and become mops, they were never thrown away. We’ve never had the habit of throwing everything away. Ours is a very conscious label, I don’t think anything can be completely sustainable unless it’s locally grown and locally consumed. We try our very best to reduce fabric wastage as well. We are very conscious about the paper we use, the water we use, how we treat each other. It also comes from within the team.'
The very first thing that caught my eye as I entered Antar Agni’s atelier was the big black gate and the ‘tailor wanted’ sign handwritten in Hindi. It was so kitsch but it also reminded me of how Ujjawal’s vision is put to life by a force behind him which is usually forgotten. The garment makers or the master jis, as we so lovingly call them. I spoke to Md Wasim who started working 30 years ago. The first from his family, he used to work in Kolkata, and early on he was associated with civil work but later took to working with designers. He also worked with the very famous Barkat Ali and Brothers. Faseehurrahaman on the other hand hails from Uttar Pradesh and has been associated with his work since the past 20 years. He comes from a family of tailors, with his forefathers involved in the same industry. He told me about how a single kurta could take over eight to twelve hours to produce, starting from the pasting to taking it on the machine.
Text Unnati Saini