The telling of the Fabindia Story by Radhika Singh.
I was born in Delhi and have lived in the city most of my life. My parents relocated from Lahore in 1947 and rebuilt their lives in Delhi along with many other Punjabi families after Partition. John Bissell (the founder of Fabindia) married Bimla Nanda who was also a part of this Punjabi sub-culture now settled in post-partition India. My parents knew Bim very well and so a couple of years after she started a nursery school, I was enrolled as one of her students. My first encounter with John Bissell was at the Playhouse School. He enacted the role of Santa Claus at the annual Christmas events and has remained in my memory in that persona. I reconnected with the Bissells after Fabindia started its first store in the Greater Kailash N-block market and all the LSR girls (including me) started buying their khadi kurtas from there. John would often be present in the shop chatting with his customers. Fabindia became a favoured shopping destination for many of us growing into adulthood in the 80’s in Delhi and we enjoyed its expansion as a retailer of cotton handloom products. We were the ‘cool’ 70’s generation of liberal socialist students who wore handloom kurtas over jeans and Kolhapuri chappals, and carried jhollas. We ‘made love not war’ and were involved with new wave theatre and film, jazz festivals and late night sessions of Indian classical music under the open winter sky. Many of us remained in university through our 20’s either as students or as lecturers believing that we were an integral part of the change that we wanted to see in the world.
It is not an exaggeration to say that we believed that Fabindia was part of the same optimism since it was working within Gandhi’s ethic of supporting India’s weavers and selling handloom. We supported its ideology by flaunting the Fabindia ‘look’ in our personal lifestyles though some of us, like me, earned a fairly good income working as a fashion model from 1972 – 1984.
Some years later I moved to Kalpa, 10,000 ft up in Himachal Pradesh, with my husband and a mandate to write my doctoral thesis in sociology. Setting up house for the first time we furnished our rooms with curtains and upholstery from Fabindia, 500 km away in Delhi. My daughter was born in that home. Back in the city in 1988, I began a new life as a single woman with a two-year-old child. I started a photo agency and learned to manage photographs as an entrepreneurial business. It became my career and my passion. I dealt with images for advertising, for audio visuals and television, for annual reports and books. I produced photography exhibitions for human rights organisations, London galleries and government tourism fairs, for corporates with a message and for photographers with talent.
Twenty years passed, my daughter Ishita grew up, and on the way the vocabulary changed. I was now a professional photo editor and curator in a world that had rediscovered photographs. By this time, I had set up my second home in Delhi furnished almost entirely from Fabindia. It was now a complete home store having added crockery and furniture to its product line. I introduced Ishita to Fabindia’s (short) kurtas and covered her bedroom floor with cotton durries in pastel shades. My night wear had consisted of white kurtas and pyjamas from Fabindia from 1976. I visited the Bissells occasionally, joined the mourners when John passed away and noticed that the young managing director of Fabindia walked in the same park as I did in my parents’ neighbourhood.
And so it was no surprise when I crossed William Bissell in the DDA Park in Panchshila Park in July 2006. I had been working on a historical family exhibition with my father’s archival pictures and would open the show in January 2008. William and I walked together that evening discussing possibilities for celebrating Fabindia’s 50th anniversary coming up in 2010. I had many ideas about showcasing the history of the company; after all I was a Fabindia ‘girl’ and had lived with ‘it’ for many years! I suggested that the company produce a book to commemorate fifty years defining its history and narrating personal stories from all the protagonists in the Fabindia saga. In my mind it was another family album. The proposal was emailed to William in August 2006 and I forgot about it. One year later, in the same park, William asked me if I was ready to start the project.
It has taken me over two years to research and write the story of Fabindia.
Following the thread of John Bissell’s life against the background of the revival of craft in India has been one the most fulfilling experiences of my professional life.
Some of the characters spanning the story had passed away before I touched that history, two more were lost along the way, others are hanging on by that same thread. It is crucial to have it all said now before it loses its authenticity. That is what I have tried to do. This book is my guru dakshina to my first teacher Bim Bissell whose life is a part of this history.
There are two important facts I need to share about this project. The first is that my primary research material has consisted of over 1000 letters written by John Bissell to his parents between 1948 – 1984 sharing details of his personal and work life that would have been lost otherwise. Correspondingly, copies of John’s father Bill’s letters to his son were also found with Marie, John’s sister. Efficiently preserved by the family this personal archive was generously handed over to me for reference. The second is that all the people I have interviewed for this book have not only told their Fabindia stories with candour but have remembered details with remarkable clarity, corroborating each other and the facts unwittingly.
All the data for this history has been collected from one or more of the following sources: photographs, letters, cards and notes from the family; official correspondence – memos, letters, telegrams, emails, invoices; power point presentations and films; Fabindia annual reports, administrative journals; salary registers, sales’ reports; suppliers’ invoices; buyers’ briefs; financial statements; fabric sample files, promotional posters and press reviews. The 70 interviewees include craftspersons, buyers, members of the Bissell family and friends and Fabindia staff, past and present. I have met the extended Bissell clan in Connecticut, visited their beautiful homes and seen the varied commercial spaces occupied by the original company, Fabindia Inc. over the years. In India my research has involved travelling to crafts’ villages, production units, suppliers’ homes and factories, to buying agents, family friends, Fabindia offices and stores.
There is not one person that I have met while following the Fabindia saga who is not passionately involved either with the history, the ideology, or the future of the company. Every one of those who have contributed in some form to this book have either a) wept while telling their stories, or b) thanked me for allowing them to relive their memories, or c) loudly pronounced their opinion on the future of the company. Most people have fallen into all three categories. Taking my own commitment into account as well, I can only surmise that Fabindia belongs to everyone who touches it. I call this attachment the Fabindia phenomena and trace it to John Bissell’s legacy. He stated often and to many people “that there was heart in India” and this obviously determined his response to his company and of those who worked there. That ‘heart’ has also touched my life through the writing of this history. I have enjoyed the affection of all my interviewees and celebrated each of those 50 years as I learned about them. Finally, I have also joined the ranks of all those who have loved John Bissell.
The Fabindia story should appeal to all those who appreciate that the craft of entrepreneurship goes beyond the amassing of wealth.
This project has fulfilled a 30-year-old desire to write a book. My doctorate was to lead to a career in research and writing. I never did get to that degree but the subject of my Phil thesis was, interestingly, the cotton textile industry in India. By a strange coincidence the writing of the history of Fabindia has complemented my MPhil degree and I am now content. For almost two years I have ignored the world of photography. My last project (worked on in 2008-9) was co-curator of a survey exhibition titled ‘Where Three Dreams Cross’. 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which opened at the Whitechapel Gallery, London and at the Fotomuzeum, Winterthur in 2010. However, the book bug having bit once carries on. This year I will be working on another book with pictures and stories from my own family archive. My final ambition is to establish a photo museum for family archives in India.