It was a bleak world of stripes and checks the Sharbari gatecrashed into. A drab world, where the most daring sartorial adventure man could imagine was silk tie that has, over the years, managed to move from diagonal bands to paisleys and floral motifs. Or a dhoti with a border and a kurta with modest embroidery at neck and shoulders. Whether mobile yuppy or staid babu, that was the limit.

No wonder Sharbari’s menswear thundered into the fashion landscape. It was like an irresistible gust of wind that blows away age-old notions of can and can’t and left everybody breathless. Older men did a double take, trapped in their inhibitions. But the younger ones, mindful of the mirror and the new glint in the eyes of their woman, took to Sharbari with a zeal of the new convert. To be followed by dad even granddad; who were slower to shed conventions but have been no less steady in their patronage of Sharbari’s.

We speak of zeal and converts through, of course, Sharbari’s isn’t a religion, only a much talked-about designer label and Sharbari in no high priestess but only the woman designer, venturing into a distinctive line of menswear. However, she has always had a philosophy of fashion.

“I pitied men their dull wardrobes. The west has enslaved us to notions of masculine dress codes which we forget have only a short history, dating after the Industrial Revolution.” It has done something else, too. It had tutored Indian men to turn away from their own rich dress heritage.
Indian’s, both men and women, were fond of dressing up, "from Mohenjodaro to the Mughals“, she says and never tries of pointing out that sartorial flair wasn’t confined to aristocratic finery, Sherwani, Angrakha, Piran, Bandhgala, Kurtas… The ingenious weaves and colours and cuts of folk costumes offer breathtaking variety, too.

Sharbari wanted to change the language of men’s fashion by mining both the urban and the village traditions, updating them for wear. After all, it wouldn’t do to create quaint “costumes”. Thereafter old and new were merged in a stunning statement of style at once relevant, artistic and sophisticated. And, eminently wearable on different occasions. Not like the outrageous flights of fancy that turn heads fr the ramp but are impossible to wear off it. Impossible for most, that is.

Sharbari believes fashion trends move both in a linear direction and in a circular manner, earlier codes resurrected as new long after they died out. The elaborate styles of a bygone age of leisure and pleasure are coming back. With a vengeance. As a woman, Sharbari welcomes the changes of tastes. After all, women have eyes, too. As a designer she should feel a sense of satisfaction, for isn’t she more than a little responsible for this new awareness about the new look of menswear? She’s been able to do what she wanted.

Of course, imitations have been flooding the market. That doesn’t ruffle the designer. After all. it is a kind of tribute and merely proves her growing demand. Moreover, no copy can dupe her clientele which is an impressive list of discerning loyalists, not necessarily filthy wealthy but certainly artistic in taste. How could it? For one thing, copies, however faithful, invariably lack the delicate finesse. For another, they can never be unique the way each Sharbari item is.

Her designs are unique not only because each piece is exclusive : the designer draws directly on cloth, impromptu, without prelims, preserving no copy for afterwards, so that repetition is impossible. They are unique because Sharbari’s idiom is an inventive fusion of different art traditions, and evolved into an elegant expression distinctly her own. Cave and folk art; Egyptian mural; calligraphy of West and East Asia; still life; Pop art and Picasso; miniatures; Hindu Mythology are sources of inspiration, not copied, but recalled and re-invented with insouciant artistry so that their traditional identities are lost in new creations.

A piran has a startling icon : Ravan. Another more mainstream : Krishna destroying Kalia. A kurta sports a chaos of shards. Yet another shows an impressive dragon. Or leaping deer. Or tribal warriors. Or a nonsense script. Or simply geometric patterns. All ordered into intelligent permutations and in a fine range of rhyming rather than contrasting colours.

Calcutta often surfaces in her work. She’s often tried out playful tableaux depicting colonial Calcutta in dhoti borders; a fetching montage of gaslights and carriages. Hookahs and reclining babus, very popular with ‘pucca’ executives just discovering the sensuous elegance of this traditional wear. Indeed, Calcutta is Sharbari’s city. As the daughter of Ajit Datta, a leading poet of the post-Rabindranath era, she imbibed its literary and artistic traditions as naturally as one breathes.
The Sharbari range has done more than giving man a new look : it has given them glamour.