When Queen Elizabeth II made her first trip to independent India in the winter of 1961, a grand reception was held in the City Palace, Jaipur, to welcome the royal couple. During that gala, the British Queen complimented Rani Urmila Raje of Dholpur on her stunning sari made by Sir Norman Hartnell, famous as not just the Queen’s dressmaker but also a leading couturier. That French organza sari is the only six-yard beauty Sir Norman ever made.
It is that spectacular sari that forms the inspiration for Prima Vera, the new collection launched by Atelier Shikaarbagh, founded by Maayankraj Singh, grandson of the elegant Urmila Raje. In fact, not just this line that recalls the glamour of 1950-60s, a decade when detailed construction and tasteful embellishment formed the core of Parisian fashion, Atelier Shikaarbagh’s very existence is nurtured by the young designer’s memories and musings of his paternal grandmother, Urmila Raje, who was cousin to Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur.
Married at a very young age to the aristocratic family of Kayasthpada, Dholpur, she was one of the few women of regal origin back then to have completed her post-graduate studies in fine arts. Travelling around the world and India with her husband, the royal fell in love with Kota in Rajasthan, where the family eventually settled in 1965.
Once in Kota, Urmila Raje, who was toasted in imperial circles for her impeccable taste in saris, jewellery, embroidery and the arts, found her retinue of karigars from Dholpur following her. Master embroiderers that they were, they flourished under her patronage. “While I played with their children, my aesthetics for fashion and fine embroideries were being influenced by the beautiful work created. My label’s creations flaunt the craftsmanship of karigars who have been with our family since then. I witnessed the splendour of luscious fabrics that was flown in from Lyon, among other places in India and abroad. In fact, to source French chiffon for our atelier, I had to just dial a number noted in grandma’s diary. Soon, the choicest variety of fabrics were being shipped to Shikaarbagh to be made into luxurious saris,” recalls Singh, who sources chiffons, French chiffons, satins, tissues and georgettes from the best suppliers in India, Paris and Hong Kong.
Singh, however, didn’t have it as easy as he makes it sound. Though backed by his paternal grandma who sensed his eye for sartorial expressions quite early, he had to brave stiff resistance from his father, Ravindra Singh, a renowned naturalist, wildlife conservator and nature photographer felicitated by the World Wildlife Foundation. Aristocratic families earlier didn’t consider fashion an apt career choice for men. “I wouldn’t blame him totally. In our families, fashion or anything related to fine arts isn’t considered prestigious enough for a man to pursue. So, I beguiled him into thinking I was setting up a home furnishings label first. Gradually, he warmed up to the idea of his son designing occasion wear for women when the fame of Shikaarbagh spread among those who enjoyed the art of dressing in handcrafted couture that stood out for its subtle elegance and inimitable charm.”
A polyglot, a watercolour artist and an avid art and fashion collector, Singh is currently pursuing a PhD in ‘The Evolution of Rajput Royal Costumes’ from the Kota Open University. This knowledge, feels Singh, will arm him to set up a well-archived textile museum in the future which should become a sound source for fashion research. “My label was born from my appreciation for heritage needlework techniques such as aari, zardozi, fareesha, nakshi, taarajadai, motijod, marodi as well as French embellishments of knotting, sequin work, Chantilly lace work, pearl work, silk flossing and crewel work. We must cherish these crafts as they represent the workmanship a human hand is capable of. Something my grandma believed in and a thought process that Atelier Shikaarbagh celebrates every single day.”