When William Bissell commissioned Radhika Singh to do a book on fifty years of Fabindia, she had her task cut out for her. Fabindia defined not so much a brand as a lifestyle. It created a sense of camaraderie among Fabindia customers such that “if you were a Fabindia person you were alright”. William’s sister Monsoon recalls being told that “Fabindia was 90 per cent emotion and 10 per cent everything else”.
Singh was a Fabindia person too and therefore “alright” to play chronicler. The story itself was simple enough. Connecticut-based John Bissell arrived in New Delhi on a Ford Foundation grant to help develop design and marketing skills for the Handicrafts Board, fell in love with India and almost the first Indian woman he came across, decided to stay on to work in the handloom sector, and Fabindia was born. To help Singh with her task, she was allowed access to an archive of 1,000 letters exchanged between John and his Indologist parents, official memos, telegrams, emails, receipts, annual reports, buyers’ briefs, suppliers’ invoices, financial statements and a record 70 interviews across a spectrum of Fabindia staff, friends and family.
The challenge was in assembling this jigsaw together. John worked with weavers to develop fabrics for export, adding durries to the repertoire as he assembled a team to work with him that has remained loyal to Fabindia ethics to this day even though they may no longer work together. In 1960, he wrote to a friend about his pleasure when “a craftsman gets a little encouragement, and some business” — the same friend would commit $5,000 for John’s venture. To this John added $20,000 left to him by his grandmother, and members of the Bissell clan before whom he made a presentation in Connecticut contributed whatever their funds allowed at the time, to the birth of an idea and Fabindia Inc.
Initially, there was more enthusiasm than profits (though “one Fabindia share brought in 1977 for Rs 5,000 is equal to Rs 1.6 crore today”), its policy of not paying bribes held up bureaucratic approvals till they learned that “John Bissell’s office was not amenable to negotiation” even at a time when the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act was more draconian than encouraging of business.
Singh’s attempt to play out the story of Fabindia against the greater theatre of Indian political and economic history is commendable though perhaps outside the scope of the book. Nor is the constant reference to orders, supplies, profits, taxes — almost like laundry lists — strictly necessary. The more interesting bits relate to behind-the-scenes human interest stories, the development of designs for durries, or Riten Mazumdar’s bold, tantric patterns for which he was paid a royalty till very recently (and which were widely copied in the form of “target” bedcovers across Lajpat Nagar and Sarojini Nagar markets), the Habitat team’s annual visits to India, William’s early start with the Bhadrajun Artist’s Trust and, of course, Fabindia going retail — first, cautiously, and then exploding all over India despite John’s reluctance which became “a point of conflict between William and his father”. It must be remembered that John at this time had survived a stroke that had robbed him of speech and confined him to a wheelchair.
The first Fabindia store in GK-1’s N-Block Market (still referred to as Fabindia Market) which opened in 1978 was John’s handiwork, as was the warren of stores it expanded into around the same space, but it was William who took it to another location (Vasant Kunj) before venturing into other metros and towns when the export market reneged on Fabindia. That it coincided with the retail boom in India was a coincidence, and Fabindia today sells its merchandise across 120 stores. Yet, it has not been a growth without warts — for years, its kurtas were flawed because they had been fitted to John’s figure with his extra-long arms; even now, it sells its cotton shirts with synthetic labels that get scorched under the dhobi’s press and ruin the garment.
If anything stands out, it is John’s extraordinary humanity, his honesty and transparency in business (he would share his financial statements even with his suppliers), his ability to help competitors (such as exporting a shipment for Dastkar at his own expense because they did not have an export licence). Though salaries were conservative, staff did not want to move out because they “had so much fun”, but John also rewarded landmark sales orders with bonuses and gifts. “John once brought up a cartload of watermelons from a street vendor because he felt sorry for him standing in the sun on a hot summer day. Then there was the incident of a tempo carrying pressure cookers that was intercepted by John and a good price negotiated for the entire staff.” When Chocolate Wheel opened in Jor Bagh, it was ordered to supply fresh cookies daily to be served with the staff’s coffees. When one of his colleagues returned from a SEWA exhibition at the Blind School because she could not afford a Rs 500 sari, he raided the office petty cash bin and sent off everyone with Rs 500 each to buy something for themselves.
It is these Fabindia stories that warm the pages of the book. John-sahib, you were “alright”.
THE FABRIC OF OUR LIVES The Story of Fabindia Radhika Singh Penguin/Viking 289 pages; Rs 499