Aliya Ladhabhoy
When renowned and elusive jewellery designer Viren Bhagat talks, you listen. Here are excerpts from a discussion:
Viren Bhagat in conversation with Minal Vazirani and Dr. Usha Balakrishnan
Viren Bhagat in conversation with Minal Vazirani (Left) and Dr. Usha Balakrishnan
What drew you to gems and jewellery? I know you come from a jewellery background. But tell us about your attraction to gems and jewellery.
I started at an early age. I come from a jewellery family. My father, my forefathers have been in the business for more than 20 years in Mumbai, and before that, they were in Gujarat, when I was very young, I think I was 11 or 12, still in school. After school I would go to my father’s store, he had a very big store called Bhagat brothers. I would enter and just watch my father, my uncles deal with gemstone dealers and clients. So, I think I developed an interest very early. It was a very old-school business, a large space, and they had a workshop there which had about 20 craftsmen working at that time. I would sit there and just watch. Different departments in the workshop where these guys would make the jewellery; the setters, the polishers. And I was fortunate enough that the dealers would take the time and explain things to me. The finer nuances of the gems, the colour, how does one judge colour, clarity, the origin, where does it come from; how do you tell whether it’s a Colombian emerald or a Brazilian emerald. These little things I was taught at an early age. I loved it, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think my formative years were spent in an environment where I got to learn a lot. And that led to my love for the business. And eventually when my father’s business folded up and they all (Brothers) separated. We (Bhagat and his brother) started a shop at Kemps Corner, in 1991. We were the only branch of the family that continued the business.
A glimpse of the diverse international audience at Mapping a Legacy of Indian Jewels
A glimpse of the diverse international audience at Mapping a Legacy of Indian Jewels
Do you have a muse, a source of inspiration, something that inspires your work because you’re essentially an artist?
My wife is my muse. But having said that, she’s not my only muse. It’s amazing how, when you’re a creative person you become very sensitive to your surroundings. You observe things. For example, I run early in the morning. We run through the US club all the way till the end, so,w pass by this fishing village in Colaba. And early in the morning you have these fisherwomen going to the market to Sassoon docks and it’s amazing to watch them, how they dress, the way they tie their hair, the gold jewellery they wear and even the posture with which they walk, that inspires you. But I think that everything about India is very central to my designs, the colour, the architecture, the music, the food, I mean everything. In all my works, there’s always something about India in there. It’s not Indian jewellery, but clearly it is inspired from India in many ways.
Speakers at Mapping a Legacy of Indian Jewels
Speakers at Mapping a Legacy of Indian Jewels
Could you tell us about your process of developing a piece of jewellery?
It’s a dual process, one is a part of me, something which I do every day is sit and draw. The first one hour in my office is spent on the table, with my headphones on, listening to trance music. Having said that, we also have a good collection of gemstones, which we have acquired from my travels. I take out some jewels, which I think are valid to the design I’ve made, and try to match them. If that doesn’t work, then I have a gem in front of it, maybe a diamond or a sapphire and I draw for that. Most of the times when I buy gems I already know what I’m going to make of it. It’s generally like that; if I don’t have the stone, I’ll acquire the stone for that particular drawing.
While we are on the subject of drawings, where did you learn to draw? 
That comes from my father. My father was a painter. He was the odd one out in the family. He was a professor at the JJ School of Art and he painted for a very short period of his life. Some of the contemporary artists used to come to our house, we had a big art-deco flat in Marine Drive. I remember as a child, they would come home on Sunday mornings and sit and argue on art for hours, and I would sit on my father’s lap and listen to all these people shout and express their opinions. My father didn’t teach me how to draw because he never wanted me to be an artist. He left art and joined his brothers in the jewellery business. I think what led me to start drawing was this early family trip to Europe in the ’80s. You know how jewellery business in India is very traditional, like in my family too, one would go to the jeweller and give orders, choose the designs. I said there’s no way I’m going to go into that. I’m not going to take any orders, I design and we sell what I make and my brothers were very supportive of that.
Joanna Hardy, an independent fine jewellery specialist chatting with Viren Bhagat 
Joanna Hardy, an independent fine jewellery specialist chatting with Viren Bhagat
What prompted you to say that we not do what everyone else is doing, and follow your way? 
I saw how my father worked with clients. I realised that when you are designing for someone, you’re just drafting their ideas. You’re not designing freely, you’re not the designer anymore. But I wanted to be a designer. And usually, when you work with a designer, you’re just drafting designs, you don’t get to actually design.  And I am very proud to say that both my boys, who started the business in Dubai, draw better than I do. They have the same talent. I think it’s genetic.
How do you see your jewellery? Is it a work of art,  a piece of adornment, is it a fashion accessory, is it setting a trend for design and jewellery? How do you position your own creations?
It is, of course, a work of art, but essentially, I’m not in the business to make money. If you see our method of business you’ll laugh. It takes us six months to make a ring. So, it is not a commercial venture. We are truly driven by passion, and I’m very happy to see my boys have the same ambition and patience. We spend so much time in the details, working on every single part of the jewel. We have an amazing set of collectors who collect our jewels. And I’m glad to see that contemporary jewellery has found this space. You go to the museum you only see old things. This has definitely changed.      
Tell us about your relationship with your kaarigars?
Yeah, it’s a very crucial relationship, but, to be able to communicate, for example, we just have one pencil drawing on paper. It’s not a 3D design, just my drawings of the jewel, which are flat. They’re really the engineers, they’re very detailed, very precise. That guy has to make a flat piece of paper into a 3-dimensional piece of jewel and that’s a huge challenge. It’s taken me so many years to come to this level where it’s almost like telepathy.  Another good thing we share is the passion for the craft. For a craftsman to make something so small, so trivial, even he has to have the same passion that I have. Otherwise, for him it’s not worth it. Even then it’s not just a commercial venture. We have this passion to produce the thing with the same beauty. I think it’s a shared passion. With the younger generation, it’s a challenge really. They don’t have the same patience, they want to work on computers.
Do you think that the younger generation of kaarigars is excited to come to your workshops to learn?
Very few of them! There are a lot of talented people out there, that’s not a problem. It’s very rewarding because we pay them well, but the problem is to make them interested enough to have that patience to sit on that bench and make a piece of jewellery.
Apart from being a designer, you’re also a collector.  How do these two worlds come together for you? 
I think there’s a connection for sure. Because I grew up with art, being an artist’s son, my father was a collector. He collected art in those days. What I have in my house are all his paintings, he never sold commercially. He was never a commercial artist. He made a small body of works. Besides, I love Indian miniature paintings, I love Indian culture, south Indian blouses. I think that showcases in my work as well. When you see miniature paintings, you’ll see the same kind of detailing my work has. It translates into my work. So like you said, what I collect, reflects into my work, there is an influence for sure. I love Indian textiles, so, that plays a role sometimes, Indian architecture, that has a role to play. As a collector, what I collect does have an effect on my work.
What is that one piece of art that you feel has been important in your jewellery collection?
There are a few things. The collection of miniatures that I have, the portraits, the Mughal portraits I have are the most amazing pieces. It is just the way the textiles are, the clothes that they wore, the patkas around their waists. There’s this one painting, which I have in my living room, of my father, which has a beautiful jaali, which I reconstructed as a bracelet many years ago. So sometimes, I use elements of that in my work.
What draws you to such detail?
It’s a passion really, I don’t know if I become obsessive sometimes but you spend too much time over it. If I’m not happy with it, why will I make it for someone else? And that’s why details come, cause that’s how I feel happy and satisfied. 
What’s your favourite gemstone?
That’s a very tough question. I love all the jewels, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, etc. So, if I have to buy an emerald today, it becomes like the flavour of the month for me. I can’t play favourites, they’re all like my children where I can’t play favourites. I love all of them equally. And that’s why you see a variety of these gems in my work.

The excerpt is from Viren Bhagat’s discussion with Dr Usha Balakrishnan at last year’s Saffronart’s annual jewellery symposium – Mapping a Legacy of Indian Jewels.

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