I fell in love in 1997. Ilford house on Woods Road in Madras, on a damp November afternoon, provided the perfect setting. I’d sauntered down the cobbled road that branched off the famous Mount Road. It led to an ancient stone and plaster building that had been restored without any loss to its old crumbly feel. A watchman with rickety knees waved me in. Inside, there were red terracotta tiles on the floors and dark wooden rafters on the ceiling. Between the antediluvian air-conditioning units that were well- preserved, and the black and white pictures that stared down from frames dangling on the walls, Ilford house had many stories to tell. But I wasn’t listening. The burnished gleam of copper knobs against dark Sheesham wood, the heady scents of lemon grass and wood polish playing footsie in the air, and an ambient monsoon raga, had already sent my senses on a twirl. I steadied myself against a glass door as I took in the sights ahead. Exquisitely textured fabric hung down the walls all the way from the high ceiling. Cushions and quilts in beautiful prints rested in tiny nooks in the wall. Hand- knotted rugs called durries and ombre-dyed mats in rolls, begged to be caressed. Wooden shelves were stacked with coordinated table linen, matching runners— I hadn’t seen a runner until then, bless me! — and of course the ubiquitous kurta in all sizes and shapes. It was instant love for me.
Nineteen years later, I hopped onto a flight to Jaipur with a copy of ‘The fabric of our lives – The story of Fabindia’ by Radhika Singh. Seatbelts fastened tight, I leant back to be transported to a New Delhi of 1958. “A young man wearing a wide grin under a crew-cut head of hair, a seer-sucker suit and penny loafers” bounded up a wooden staircase leading to the second floor of the World War II barracks, which housed both the Cottage Industries and the Handloom and Handicrafts board. The young lady in the room who had to relinquish her desk to this visitor, had been reassured earlier by her boss that the American on a Ford Foundation grant would not “last long”. But last he did. John Bissell stayed on to build India’s most iconic ethnic brand – Fabindia. And the young lady who gave up her desk, Bim Nanda, soon became his wife. Radhika Singh lucidly details this touching story, and many more, in her remarkable book.
The history of John’s tryst with India is a fascinating tale. His “unswerving belief in India’s weaves and prints and his readiness to work with weavers and craftsmen in their own settings” revolutionized Indian textiles, invigorated handicrafts and transformed urban sensibilities. The book holds many nuggets of wisdom for entrepreneurs and textile lovers alike, but even more precious are the personal vignettes curated carefully by the author. John shared an extremely close relationship with his parents, Elinor and Bill Bissell. About 3000 letters that sailed the seas between them chronicle their unwavering influence and support — epistolary and otherwise — over the years. A vast network of John’s friends spread across all professions, income levels, cities and nations, formed the core equity of Fabindia. The trips with them to numerous ramshackle handloom workshops and long drives across Salvador Dali-like landscapes in his Ambassador, are among the many images that refuse to leave the mind long after the last page is turned.
Today, with the reins in John’s son, William’s capable hands, Fabindia has over a hundred outlets across the country and has given thousands of rural artisans their livelihoods. The model of social entrepreneurship, of community-owned companies that create wealth for both buyer and producer, which John pioneered, has its back story in the New England values of the Bissell clan. John’s ideology always held sway over his pragmatism. He had the knack and the patience to get things done without compromising his conscience. His conviction that we — supplier, buyer, consumer — were all in this together for the common cause of developing Indian textiles, led him to place pointers in every corner of his business , showing the way to the craftsmen he worked with. Buyers were introduced to the suppliers without a care that Fabindia might lose their business. As William said, “It seems contradictory that we pursue both profit and a social goal, but I believe that is the only way to do it”. And pursue they did, with unparalleled panache, to the benefit of many. I doff my hat to such largesse of spirit which championed Indian textiles and crafts for over half a century, and, to a book which tells that tale so admirably well.