CURRENT ISSUE MAY 05, 2003  

SOCIETY AND TRENDS: THE NEW PARTY

High Brow Hedonism

The aspiring exclusivist replaces the everywhere party animal in the New Book of Social Snobbery

By Kanika Gahlaut

After the party, it's hangover time. Whether it is Shobhaa De declaring fatigue from enforced, unintelligent mass gatherings-to Amar Singh's annoyance-or the chatterati's refusal to respond with enthusiasm to Ramona Garware's position of ambassador at the Ashok's Capitol, the party, which you see faithfully reproduced in colour supplements, is winding up.

THE FASHION SHOW: Dead. Its epitaph reads 'symbol of fluff'. This season it was seen clutching to the petticoats of art in a bid to survive.

Cocooning, the term coined by American trend watcher Faith Popcorn to describe the party animal's retreat into a shell, may not be happening yet, but at least things are getting more interesting. "There is a need in my life to find a greater level," says fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani, part of the out-every-other-night brigade who were celebrated with the birth of Page Three. He has of late bowed out to do "interesting" things like attend the Jahno Khusro Sufi festival or visit the Apeejay Gallery for cutting-edge video art displays.

There is such a thing as too much of a good time. Not only is Society tired of the déjà vu that comes with pub-hopping all night and waking up to being torn apart in the papers for being hedonistic, venues and sponsors profess to be as tired of them. In the time that it takes to down a tequila shot, those hailed as Page Three divas have suddenly gone to being seen by pr machinery as the "chatterati clutter". As Perfect Relations' Dilip Cherian points out: "We came to a point when the experience of every event was the same: light, smoke and scantily clad women. Clients want their event to stand out."

So is glorious hedonism finished even before it arrived? Communications consultant and party analyst Arjun Sawhney disagrees. "Partying hasn't stopped. It is just that people are looking for high-minded ways of doing it." The fashion show, the excuse for one long party and once the basis for Page Three fodder, is dead, its epitaph pronouncing it the symbol of fluff. And erstwhile fuddy duddy events like book releases and art shows are stepping in to fill the gap.

WHISKEY 'NOSINGS': You still go to do what you always did, tank up, but now there is a higher purpose. You will be declared a connoisseur.

The release of Ismail Merchant's autobiography by Roli Books saw the filmmaker's cooking skills being showcased as a first-ever culinary twist to a literary event. A Photosphere exhibition in a dilapidated home in Delhi's Golf Links moved away from the staid hotel gallery-champagne was served in bubble glasses that you would drink dhaba chai in and everyone went back without buying a thing but raving, once again, about the "delightful ambience" and the finer points of Renaissance Portraiture. In attendance were the now-reclusive Rajiv Sethi and visiting Bianca Jagger. Young entrant to the curator-landscape, Devika Daulat Singh, showed her realistic September 11 images with wine drinkers in full attendance at venues ranging from embassies to Maurya Sheraton and became the society star, the way Malini Ramani was in the days of kitsch bitch. Where Jacqueline Lundquist, with her Mouse in Roosevelt House prose and propensity to promote every designer in town, was once diplomatic duchess, embassies are upping the bar: New Zealand chose to highlight the screening of Lord of the Rings, and the social set made their twittering way to the US Embassy at the launch of Yadav: The Roadside Love Story, the Penguin book about a London lady falling in love with an Indian taxidriver.

The new snobbery is true also of event managers, chatterati and the media. In Mumbai, CEO of the pr firm, Coffee Communications, Meeta Bajaj, finds other sensibilities at play. "Culture has not just become acceptable, it is also media-happy and savvy. Today, one is written about as much for going to see Vagina Monologue as a Moulin Rouge party at Olive. Likewise a craft auction of the Paramparik Karigar or Zubin Mehta's show or the Kalaghoda festival has as many takers as a party."

ART: It's meaningful, darling.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Realism is in. Plus, the black and white prints in the backdrop will set off your scarlet Versace perfectly for that inevitable Page Three photo.

For the party industry, this makes great marketing sense. In a bid to climb out of the acute déjà vu, liquor and soft drinks companies are sponsoring underground music, considered avant garde, and lifestyle products are promoting sports. And consider the final nail in the free-for-all party coffin: polo, positioned as a "society sport", is closing ranks. Says Vandana Mohan, who handles polo events in the capital: "Where earlier we hounded the chatterati to come to the grounds and parties, this season invitations were restricted to players, sponsors and those associated with the game."

Hotels are also upping their exclusivity quotient. Gautam Anand, gm, Maurya Sheraton, which has aggressively hosted events in the past, admits "the days of the big party-as symbolised by the fashion show-are over because there has been too much of it. The idea is to have smaller interest groups come together for diverse events." At the Imperial, this season began with the much publicised exhibitions of miniatures from the Kishanganj collection. Between wine and cheese and twitter, the chattering set pored through magnifying glasses to verify the period erotics on display. "You want to recreate for the Imperial not a hotel with a long banquet hall, but a jewel. Image validation and image reinforcement are both on course," says Imperial's Aruna Dhir, adding that art-"a certain genre of it, the old world genre"-is the new flavour.

POLO DOS: No invites for the chatterati. The company of horses is preferred.
PUB LAUNCHES: Now that the masses have taken to clubbing, the classes are suffering from an identity crisis.

Niche smooching is in. Ogling at full bodied figures on the runway in hotel banquet halls gave way to contemplating the full-bodiedness of the contents in stem glasses as newly initiated connoisseurs met at more intimate gatherings at hotel-sponsored wine tastings. And where the purveyors of wine left off, the whiskey sniffers will come in, predicts Maurya's Anand. A small group called in for a crab evening with diplomats and socialites in attendance, he says, was a hit. "It shows frivolousness is finished," declares Anand. "When you do nosing or meet for a crab dinner, you are imbibing knowledge, it is aspirational for those attending and it creates demand as far as we are concerned. People want to be adventurous, they want new things. That is the way I see future events going."

If the biggest victim is fashion, the real benefactor is art. Whether it is the Oberoi becoming the official host for Bowrings events or Crowne Plaza Surya playing host to an art show, art is being seen as the obvious backlash against the bimbo decade. The trend was in exhibit at the recent anniversary of Shanti and Sangeeta Chopra's Art Musings in Mumbai. The small art gallery was cramped with over 200 people sipping wine, air kissing and even running out for gasps of breath amidst the cloying Gucci and Armani perfume. The point, as a socialite, pointed cattily was not to buy, but to be seen appreciating the art. In Delhi, where once Nina Pillai and Bina Ramani were must-have names in the little black book, the new czarina on the social circuit is Alka Pandey, who saw her Visual Arts Gallery at the Habitat Centre as a place where "an Indo-western designer outfit would be just as comfortable as a Kanjivaram sari" and has successfully turned the gallery into a centre for art and air kissing. The space in her gallery shifts effortlessly from subjects such as the geography-challenging Borderless Terrain to the swinging Laila Khan Rajpal and shows by the fluorescent-attired shirt makers-turned-collectors Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna. And she has in attendance bottle blonde fashion designers as much as the likes of the French ambassador and art purists like O.P. Jain, "power couples who like to give a grunge impression", politician-turned-self-styled artist V.P. Singh, Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dixit, heads of UN agencies, ambassadors previously seen in front rows of fashion shows and Rohit Bal and The Park's Priya Paul. "I came at a time when people were beginning to tire of the dumbing down and I filled a gap. It suits me because I believe everything filters from the top. And if some are just coming to learn, that's okay. I never intended the gallery to be just for the initiated."

In a bid to survive, fashion this season was seen desperately clutching on the petticoats of high-minded art: gallerist Sharon Apparao's attempts to mix art with fashion were the only fashion-based events to become a talking point this season, and Satya Paul got more mileage for its spring summer show in Mumbai than the six others happening because of the Raja Ravi Verma paintings forming the backdrop.

— with Nidhi Taparia

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