It isn’t every day that one meets a fantastical enigma with the power to change their whole perspective to life. Here is a rare opportunity to take a deep dive into the mighty ocean that is Mohanjeet Grewal's life, as she fulfills dreams, wins hearts and eventually conquers love
By: Jiya Sharma
Posted on: August 21, 2019
It is the summer of 2019 in Paris…you could just hear “c'est très chaud (it’s very hot!)” everywhere! France felt more like India in summers with temperatures soaring to +45 degree C. It was the week a heat wave hit Europe, the strongest heat wave in decades.
Well, braving the unusual heat in the boulevards of Paris, I made my way from the metro station to her house. She had invited me over for a dinner party on my maiden visit, so I knew my way around. As you enter her building, climb to the fifth floor and exit the lift, you are faced with two doors. Within a second, you would know which door to knock! The one with a sweet decoration of stickers and artifacts around it. As Indian as a house can get.
I entered into a house which was so magical, it could put Hogwart’s libraries to shame. A house full of color, craft, photographs, art and most of all memories. Magazines, journals, newspapers, stereos, and music records surround the floor while her own personal, colorful forest grows on the windows. Every wall is covered with huge paintings and artworks. There are photographs everywhere one looks. Photographs of her, clicked by her and many photographs dear to her. “This house contains my life,” she went on to tell me.
I was soon greeted by a distant, soft voice speaking in Hindi. I wondered, where is she? I entered the kitchen, and saw a creatively dressed elegant lady, faced the other way, instructing her house help as she prepared a salad. There she was! Mohanjeet...Mohanjeet Grewal; the person I admired so much and finally had a chance to pick her mind. Amidst all the heat and the related frustration, meeting her was like a cool breeze that relieved me of all my angst. We instantly hit it off with one warm hug (more than French and less than Punjabi) as we chose between the language we wanted to communicate in - after all, we share so many!
There were many others at her house the other night. People she knew dearly and people she had never met in her life. She was a sensation for us all. “How do you know Ms. Grewal?” I asked someone. “I don’t. I just heard so much about her, I couldn’t help but come and meet her in person,” he said. Everyone, from age 5 to age 45, was talking about her generosity, warmth and how even as 30-year olds, they would rather hang out with her rather than their own age group. My favorite moment was when she broke into dance on some old ghazals, shortly joined by us all. Let’s just say, I realized very soon that there is nobody like her.
What Makes Her
Mohanjeet Grewal was born in undivided India, in Lahore (now in Pakistan). She moved to separated India one night before the subcontinent gained independence and partitioned into present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is when her insane but glorious journey began. After having lost her mother at a very young age, she worked hard to gain opportunities to study abroad, which she did! After a master’s in political science at the University of Los Angeles (UCLA), she obtained the Doctorate at Berkeley in 1955.
She wrote her first articles as President of the university student association. Subsequently, she left for New York and began writing for the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. In the following years, she worked with UNESCO in France. She had by then realized that while they had created a huge buzz for India within UNESCO, nobody outside the offices knew about it. Shocked at this ignorance, she was full of ideas when she returned to India nearly 10 years later.
India, truly a land of creativity, colors and imagination had so much to offer which the west was completely unaware of. Despite having no definite family to return to and financial instability, she convinced people around her towards glorifying India and motivated them to bring Indian art and craftsmanship to a global stage. Her idea was to simply sell and display Indian work in cities like Paris. She herself picked out a selection of items that she thought would fit well with the needs and expectations of the French well beyond their imagination. To start with, she had collaborators; but over time, almost everyone had backed out of the plan. Ms. Grewal, who has always been considered unique, eclectic and willing to go against the tide ever since she was 5 years old, decided to go along with it herself. Voila! There she was...in the 1960s, when she arrived in the city of lights, fashion and love, Paris, and opened her first shop “The Malle of India” at 89 Rue de Bac, Paris 75007. Soon, she opened the shop bearing her first name “Mohanjeet” in 1968.
Paris saw with utter admiration as Madame Mohanjeet entered into the Parisian world of fashion with aplomb. The media loved her persona and creativity and she had a great share of prominent clientele like Romain Gary, Jean Seberg, Catherine Deneuve, Yves Saint Laurent, Jane Fonda and Bridget Bardot. She was covered by journals like Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, and many more. Once, Princess Caroline was photographed on the streets of Paris after her shopping from spree from Mohanjeet.
The legacy of Ms. Grewal restricted itself not just to France but expanded to Spain, Monaco and USA. She sold to Anne Taylor, Bloomingdales and had presence on the prestigious Fifth Avenue, New York. She clearly recalls how her “wrinkled collection” in a “three penny suitcase” was unfolded in the presence of Diana Vreeland, the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue America at that time. On seeing her fluttering fuchsia pink silk gharara (a traditional outfit worn by women in India), Ms. Vreeland exclaimed “Ah! fuchsia is India's navy blue!”. Few weeks later, this very pink silk gharara was on the opening fashion pages of Vogue. Ms. Vreeland travelled to India, loved its colors and told everyone she met, including big buyers in America, about Ms. Grewal’s work in Paris. Ms. Grewal believes she established a bridge for her to walk across. “There won’t be anyone like her,” reminisces Ms. Grewal as she fondly remembers Ms. Vreeland.
During this time of her relationship with Vogue, the magazine's celebrated photographer William Klein, better known as Bill, had decided to make a film on Vogue's sway over the fashion industry, powerfully personified by its Editor - Diana Vreeland. “Everything at Vogue was, is, exaggerated. Bill was going to go beyond. Far beyond. I was asked to reflect this exaggeration,” remembers Ms. Grewal.
The project took two-three years, but the movie “Qui Etes Vous Polly Magoo” (Who Are You Polly Magoo) became a cult movie of the era. Many characters in the movie wore Ms. Grewal’s clothes. “We, my friends, several of my famous clients can be seen enthusiastically heehawing in unison in the movie!”
Fashion With the Enigma
We settled down with a coffee in her living room. “Fashion is not about following trends and releasing collections season by season. The number of seasons increase every year with more designs for the rest to copy,” was her first take on fashion today. Ms. Grewal believes that fashion was never about copying, rather it was always about expressing.
Fondly remembering her college director, who she was immensely close to and considered a father figure, she recalled a conversation they had. “The moon is the same, the sun is the same, so is water. Why are people so different?” she asked him. To which he said, “It’s our geographical conditions that determine what we are. We are made of the dust that surrounds us.” Ms. Grewal, with her gaze fixed at the sky, whispered, “I thought about it all my life and I can say with confidence that I don’t know anyone who has said anything wiser”. The real sophistication lies in understanding one’s surrounding and adapting one’s fashion to it. “There is a reason why traditional clothing across the world are what they are. In my days, during summer in India, you would never see any person of status wearing black. Once, I wore a black kurta and Satish Gujral, a close friend of mine exclaimed ‘what are you wearing? Don’t you know this is summer?’ This is the sense that we have lost.”
Ms. Grewal believes fashion has changed almost completely since she started out. “Why is everyone always dressed in black or on special occasions a grey, a darker grey and if we’re lucky, a lighter one? You wake up, you wear black shoes, black pants, black this, black that and you’re ready. You’re ready for the day’s struggles. Why do you always look like you’re ready for war?” she exclaimed. Well, looking at my complete black attire with the exception of a light grey shirt, I couldn’t agree more!
Curiously, I asked about her personal style to which she replied, “I love loose clothes. I hate anything that fits. It’s like you put me in jail”. A free silhouette for a truly free spirit!
Ms. Grewal has never considered herself a fashion designer, neither has she ever taken any courses on sketching or designing. For her, fashion is her way of life as it should be for everyone. Ms. Grewal creates bohemian chic, one of a kind designs that truly capture the aura of India. It is difficult to capture such a multicultural country in design, but she definitely manages to. At the same time, her designs are evidently modern and bring a twist to the traditional attire.
In 1967, she created the ‘mini-sari’, a twist on the traditional Indian drape. When asked about what inspired this creation which created a scandal back home, she said “You see, there isn’t much to it. I was still wearing saris and I had never worn mini clothes. It just happened”. Beamingly, she continued, “I was very prudish about my body. This body - it’s mine, nobody can have an easy access to it.” Immediately after, she broke into a laughter! I was amazed at her charming ways!
I was amazed to note how everything inspires her. She doesn’t need specific supplies to create what she does. Instead, she could use curtains, carpets, quilts…even handkerchiefs, if fitting! Within six months of her first store opening, it was already full. She dressed clients in designs made out of exclusive, rare, authentic and expensive fabrics. At a time when Indian fabrics and colorful patterns were all the rage, Ms. Grewal’s work was on everyone’s mind and everyone’s magazines. All these years she has continued designing precious jewelry, silk scarves, and clothing with pristine embroidery. In 1973, actress Jacqueline Bisset is seen using all-natural beauty products made by Ms. Grewal in a feature by The Sunday Times magazine. Which eventually received great reviews and were sold to women not only in France but also in USA.
India, Luxury & Nature
Over the seasons, she has created many collections for wholesale, but today, she creates at her own pace, one piece at a time, the only one piece of its kind. Her biggest inspiration, however, is nature itself. “It saddens me that we are not aware of the world that surrounds us. We are aware of the world we have made for ourselves within the one that surrounds us. We try so hard to keep our inheritance and what we buy intact, so why not the same for nature?” She paused for a water break and I could see the glint of subtle sadness in her beautiful eyes. She looked out of the Parisian window and continued, “The shop next to me, it gets things from India to sell them here. I’ll take you there one day. It’s all grey! Dead grey and deader grey!! Imagine you walk up the Swiss mountains and all you see, are grey flowers!!! Why are we eliminating what life is?”
Despite having lived majority of her life outside the country, Ms. Grewal is very Indian at heart. She is a lady with a French façade and a true Indian soul. While we spoke, she urged that we spoke in Hindi or Punjabi (official languages in India). “How can you be Indian and not proud,” she said, quoting her close friend, the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi. She does not relate to luxury and fashion the way the world does. Taking the example of Business Class on airplanes, she said “You’re paying money to be alone. More alone than you were already. That’s the luxury I don’t understand”. It was very easy for me to decipher that ‘being able to be herself and live a life on her own terms, free from any barriers is her form of luxury’. “I always wanted to be at a stage where I didn’t have to count my money. If I did, I’d be separating myself from 80% of humanity itself. I don’t want that!”.
According to her, the luxury in India is something that cannot be expressed in words. It is sublime, it is not materialistic, and it is definitely not exclusive. The answer to every single question in the universe, is in the ancient scriptures and epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. The world came to India looking for knowledge, India never went anywhere. If not this, what bigger luxury exists for an Indian? She concluded her thoughts on luxury by saying, “If you can live as yourself, you’ve achieved the greatest luxury there is.”
The pearls of wisdom and experience incessantly flowing out of Ms. Grewal was awe inspiring for my young mind. This was the time when the salad was served and the gourmand in me really could not resist delving into them. I asked her views on prevalent materialism and a message for the younger generation. Ms. Grewal came around me, put her frail but steady arms on my shoulders, and said, “If I had anything to say to the future generations… it is, be close to nature and never seek anything from ‘high society’ or ‘rich people’. Your true friends will always do much more for you than this group ever can”. I turned around and she looked at me and continued….“our relationship with money decides what we are. Money is supposed to ease your life, not swallow it up. We want money, but we don’t know what for. So, we don’t know how much we need. Main paise ko haath hi nahi lagati, isne meri zindagi kharab kar deni hai (I don’t touch the money, for it would ruin my life)”. She follows it up with an amazingly enchanting smile!
Today, nearly half a century after her first fashion show in Paris, Ms. Grewal continues to be ‘celle qui conquière l’amour’ (the one who conquers love - that is her name Mohanjeet!). This enigma has led a fearless life in her own terms. I was wondering what influenced her life the most? She spontaneously replies “Roti, Kapda aur Makaan” (food, clothing and house). I had been all along wondering whether Ms. Grewal was truly an Indian, Punjabi, American or French? I did not have to ask her, for I had come to know at the end of the dinner that this enigmatic lady was a passionate and grounded Indian, enthusiastic Punjabi, modern American and fearlessly independent French! As I came out of the lift to the boulevard, my mind asked my heart… ‘Can there be another Mohanjeet’? The reply was ‘NO’.
Written in collaboration with Veronique Poles.