Pondicherry is a city 169 km away from Chennai and every beach lover’s paradise. With beautiful architecture left behind from the French colonial settlement, the serenity of the city cannot be explained in words, alone. I found myself enamored by the charm it eluded as I entered my beach-facing hotel, Promenade by Hidesign. There is something in the air, besides salt water, which puts you in the vacation mood almost immediately. “Pondicherry has a French vibe; but, also a holiday vibe,” says Kalki Koechlin, as we sat down to discuss her love for the city and her latest collection for Hidesign - a first of its kind. The capsule collection is inspired by the actress' unique sense of style and comprises of everything from fun everyday backpacks to chic party bags. But, there's more to Kakli Koechlin than Parisian style that comes effortlessly. For instance, she is an adventurer at heart with a spirited nature that is infectious. And so, as the actress enjoys taking bicycle rides and surfing lessons in Pondicherry, I find myself walking around the White Town (the heart of the city) barely worrying about the rest of the world.
With a large spiritual community under the Aurobindo Ashram, which was founded in 1926, the city has people from all over the world living together in perfect harmony. It is astonishing to see offices, a library, dining room, book/photograph printing, workshops, sports/playground, art gallery, dispensary/nursing home, farms, dairies, flower gardens, guest houses, laundry, bakery, run and maintained as departments of the ashram, with over 400 buildings spread across the town. “The ashram... the spiritual place... I didn't take it very seriously as a child. But, somewhere it imbibes a certain anchor and stillness inside you,” the actress says about her experience growing up in the city. “In a distracted environment and distracted world where, because of social media we are constantly looking at the opinion of other people to judge ourselves, this is a place which really encourages you to be silent, look inwards for your own opinions rather than copy someone else, or aspire to be someone else. That really made me.”
Pondicherry is a small city, with a few lanes and an incredible history. But, surprisingly, what lies at the heart of it is a brand. Hidesign started out in 1978, predominately making leather bags with their factory set in the city, alongside three stores and two hotels. While the founder, Dilip Kapur, agrees that Hidesign has usually shied away from collaborating with celebrities, he found a sense of resonance with Kalki; thus, giving birth to Hidesign X Kalki, a collaboration between two like-minded beings - an individual and a brand - that resulted in the creation of 21 unconventional bags that are already taking the fashion industry by storm.
“I have known Kalki’s family for years and it is a pleasure to work with someone, who understands where the brand comes from, what we believe in, and represents the kind of woman our customers aspire to be - ambitious, independent and glamorous,” Kapur reveals, as we sat down to have a scrumptious South Indian meal at the Hidesign factory, a place with over 90% women employees. The factory tour was definitely the highlight of the trip, watching the bags that Dilip and Kalki put together so meticulously, come to life. While my personal favourite is Human 01, a practical black backpack, what interested me the most was the names that had been picked for the collection. Derived from Kalki’s vocabulary, the bags are called Human, Evolve, Freedom, 3 a.m, alive, etc, with a story behind each. “I always value products that have a story. Hidesign, with its commitment to vegetable tanning and slow craftsmanship, has been a brand I have admired for years. I was thrilled to be involved in the design process. I really wanted every bag in this collection to reflect some aspect of Me,” she said.
As Kalki sits cross-legged on the grass, we talk about her attachment to the city and her intention to return to it and hopefully work out of Pondicherry someday. I find a sense of closeness and warmth to a city that has embraced me with open arms even though I’ve been here just for a day. The way that Kalki and Dilip speak about Pondicherry, soaking in the rich heritage of the city, is extremely heartening!
During the two days, I spend with Kalki and Dilip - one an actress and author, the other an enthusiastic designer and social worker, I have seen Pondicherry in glorious light; walking through the streets of the white town. Their stories about the city and the memories attached talk about times that were too important to ever be forgotten. In Pondicherry though, every day seems unforgettable. The city is wrapped up in a serene silence that follows you everywhere you go, from the churches to the beaches and the memorable picturesque French buildings.
It wasn’t a vacation, but a journey of self-discovery one will always fondly remember.