Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sisters of Imelda

What comes to mind when you think of the Phillipines? President Marcos of course. More precisely, Imelda Marcos and her famous penchant for extravagant retail therapy. I had a chance to meet a Marcos sibling and 14 of her very powerful friends during their recent tour of South India. The head of the country’s departments of Ballet, Music, publishing, education, textile design, museums and real estate were on a two week tour of South India. Mostly women and very very ‘uppah’ class, the luxury tour took them to temples, ayurvedic resorts, textile weaving units- all along staying inside their five star membranes.

Their last two days brought them to Chennai and I had been requested three months in advance to be their window to the city. I had been repeatedly warned not to take them to any plebian outlet since their tastes were “very very high end”. With a prepared list of shops to help our local economy, I met them at the lobby of a local five star hotel. Immediately, all fifteen faces had one mantra on their lips. “Shop. We want to shop! Can we hit the stores now?”

Aah! The magic of retail therapy for women throughout the world. And shop they did. Up and down Khader Nawaz Khan Road, buying all that fit their petite frames. I heard OOHS and AAHS from fitting rooms and the plastic was repeatedly swiped in store after store. A private showing of antique jewellery was another source of much amazement and bargaining. Lunch at Amethyst turned out to be another spree for gifts and all the store owners were left reeling in delight with the Asian typhoon that swept through their shops. Incidentally, Irene Marcos was the most frugal, belying all expectations of her famous mother.

The group spoke about the vanishing of traditional Phillipine textiles and their cultural nuances with globalization and marveled at how Indian designers managed to navigate the fine lines of commerce and market demands. The enormous butterfly shoulders of their national costume, popularized by Imelda Marcos, had all but vanished from the Phillipine landscape and local weaving and crafts were also being threatened by cheap Chinese imports. One gentleman was specially interested in the connection between pre Christian Phillipines and South India during the time of the Pandya and Chola rule. Over a quiet dinner, they listened to guitarist Vedanth Bharadwaj singing songs of Kabir and Mirabai. Teenage Bharatanatyam dancer Sudarma Vaidyanathan dazzled and our famous curd rice with pickles closed out the evening as the favourite food.

So who said power women were not like you and me? Shopping, bargains, jewellery, kids and home food. For this high powered group, nothing was lost in translation!

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