Admiration and inquiry of Bengali women are at the center of award-winning knitwear design major Mohua Goswami’s CFDA collection. Goswami’s work showcases the free-flowing and personalized styles of the Bengal region in eastern India, where her family roots are. They are also influenced by the multicultural region around Pune, a city inland from Mumbai, where she grew up.
Goswami’s collection, Grihini, was inspired by important women in her life. “It’s my attempt to give a physical form to the musings of a demure Bengali housewife, the ‘grihini.’ It is from a place of curiosity; I was born into a Bengali family, but never lived in Bengal. My family was attracted to the educational, cultural and business opportunities around Mumbai, India’s business and financial hub. Wanting to know more about what it means to be Bengali is what drove my collection.”
Goswami spoke to her grandmother about her grihini life in 1950s Bengal. She also watched her mother play the same role in real-time in Pune as society evolved. But Goswami also notes the influence of legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s films.
“While society during his time [1950-1980] could not yet fathom a separate existence of women other than in relation to men, Ray portrayed these images successfully in his narratives. Rather than trying to show men and women as equal or not, Ray showed them as complimentary to each other. It’s in his depiction of women, that the character of a grihini changed what it meant to me,” she says.
“Mohua Goswani’s designs immediately captivated me with their ability to combine a personal vision with a larger cultural narrative. Her inventive knitwear thoughtfully combines pattern and material with results that speak to our moment. I am moved by the research that Mohua performs prior to creating her designs. She is clearly inspired by her family and its history, but equally committed to connecting that past with the future of fashion. Her determination and the power of her talent can be seen in every design and her CFDA award is well earned.” – Troy Richards, Dean, School of Art and Design
“As I was working on this project, I was subconsciously equating the housewife with the Devi–the many-handed goddess,” she says. “In Hindu mythology, the goddess is also a wife and a mother, as well as the protector of good and the destroyer of evil. That analogy crept into my illustrations,” she says.
“The purpose of fashion is not just to toy with the visual pleasure of the audience. There has to be an element that invokes certain feelings in the creators themselves. It has to be personal. That’s how we keep the novelty of fashion alive, by making it clear the different ways of telling a story,” says Goswami.
Ray had a “special knack” for portraying women. “One of his best films, ‘Charulata,’ analyzed the character of a grihini. Charulata is the childless, intelligent, and beautiful wife of Bhupati, a newspaper editor.”
In the acclaimed opening scene, Charulata moves from one window in her house to the next, observing the world with opera glasses. “She is like a caged bird in her mansion. We sense her curiosity and desire to know the outside world” says Goswami.
“As she moves to the interior corridor, her husband walks past her without noticing her. She sees him the same way she sees the outside world. Distant. Without a single word being said, we sense Charulata’s loneliness and boredom.”
Of course, history has documented trailblazing feminists, who shattered the glass ceiling. “But we often forget the woman hidden away in kitchens and backyards, putting food on the plate and making sure the house still stands – the grihini.”
Goswami’s challenge was to give a “physicality” to the nuances of a Bengali housewife. “My collection took from the subtleties of her world and wardrobe, and how they are linked. As she ties her keys to the end of her saree, she creates beautiful lines in the drape. The keys suggest crossing the threshold from woman to wife. As she evolves, so do the layers on her saree. Layering, lines, and a mix of masculine and feminine energy became the foundation for this collection.”
It can take Goswami considerable time reading and viewing movies before she’s ready to create her designs. “I can spend weeks with no results. Then I read a book, and one line sticks with me and I decide to base an entire collection on it.”
Next, she puts everything on paper, in her design journal. “This helps solidify my inspiration and translates it into design elements. It’s also the best way to explore different directions my collection might take. I then pick and choose from among them” she says.
Goswami won the CFDA Design Scholar K11 Innovation Award for her collection. “It was an honor just to be nominated, and a great surprise to win!” she says. “It is essential for an upcoming designer to gain exposure, and this award has done that for me. It has also helped me to network with like-minded creatives.”
“My collection took from the subtleties of [the Bengali housewife’s] world and wardrobe, and how they are linked. As she ties her keys to the end of her saree, she creates beautiful lines in the drape. The keys suggest crossing the threshold from woman to wife. As she evolves, so do the layers on her saree. Layering, lines, and a mix of masculine and feminine energy became the foundation for this collection.” – Mohua Goswami
Working under COVID has shaped elements of her creative process “When the pandemic hit in March, I was finishing touches to my Grihini collection. The pandemic has taught me to adapt. My creative process involves being amidst the action, going places, being physically present to take the atmosphere. With COVID, that came to a halt. I had to develop a collection within the four walls of my bedroom. With virtual museum tours, access to a vast sea of information, and the ability to meet with people virtually, bridges the gap,” she says.
Goswami intends to pursue a career in knitwear design, textile development, and sustainability.
“With the pandemic the fashion industry has been given an opportunity to focus on solving a lot of its problems. With everything I have absorbed these past four years, I hope to channel all my energies towards that.”
On a page in Goswami’s design notebook appears a question about whether the grihini knows how to cook shukto. Most likely yes. The traditional Bengali dish is one that Mohua’s mother Oona has long mastered. She generously shares the Goswami family recipe with us here: