Rendezvous with Vijayalaxmi Chhabra
“When I talk about wearing sarees everyday, it is not only about saving a drape, but it is more about cherishing and saving our living textile traditions & textile heritage. Even though they have survived the Industrial Revolution, they are indeed threatened. Some have become extinct.
It is up to us whether we let our great textile traditions continue to live & flourish or we let them become extinct.” These are the true words of the ardent handloom saree lover and one of the active Instagram saree influencers for revival of six yards.
Yes, we are talking about the most beautiful “Vijayalaxmi Chhabra” ji. We feel honored and proud to feature this wonderful, dynamic personality in our blog today. She spared some time with Khinkhwab,in spite of her busy schedule and shared some of the wonderful experiences of her career and achievements .The way how she had carried out her eternal love for sarees right from her college days, through her career, shows the genuine love and passion towards this six yards.
The true words poured out by Vijaya ji in this interview, has been so humbling and touching. Her words are so inspiring and a true delight for us to write and share with our readers. Hope you all enjoy this interview as much as we did!
We, from the Khinkhwab team, thank Vijiayalaxmi ji for taking time out to express her enriching experiences so beautifully!!
This is how Vijaya ji introduces herself to our readers. “I have been a professional broadcaster in an eventful 35-year long career. This journey culminated in my becoming the Director General of Doordarshan (India),the world’s largest Public Service Broadcaster, a post from which I superannuated in March 2015.
After retirement as a hobby, I write extensively on Handlooms & sarees on social media. I act as an influencer for revival of Six Yards, as an unstitched garment. My posts are primarily about the living textile heritage & traditions of India, laced with interesting stories from my life and my time.”
Experiences and Achievements in her words
Some wonderful experiences and achievements of AIR and Doordarshan days
Not many people end up doing their dream jobs. As a 6-year-old child, I loved to listen to All India Radio standing on a stool because the radio set was kept on the topmost shelf of my parents living room. My parents had a 'Bush' radio set. Standing there, I used to wonder, Where did "Akashvani" come from? Why can't I be a part of it?
I would secretly try to speak like All India Radio (AIR) Announcers. It was my dream to work in AIR (there was no Doordarshan then). In 1971, I shifted to Delhi from Bhilai, for my higher studies and was fascinated by Doordarshan (DD) which had just come into being and was black & white. While I was still a student, I got selected as a compere and compered the youth programme 'Yuv Manch' for many years. I was so fascinated by Radio & Television, that I used to bunk classes to be in DD & AIR studios at Parliament Street, Delhi.
There are moments when I do remember, my father always telling me to listen to “All India Radio” to improve my diction, to learn about current affairs and most importantly learn Hindi which was not my mother tongue. I became an AIR addict, started speaking Hindi like AIR News Readers. Radio was an integral part of my growing up years (“Radio” was synonymous with All India Radio those days, as there were no private radio stations).
Little did he know that, one day I will fall so much in love with those unseen voices calling out to me saying “Ye Akashvani hai” . And that I would rebel against him and turn into a Broadcaster! I am glad my parents could finally see me as the Director General, which was by then a coveted post.
Some unforgettable moments and incidents
Recording Sunil Dutt during terrorism in Punjab
Those were the days of terrorism in Punjab. Sunil Dutt was undertaking his "Peace March" in Punjab. He was about to enter Delhi border, after completing his peace march in a volatile Punjab. My station Director Mr. Sharma chose me over two of my male colleagues, to interview Sunil Dutt.
I was supposed to interview him at the intersection of Punjab & Delhi border. My colleagues knew that I was two months pregnant. They were concerned and tried to dissuade the Station Director from sending me into that chaotic crowd, telling him that being a lady I may find it a little difficult. Mr. Sharma was confident that being a woman, I would rather manage it more efficiently. One of my colleagues was kind enough to escort me. I was obviously in a saree & three and a half inches heels. Imagine walking on those heels,with a huge Meltron Recorder weighing almost 4 kilograms!
When I finally reached the spot, my colleague & I were shocked to see thousands of unruly people waiting to welcome Mr. Dutt. I somehow managed to make my way through the sea of people & asked Mr. Sunil Dutt for an interview which was to be broadcasted on All India Radio, soon after 9 PM News. When I told him that I needed to record him for 45 minutes,he smiled and said "But I can’t stop for 45 minutes, I have to keep walking". I hadn't anticipated this. Seeing me worried he thought for a while and said "Young lady, walk with me and whenever I stop to have a glass of water, ask me a single question. This way I will have answered all your questions, by the time we reach the destination".
I walked with him nearly for two hours,with a heavy Meltron recorder on my left shoulder and a powerful microphone on my right hand. Every time he stopped for a glass of water, I asked him a question and he very diligently provided an answer. This went on for two hours and I could collect enough material for my 30-minute programme. Whenever I think about that adventurous day, I get goose bumps feel and proud to be a woman. I was barely 25 then & pregnant.
My cricket stories
I have an adventurous connect with India playing Pakistan. I am sure sports lovers among you would love to read this long long story. It was the year 2004... feels like yesterday.
Doordarshan had the BCCI rights to broadcast all cricket happening in India but not outside of India.I was the Head of Sales & Marketing,which was a new Division set up by me. We had done three successful cricket series on DD National & DD Sports.We were anxiously waiting for the Broadcast Rights position of India & Pakistan, to be played after 10 years in Pakistan. Due to political & diplomatic reasons,both countries hadn’t played cricket against each other for 10 years.
Changes in Broadcasting world
Things were changing in the sports broadcast world. To our surprise, a private sports channel bought the complete & exclusive rights for this particular series. This was a new satellite channel for Sports Broadcast.People who know about Sports and media in India, will be able to identify the Channel. In the year 2004,satellite viewing was hardly 40%. This was against DD’s terrestrial viewing of 60 percent+ 40% covered by DD sports (which was a satellite channel) Those days DD reached every home, terrestrial & satellite.
How DD got exclusive rights for sports events?
Millions of cricket lovers in terrestrial homes were going to be deprived of this historical cricket. A handsome sum was offered to the private channel by DD management.This was to give the terrestrial rights to DD because that right was of no value to them, as they had no terrestrial transmission. The said channel simply denied to part with the rights. This was famous and had never happened in the Sports broadcast history of India. There was a public litigation and things were moving fast.
The match was on a Saturday. On Friday evening, the Supreme Court's decision pronounced that DD National will carry the dirty feed of the private channel, so that the terrestrial viewers can watch it (a dirty feed means relaying another channel with their logo and their ads).
We were extremely upset & my whole team was enraged. It’s an insult to any channel to carry another channel with its logo and its advertisements, unless you are doing it willingly. So far, other channels had been relaying our National Broadcasts like 15th August & 26th January feeds, with DD logo. We never really relied on any other channel with their logo. It was hurting our pride. Senior management was helpless because it was a Supreme Court Order in public interest and couldn’t be violated.
To deal with the enraging news
We all left office feeling sad & helpless that Friday evening. I was about to reach home. It was going to be 9.30pm. I received a call from my then CEO, who asked me so many questions in one go... “Vijaya, how brave are you? Have you read the court judgement? What does the fine print say? Does it say anywhere that we can’t sell? “
I was like, what are you trying to say? You want me to sell it? He asked me further, do you have the technology to superimpose on their ads? Yes! we were way ahead of others and were capable of superimposing!
He said,” I have spoken to the Solicitor General. Tomorrow is Saturday, followed by Sunday. Courts are closed. We will face whatever comes on Monday. Tonight is yours, do what you want. You have bothered me too much for these rights. Do what you want. I am going to sleep.”
The Adventurous Night
I immediately asked my driver to turn the car back towards office. Three of my officers also returned to office and we were there by 10.30 PM. It was the most adventurous night of my life. We woke up the entire advertising industry. In the next two hours, we sold our complete inventory of 5000 seconds at a premium rate. Received threatening calls on my mobile (all Dubai numbers)! By 6 AM, we were ready with our cue sheet. Head of DD Delhi, a dear friend, extended all support for execution of the match. Sharp at 9am, DD rolled with its live broadcast with its own logo,with its own ads of all premium clients. We were risking everything for the pride of the National Broadcaster. Of course, the whole matter on Monday went to the court and what happened further is in public domain.
New law comes into place
After this controversial telecast, a new law was passed that any satellite channel which gets the exclusive rights of sports events, will part with the terrestrial’s rights to DD-National, which is a terrestrial channel with the provision of revenue share. I still get goosebumps thinking of that night. I couldn’t think of the grave consequences it could have had.
My management could have disowned what I did. My colleagues at different ends in DD could have refused to cooperate. Instead the station heads of Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore woke up and sat throughout the night in their respective offices, trying to send the commercials through satellite links from their cities to Delhi control room. My counterpart in Delhi took the risk of using the clean feed of the match, which we were not supposed to use. India won that series and next year when Pakistan came to play, BCCI handed over the exclusive rights to us (DD).
BCCI meetings in Sarees
My being a woman, didn’t come in the way at any stage. I was the only saree clad woman in those BCCI meetings talking about our camera positions and commentary box positions. Sports didn’t come easy to me. I had to learn it,like I was learning my textbooks. I had to learn the nuances of the difference between a fast bowler & a spin bowler to know whether to schedule a 30 seconds ad or a 60 seconds ad.
My male colleagues who were taking instructions from me, had to have confidence that I understood cricket ball by ball. This phase of my career was the most adventurous phase. It completely reassured me that being a woman was not to my disadvantage but was one of my strengths.(Market forces have changed. DD can no longer afford to spend public money on exorbitant cricket rights fee. The rights are now with private channels. World over this is the situation of Public Broadcasters)
Vijaya ji also adds that “I have talked about some of the adventurous things I did at the workplace. Today if I have to do them again, I might rethink because they were dangerous, they were crazy but I was much younger then and very brave and empowered.”
Eternal love for sarees
I joined Indraprastha college in Delhi in 1971. Prior to that I lived in Bhilai Steel township with my parents. I spent most of my time in my school uniform. I would change into a Skirt blouse or a Churidar Kurta, when I met my friends in the evening. Being serious about academics, driven by high goals, didn’t think much about what kind of clothes I was wearing.So when I joined the college hostel,I had carried only Churidar Kurtas with me. I had never been to Delhi before.
Making it to Delhi University, was nothing short of a huge achievement. But a small town girl like me was perplexed & lost. I found that no one wore Churidar Kurtas. In the seventies, Delhi University was under the influence of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, jazz, drugs and everything wild along with Marx, Lenin & Che Guevara. If you see a film called “Annie gave it those ones”, you will get to see what Delhi University was those days. Girls in my hostel were very modern, smart and westernized. I stood no chance, as far as my clothes were concerned. Suddenly clothes and external appearance became so important.
I was the High School topper of Madhya Pradesh Board, captain of my school and the best all round student of my school in Bhilai .Here I was completely lost in a crowd of so many girls,only because of coming from a small town to the Rajdhani Dilli..While I was struggling with my dress sense and was trying to figure out what I should be wearing, I noticed some smart seniors in sarees. I made a mental note.When I went back home for my very first holidays, after three months, I borrowed 7 sarees from my mother and started wearing them with unmatched Chintz blouses.That’s how my mother draped them.
Saree from College days
At sixteen, I embraced sarees and that too unknowingly Handloom sarees & Chintz blouses,as a symbol of Swadeshi Movement.To my utter surprise,I discovered suddenly people around me were noticing me and appreciating me. Next came,my Jooda (bun) and my big Bindi, after seeing Shabana Azmi wearing it in the movie - Ankur. My ensemble became an instant hit. I was no longer this Behenji from a small town.
Contrary to the belief that sarees are uncool, sarees gave me an identity. My sarees were different. They were handloom & they stood out with my unmatched blouses,while everyone else wore plain matching Rubia blouses. I started compering programmes on Delhi Doordarshan. My type of sarees became popular. Many juniors in college were inspired and started emulating me.
Saree saga continues...
My saree journey continued with my fascinating work life in AIR & Doordarshan. There were many seniors whom I emulated and there were many juniors who emulated me. I have slowly built my collection of sarees from different weaving clusters of India. I have had an amazing saree journey of almost 48 years.My icons were my mother & two of my bosses Mrs Usha Mallik & Mrs Tasneem Fazal.
Over a period of time, I developed my own distinct style.. Handloom sarees, high neck blouses, big Bindi on my forehead, a nice watch on my left wrist a single kada on my right wrist, & a loose jooda. Large branded leather bags,that was the only branded thing that I had, along with my dark glasses. I have shifted to hand crafted cotton bags now because of frozen shoulders as they are lighter.
Sarees are precious
I have taken great care of my sarees over the years. Sarees bought during college, including some of my mother's sarees are still with me. The oldest saree I have is 54 years old. All my sarees are not necessarily expensive,but they were specially chosen because of their distinct weaves.Over the years,they have become exclusive & rare weaves. I am a great advocate of affordable sarees because they are the ones which will keep the handloom industry alive.I make sure that I post about my old and affordable sarees on IG.
Along with my high end sarees, I make sure I repeat my sarees to spread the realistic and right kind of values. Sarees are not to be bought and kept as memento,but they need to be draped and loved as much as possible. If you wear them more often,they last longer.
Top 3 favorite sarees
I wouldn’t like to name any particular saree brands. My saree journey started in 1971. There were no brands then. I bought my sarees from the Emporia complex, from the exhibitions held in the iconic Pragati Maidan. Those days I used to travel extensively within the country, to set up FM radio stations and to attend meetings, sometimes even to the interiors of various states. I used to pick up my sarees directly from weavers or from the local shops. Except few Sabyasachis & Ritu Kumars, I haven’t bought any branded sarees.
Now when I am more evolved, I don’t even care for those sarees because I feel they are just cut paste sarees. I continue to buy my sarees from local shops or from the weavers directly whenever I travel. They are reasonable and they are different from what is floating in the branded market.
Most of my sarees whether simple or affordable ones or the expensive ones,can be called exclusive. The brands end up making plenty of similar looking sarees. You pay a huge amount of money in the name of brand & exclusivity,but realize later that many have the same saree. So I continue to follow my good old practice of direct buys.
Sarees close to the heart
However, I can definitely tell you about my three favourite weaves.
- Bengal & Odisha cottons
- Chhattisgarh Kosa
- Odisha silk
To be honest,I like weaves from all the Indian states. Over the last 48 years, I have collected handloom sarees from all over India & have tried hard to learn about them. Every weave is part of our living textile tradition.
Sarees over the years...
More than the obsession, it was my natural desire to wear sarees because there was no option. I thought I looked the best in a saree. As a Senior Govt. Officer and that too in a job where one was much visible, I had to be impeccably dressed every day. I had to meet common viewers & listeners of DD & AIR, as well as, celebrities from film industry, theatre, art, literature, fashion, education. In the midst of all that, I could be called by PMO. So, saree was the best choice. A saree that could last me for not less than 12 to 15 hours a day.
Since I had to wear sarees 365 days of the year, I had to build a reasonable collection representing weaves from every corner of this country.
When you used the word obsession, you made me think. Why I wouldn’t say I am obsessed, because it’s not a new found love. It’s a love which started 48 years back and it's really part of me. I am an informed & considered buyer.
You can follow this stunning Saree influencer, Vijayalakshmi Chhabra in Social media to follow her saree saga,
If you are looking at supporting handmade and buy Handloom Banarasi silk sarees online, you can find them all in this one-stop shop, Khinkhwab - The Essence of Banaras
Hi.Any idea where we can buy Vijayalaxmiji’s berhampur sarees.
Vijayalaxmi ji has been my biggest influencer to this world of sarees. She has not only introduced us to so many weaves with her insightful posts and amazing pictures but has shown me how to be simple, kind and loving. Truly an Icon in every way.
Regards from Germany
Vijayalaxmi ji has reached readers from all over the world with her extensive saree expertise and captivating personality. Thank you for published this lovely interview.
With kind regards from Germany
Rebecca Schwantes – Chavan
I am an ardent follower of Madam Vijayalakshmi Chhabra.The interview published is very interesting and inspirational.Kudos to the team.👍👍
Superb. Dignified elegance in every word.. same as Vijayalaxmi Chhabra’s sarees and personality. Amazing and enviable career journey too. Eye catching sarees and ensemble.