Interview by Mibu Minami
Originally from Venice, Italy, Rang designer and travel guide Elena Tommaseo is no typical expat. Frequenting India since the late 90’s and based in Delhi since 2010, her extraordinary journey and discoveries with the country is truly inspiring. We made a visit to her design studio and home to talk about her inspirational life and her never ending curiosity and love for India.
Mangoli Mag (MM): What initially brought you to India?
Elena Tommaseo: I met my husband in India in 1998 and we married in 2002. I was living in Italy at the time, and he was from Madhya Pradesh and his family had a business there, so we fell into a long-distance relationship. During those days there was no internet, so we wrote letters to each other which at times took over a month to reach. I remember I wrote a letter saying I think I can come to India for a couple of weeks and asked, “what do you think?” Then three weeks later I received a letter from him, and he mentioned nothing about me going to India, so I thought we were over. Then he called me saying he received my letter and said, “yes come!” He wrote the letter to me before getting mine so as you can imagine it was a mess! International phone calls were so expensive then and when we did see each other, it was heartbreaking to be part again. After a few years of this, we decided to be together and get married. At the time I had built a career as a freelance graphic designer in Milan and so we decided to stay in Italy and open a shop selling items from India. It was also our way to build a bridge between Italy and India. We would spend a few months in India, arrive in August and travel from Delhi to Rajasthan, drive up north in a Maruti 800 with no AC! We found things which we liked then ship them to Delhi and send them to Italy. We also would stay extra few weeks in India to visit family in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. We did this twice a year.
The shop in Milan was doing well until we started to feel we needed a change. Our family in India told us how the economy was growing so we decided to make the move to India. It was a big decision, and I was scared at first but came to realize that the door to a cage was open for me and I was free. I realized that when I started graphic design, I actually drew and used my hands to create but as the computer age came, I saw myself sitting in front of the computer for so many hours. This is not what I wanted to do so going to India was a new start. I was fortunate to utilize my skills as a graphic designer and worked on renovating the hotel owned by my parents in law in Madhya Pradesh. I renovated the restaurant, the patio and added a fresco on the wall.
(MM): How did you come to be a guide for a tour operator?
(ET): A German friend of my father-in-law had been a tour guide for a German company for 30 years and she recommended I try it since I have been in and out of India, know the areas and know the culture. I never thought I could speak in front of 30 people and keep them engaged but I decided to send my resume to several tour operators in Italy. A few months later I was asked to take on a group of 22 people, including 5 couples coming to spend their honeymoon in India. I can’t tell you how scared I was and hoped I was not going to ruin someone’s honeymoon! But you know, my first experience as a tour guide, after speaking for 5 minutes, I felt like I was doing it forever. Now I love it! I discover things about myself doing this job and I have this care for people and the ability to put myself in their shoes.
(MM): It seems you are a natural at this and must take home so much from each tour.
(ET): As a guide, I try to give them more than just India through a coach window. Monuments are of course beautiful and worth visiting but I try to give them a taste of real life in India and take them to see local villages, temples or schools. I like to take them on an extra unique experience.
(MM): So inspiring that you made this into such a long career.
(ET): Around 2012 or 2013, I also joined Delhi By Cycle. It was started by Jack from the Netherlands and at the time they were hiring guides. I made contact and when I told him how old I was, he said I may be too old to be a guide! Well, I convinced him to meet me and the day I joined his bicycle tour, it rained very hard, but we pushed on. He was so impressed that he decided to hire me after that ride. My experience with Delhi By Cycle was different from the other tours I led, with a more international clientele and different kind of tour. It was wonderful.
(MM): Please tell us about your brand Rang. It seems like it is a culmination of all your passions.
(ET): When we had the shop in Milan, we used to import beautiful Indian fabrics and though I love being a tour guide, I began to miss the creativity. I am a graphic designer but and also have experience in sewing and stitching that I learned while in Milan, so I made little things as a kind of hobby. About 5 and a half years ago, my friends encouraged me to make it more than a hobby.
Around that time, I received news that one of my brothers in Italy was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, he’s cancer free now but when I got the news, I was shocked with trauma, worried and frustrated that I could not be there to help. To keep myself calm, I decided to create, pick up fabrics and make samples, take photos of the samples and Rang was born. The brand grew and I created a small collection and took them to Italy. I have had exhibitions in my hometown Venice where I invite people to my family home with a grand hall. I am very happy that it has been well received.
I must say doing everything on my own is very difficult, but I want to be involved with the creativity and I want to keep the quality of stitching, so I am always interacting with very experienced tailors. I also built the website by myself.
(MM): You create all your patterns and samples?
(ET): Yes, I do all the patterns, make all the samples and now I am doing block prints. I carved my own design working with a block print craftsman about 60 kilometers outside of Delhi. I chose the colors to be used and after printing take the fabric to the tailor. My next collection will feature my original block print fabrics. I came up with the idea of creating day wear pajamas during the past year. As we are spending a lot of time at home, I thought to create something that can be worn as a pajama yet doesn’t feel like you just got out of bed. It will be kurtas with dramatic prints combined with stripe print pants. You can lounge in them, wear as a pajama and change the pants to wear with the kurta to go out.
(MM): How exciting! And you started a new personal blog via Instagram: elena.and.delhi.
(ET): I chose the name Elena AND Delhi rather than Elena IN Delhi because I feel I am together with Delhi, like I am in my town. Delhi is under my skin, deeply and I feel more at home than anywhere else. This platform is Delhi through my eyes. I explore the city a lot on my own and fill my own curiosity. For example, I recently went to Civil Lines and spent almost 5 hours walking around. I discovered the baoli (step-well) there, a park with a lake and the colonial style houses. And I like to share what I know. I think it is beautiful to share.
As a tour guide, I loved to see the tourists change after spending 2 weeks in India with me. Many people used to tell me that I make them feel comfortable and I want to do the same with this platform. I want to create a community and hope when things open up again, people can reach out and come on a tour with me feeling like they already know me, before they come.
Thank you for sharing your story, Elena. We look forward to your new collection and hope we can join you on your tours very soon. MM
Rang Handcrafted Creations: www.rangforall.com
Delhi By Cycle: www.delhibycycle.com