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Verve People
June 21, 2013

Titan Of Texture

Text by Viseshika Sharma.

The only fashion designer to receive the country’s fourth highest civilian honour, textile revivalist Ritu Kumar speaks to Viseshika Sharma about her journey from a young wife interested in blockprinting to a Padma Shri for creating poetry on fabric

Walking into Ritu Kumar’s office, on a quiet Gurgaon street, one is surrounded by rich examples of her work and the antique pieces that she is inspired by. The name is familiar to anyone who has ever had a wedding in the family – throngs of blushing brides-in-waiting aspire to be a ‘Ritu Kumar bride’. Her elaborate creations have made dozens of Indian representatives at international beauty pageants stand out since 1994. And earlier this year, the lady who has been dubbed the ‘doyenne of Indian fashion’ by many a cliché-addicted hack, received a phone call that gave the oft-trivialised industry a new shot of credibility. “This gentleman called and informed me I’d been nominated for a Padma Shri, and asked if I would accept it. I was so surprised that it didn’t really register, and I think he realised it because he called again to ask,” says the elegant honoree. “It’s not normally a part of the textile, fashion or craft ambit, but I hope it is the first of many for the industry,” says Kumar of the award that she accepted from the President, in a regal pink, gold and white creation of her own design.

It has been a long journey for Kumar, from her days as a young woman in Kolkata. “I’d keep talking about these villages I’d found, where crafts were dying, and how something should be done about it. My husband was hugely supportive and it was not something that very many people would have opted to do. We’re talking about very uncomfortable times when cars were not air conditioned; commuting in Kolkata was horrendous. It could take four hours to get to where I wanted to go and there wouldn’t be any place to stay.” Her first store, Ritu’s Boutique, was established in 1968, stocking block-printed cotton wares, and by ’74, she had her first store in Mumbai. By ’75 she had established Kalamkari Designs Pvt Ltd, a craft-oriented export house, selling amongst other things, silk dresses under the label Ritu Kumar for Monsoon.

Fashion design not being as prominent as it is today, Kumar had to learn solely from her experiences. “Back then we were breaking new ground or going into areas where we didn’t really know what was out there to discover. I think today it’s far easier because when you’re making a collection, you know it’s going to be for a certain season, you know where it’s going to be shown. There was none of this structure, so you were just meandering into unknown territory and there were not so many mistakes as much as you learned from the job. Very often I was also learning for myself whether there was a place for hand block-printing, whether there was a place for hand embroidery in this country, or a space for recreating an old aesthetic, was there a need for revival. All of these were things that today we know are true, but yes, it was kind of foolhardy. Sometimes, it didn’t work at all and sometimes it did.”

Over the past four decades and counting, Kumar has slowly rediscovered the repertoire of printing skills that had been forgotten in the previous 200 years, except in the memory of the craftsmen and the guilds that practiced them. “We had reached the point where the Paisleys from the Kashmir valley were being attributed to Europe – nobody remembered the true source. India actually has the only repertoire of printing skills in the world. It was very exciting to rediscover all of that for myself,” she says. “We have amazing geometrics, stylised plant motifs, an amazing amount of hand artistry as far as our motifs are concerned. Then of course, there were the huge skills of hand embroidery which were again lost and forgotten in trunks or in museums. Nobody was exercising it, nobody was working on them. Today it’s become such a large part of the Indian fashion industry.”

The skills were dead but not entirely lost, as Kumar was to find, while working with the embroiderers of Ranihati, near Kolkata, in the early ’70s. “The karigars still had it in their genes, there was just a vacuum because they weren’t getting any work. I would show them pieces from the Victoria & Albert Museum and they would go back to the elders in their family and figure out how to recreate that kind of work. We showed the Zardozi collection in all the galleries in India. Perhaps what they do for us now is in a way better than even what their forefathers used to produce. It has the advantage of having a little more modernisation in the fabrics. The end product is more wearable, more buy-able and the quality of workmanship is hugely sophisticated.”

By 1991, to celebrate 21 years of her eponymous label, Kumar conceptualised Tree of Life, a tableau celebrating Indian culture, tradition and style through eight of the textile crafts that she helped revitalise. Having put a stamp on the Indian fashion scene, Kumar was a judge for the Miss India pageant when she was asked to design national costumes for the three winners to wear when they represented the country. Some of the winners have stayed in the public’s consciousness while others are barely memorable, but it is impossible to deny that Kumar’s creations made a splash regardless. “I was asked to see to it that they left the country with some indigenous stamp, and I thought it was a great opportunity to have them as the marketable face of the crafts I was working with. And they did tend to look interesting compared to what was available in the rest of the world. It worked well for the girls as they went there with an identity, and it has just continued since then,” says Kumar.

Kumar also revamped the way bridalwear looked. “Ours was the first bridalwear in the country to be designed as designer wear. We borrowed motifs and borders but essembled them in a very pan-Indian way so it didn’t look either Rajasthani or Bengali but had an aesthetic of its own. You can actually pick up a bridal lehenga off the rack and it will have several stitches, which have gone down many generations.”

The congratulations have poured in since the award was announced, for Kumar has endeared herself to those in the fashion fraternity and outside. Friendly with the established designers, she is also extremely popular with the younger lot – she nurtured young talent in a big way when she served for six years on the board of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). She was also instrumental in designing the curriculum at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, while it was at the peak of its popularity. The Craft Documentation module is designed so that the dying craft traditions of the country can be documented and preserved. “A lot of us worked almost like barefoot doctors in the field. Pupul Jayakar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Martand Singh – I think the only legacy that we may have created was to document and bring back to the surface things that were long forgotten. I think that was a big step for the next generation to have that resource because I don’t think they have the kind of patience to go and live in a village for months,” says Kumar. Her passion for documentation resulted in a 1999 book that she co-authored for Christie’s – Costumes and Textiles of Royal India is widely regarded as the seminal work on Indian costume.

Of the ideology of her work, Kumar says, “I think I have tried to imbibe a sort of continuity in the aesthetics of Indian textiles. One always has to be a little careful of not working with crafts in such a manner that they should stay in museums. If it doesn’t live, if it doesn’t translate itself into modern day life, then it is dead and perhaps it just needs to be preserved. There is an aesthetic, there is worth but perhaps it does not necessarily have to live in the same dimension, space, fabric that it used to at one time. I think that will remain a perpetual challenge.”

Having worked through the entire lifetime of this country’s fashion industry, Kumar is entitled to opinions and expectations of the design fraternity. “We all went through a huge lack of identity and confidence. Everything from Paris was good, everything from India was not good. Some of us are still going through that phase. I hope it will change soon – it is a very regressive thing to think of all the time. It comes from a lack of self-confidence that you can create as well as the next person. But I think it’s come to the point where people can be much more confident of who they are and where their resources should be coming from. India is very much a resource country for textiles. I hope that the next generation works on that. We have to respect the design in this country to be able to conserve it or protect it to some extent.”

The designer, who will be 69 years old in November, shows no signs of flagging. Last year she took on the task of restoring a Pataudi family heirloom, for the high-profile nuptials of Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan. More importantly, she created elaborate costumes for her friend and longtime collaborator Deepa Mehta’s screen adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. “It was the first time she needed bridal sequences from me. Again there was no point of reference for a Kashmiri or Muslim bride of the era because they were never photographed. We conjectured to a large extent,” says Kumar of the experience. What next you may ask. “Maybe another book – handlooms have always been exciting but there hasn’t been too much development and documentation on that front.”

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