On the banks of the Ganga was born Ritu Kumar’s love for the fabrics of India. It’s been a journey down that stream of consciousness for her into discovering India’s identity through its textiles, she tells BHUMIKA K.
In Serampore, on the banks of the Ganga across Calcutta, were the remnants of a little Dutch colony, where in 1966, Ritu Kumar started reviving block prints on silk. The fabric from this little colony had always been exported abroad, before India gained independence. “At that time I don’t think I was doing anything but revival…Serampore was a place of memories and emptiness and nothing much else,” she recalls, dismissing conventional notions of a fashion designer as we understand now.
Often referred to as India’s first fashion designer post-Independence, Ritu Kumar traces the thread of her journey from Serampore to having boutiques in cities like Surat today. She pioneered the boutique concept in India, setting up her first way back in 1969 in Delhi.
She has just been awarded the Padma Shri for her contribution to world of textile and fashion — a first again in the history of India that someone from this field has been extended the honour. “Yes, it’s an award we largely associate with arts with classical roots — theatre, music, fine art. So initially I thought it was a mistake when I heard of it! I’m still not sure what exactly I’ve been given the award for, but I would understand that it’s for the social-work nature of textile revival…I would be sceptical if it were an award only for fashion,” she crisply surmises and smiles. “Recognising my work is recognising the fabric and its ethos in India; it’s not an award only for me but significantly recognises the importance of the textile industry in the county.”
In Bangalore recently to close the Bangalore Fashion Week with her grand finale, the 68-year-old designer infuses you with her soaring spirit — “After a good one hour dinner and chat with Rushdie, I went to the Kumbh Mela where I lived in a gorgeous pitched tent…it was so well-organised I don’t know what the fuss is all about. I then attended the Jaipur Literary Festival before I came here!”
A student of art history and museology in Calcutta, Ritu stepped out into the world of design in her 20s, and perceives her work with textile history at that time as an extension of what she was studying. “There was so much to discover…there were as many as seven schools of printing in India that date back hundreds of years. What I saw at Serampore made me want to study it more. I started off with trying to understand how we pattern fabric. That it went on to become a sari or a blouse was immaterial to me at that time. Ours was a generation that was enthused with huge amounts of patriotism. In that sense, we are the ‘Midnight’s Children’ as such.”
And what better tribute to the changing face of India than to design for Deepa Mehta’s film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children — Ritu Kumar has designed the wedding collection in the film. Research and authentic Indian traditional textiles have been her forte. Elaborate documentation has also found expression in her book Costumes and Textiles of Royal India. She abhors the uninteresting uniformity that most countries have degenerated into when it comes to their clothing, including textile-history-rich countries like China. “In every country in the world, most textile industries have become Euro-centric. With India’s borders opening up, we too have a large presence of such industries. What’s heartening is there is an equally strong indigenous presence of textiles of our own. Our aesthetics are deeply rooted — look at what cotton does to us! It’s our sense of identity. Indian fabric has its own handwriting. When you say Indian identity, you don’t think an LBD; you think fuchsia and gold,” she reiterates.
Ritu’s latest store in the town of Surat — one would thing, hardly the place for an ace designer to be. She refutes any misconceptions one may have about metros and large cities being hubs of fashionable India. “My fourth ever store was in Amritsar way back in 1975…it’s a myth that small-town India doesn’t understand clothing. They’re not devoid of clothing just because there’s no designer there! We should not make the mistake sitting in our fashion weeks thinking they are the be all and end all of fashion in India.” Ritu also pointedly says how in the sari mills in Surat, almost 2,000 saris are produced every shift in each mill, and how designs get copied overnight. “But one must also accept they are popularising the aesthetics of the Kanchivaram, the Patola of Gujarat, the Butis of Jaipur…they are a fashion miracle.”
She saw the inklings of fashion design as we perceive it today only in the late 70s. “That’s when I found a need to convey this discovery through a product people could buy. By the 80s and 90s, the industry was visibly glamorous. Before that it was a good 20 years of only hard work.” She also says she had a lucky stroke when an Australian lady walked into her 240 square foot workspace when she started out and placed her first export order. “I was able to strike a balance — I did what the market demanded for Europe and concentrated on my research here!” Ritu never fails to reiterate that India’s textile heritage and fashion are intrinsically linked to our culture. “The West looks at fashion as a commercial product while in India it’s still a cultural product.” Bringing things back full circle, Ritu Kumar talks of how cyclically, India should re-establish itself as a centre of excellence for the export of textiles. “We have 16 million craftsmen regularly practising their inherited skills. It’s them who have put India on the trade map from the time we’ve traded in spice and cotton textiles…”