CHATLINE Ritu Kumar says she's been fortunate to act as a catalyst between a craft area rich in its tradition and a world moving rapidly
R itu Kumar set up her first boutique in Delhi's Defence Colony in 1966 — some decades before ‘industry' got attached to ‘fashion', with its net of designers, buyers and high-capacity production units. Today she's the Grand Dame of Indian fashion, whose clientele has ranged from princesses to beauty queens. Ironically, she tells you, fashion was the last thing on her mind when she got in.
While studying at Lady Irwin College in New Delhi, Ritu got a scholarship to study in Brairclifff College in the U.S., where she took up art history and theatre. Coming back, an interest in arts and crafts prompted her to take up a Museology course in Calcutta.
Ritu recalls, “I got to go to the field a lot and saw a lot of the craft areas. The embroiderers were without work; so were the printers and handloom weavers. It was a very sad situation because they weren't given much work. There was 100 years of colonial fabrics coming from Lancashire, so their old crafts had gone down.”
With a view to revive old crafts, she started working with the artisans, wherein they would do hand block-printing on saris for her. “The saris had to go somewhere! So I had to start a small store in Delhi and later in Calcutta; we just used to sell all the saris I got printed.” Soon, the demands of a North Indian clientele led her to stitched garments in the form of the salwar-kameez. “There was no merchandising, there was no thought of going into the fashion business. It just drew its own energy,” she says.
There were early lessons. Ritu's first exhibition centred on the revival of hand block-printing. “It didn't go down well, because I had printed those hand blocks on very thick khadi,” she reveals. In a clever move, Kumar switched to chiffon. “We used a lot of Indian prints on chiffon, which became quite the rage actually. We were copied by the Benaras and Ahmedabad mills. All of a sudden, a complete Indian repertoire came into the market… when I started, women were wearing large flowers hand-painted in France. ”
A regular part of Ritu's shows over the years has been the audio-visual Tree of Life, a rich, colourful presentation of the journey of certain crafts from source to finish. Components include one on Lucknow's chikan workers, another on hand block-printing workers from Rajasthan, and ones on khadi and zardozi. “You can get a sense of ‘where to where'. There were sequins in the dust somewhere, and those garments are being worn by Miss Universe winners. The connect was a bit ambiguous, very difficult for people to understand that these were old skills, old crafts, and how they were being actually transported into mainstream international vocabulary,” she explains.
While we're talking, Ritu gets a call from reigning Miss India Manasvi Mamgai, who she promises to call back once this interview is over. “All the young girls want to wear saris nowadays,” smiles Ritu. Her tryst with Miss Indias started with designing costumes for Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai in 1994, who then went on to win the Miss Universe and Miss World titles respectively.
Ritu's most famous patron, however, came in the form of the late princess Diana. “We had a store in London, and suddenly enough she just called and walked in. And she wanted to wear something more Oriental… It was a pity that before I could get her into a sari she had that accident and passed away. I was in the process of doing a wardrobe for her,” she says.
Ritu's book “Costumes and Textiles of Royal India”, published in 1999 by Christie's, is a repository of traditional Indian textile crafts, tracing the history of weaves and crafts through the ages.
“In all my travels, in all my work in the textile area, I kept wishing there was some book I could refer to, because I used to go blind into an area. Say, I heard about bagru prints, but on where to find bagru or where to find the man who does it, there was very, very little reference work. After working for almost 20 to 25 years in the field, I just felt that I needed to document it so that the younger generation could access some part of the work that I had done and maybe get encouraged to go to those areas. ”
With 2002 came the launch of sub-brand LABEL, with son Amrish Kumar as the creative director, with a more contemporary twist to silhouette and more accessible price points. “I think with LABEL Amrish was connecting with his own age group,” says Ritu. “It still has a great deal of indigenous work, it has a lot of prints, but it doesn't look like a Mango or a Zara. It looks like something that comes from this country… So here if he had a bagru print he'd probably do it on jersey, which you can easily wear as a T-shirt rather than a whole sari.”
Hereon, handlooms will be the focus, she says. “If I wasn't doing this, perhaps I would have been a painter,” ponders Ritu. “But that would have been a much lonelier journey in comparison, because with this one carried so many people along with you. At one point of time it became something you couldn't stop doing, because you were responsible for a lot of design input in many craft areas. I think I was very fortunate to be able to do that.”