Fashionable history

Designer Ritu Kumar who has authored the book “Costumes and Textiles of Royal India.” Photo G.P. Sampath Kumar   | Photo Credit: G_P_Sampath Kumar

After over four decades, Ritu Kumar’s name is a firm, indelible mark on the fashion map of the country. The veteran designer, deeply involved with the indigenous craftsmen and weavers of the country, had also written a book in 1999 titled “Costumes and Textiles of Royal India”. The recent allocation of Rs.200 crore for six textile clusters in the country puts the much needed focus on the industry, and Kumar’s book, a detailed exploration of the history and evolution of textile and fashion in the country, becomes even more relevant.

Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us a little about bringing the book back into focus?

When I launched the book in 1999, I did a five city launch, but never really got around to doing a book reading. Since then, I have been asked various times by various institutions, NIFT etc, who want to use the book, because while one part of the book is visual, it also has a lot of content. And while the visual part is obvious, the content I feel needed to be conveyed by a book reading. After the launches though, I went straight back to work. I didn’t get the time or the space to be able to do the readings as well. Now, today I have the space and time to do this, and I can revisit the quality and history of textiles we have had and still have in the country. It’s an educational leisure activity that I can devote time to.

The book, with its in-depth study of Indian fashion and its evolution, adds another layer to the industry, and widens it scope to include an academic perspective.

It is one of the first works which has looked at textiles and fashion in a holistic, geographical and historical perspective.

And considering it is one of the first such works, the research would have to be all your own, with little pre-existing information already in place.

You are a 100 per cent right. Textiles in themselves are a very difficult thing to research. This is due to the lack of any evidence, as well as visual or literary references. A lot of what you are doing is conjecture. You conjecture from a picture, a sculpture or a historical sequence. When it comes to things like art, sculpture, painting, we have always presumed that they are there, and that assumption is across the board. The existence of textile is there by inference not because it has been recorded in writing. Of course, once in a while a Chinese traveller etc. would record information. But a lot of textile information in India is either hearsay or romanticised. Another very big problem with textiles is that any descriptive reference to textiles is highly difficult to imagine. It needs lot of touch, look and feel.

The book took nine to 10 years. I worked on it for around four years then put it to bed for a while. I thought there was not enough material. Then I travelled abroad, and in a lot of museums there I found references, though recent comparatively — 20 and 19th Century, and sometimes 18th Century. In the book, I have traced things back to ancient India, and included a small part on pre-ancient India I felt that it was important to have a beginning.

Could you talk a little about the focus on royalty vis a vis textiles?

The most important thing is to understand that this richness of textile and fabric in India stemmed from the idea of “pehchaan”, and this “pehchaan” was made much more sophisticated by the royal patrons. If you were living in Chanderi, the royalty of Chanderi were patronising the top end of the weaving chain. All the patronage that came to the best textiles of the country came from the royalty or the temples. Temples were equivalent to royalty, and in certain parts, more important. And then, we exchanged one royalty for another, when the British came. Wherever the textile came from, you found it highly influenced by the royalty of that area, and so it becomes important to trace the history of textile by tracing the royalty in India.

A little about how you think the history of textile and design affects contemporary designers in the country today?

Because of the nature of the fashion industry in India, which is still very small, the design community, all of us, depend upon the crafts sector, and many designers today are constantly reinterpreting crafts into modern Indian designs. Most of my own design sensibilities came from understanding that this history existed. I just had to underline the fact, and find the proof of its existence, and delve more and more into it. It’s always been a resource for me that never runs out.

And the recent Budget allocates a large sum to starting textile mega-clusters…

For a large number of years, one has been knocking on doors saying this sector has to be looked at for what it is seriously worth in this country. We tend to look at it seriously as not serious — it’s not information technology, IT, it’s not engineering. One doesn’t realise that it’s the second largest employer after agriculture. It’s a living heritage, and shouldn’t just be preserved for the romance of it, but also as USP of the country. I hope that all the letters we have been writing to the Government may have affected the decisions and benefitted the craft sectors and clusters.

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 7:55:35 AM |

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