Weaving the fabric's soul

DELVING INTO HERITAGE Neeru Kumar: `In Japan, anything hand-woven is done in a studio and is considered a work of art; the weaver is an artist'

DELVING INTO HERITAGE Neeru Kumar: `In Japan, anything hand-woven is done in a studio and is considered a work of art; the weaver is an artist'  

When Neeru Kumar took to promoting handlooms 20 years ago, she found no takers. It's a different story today

She has carefully built a brand around herself as a textile designer in a world flooded with fashion designers. Neeru Kumar today stands for her hand-woven brand of garments and home accessories, all telling a tale of much thought and energy that have gone into each warp and weft.

Draping one of her own waiflike cotton saris with a Jamdani pallu, Neeru was busy in Bangalore with the opening of her store in the city. "The garment is only a sequel to the original — fabric creation."

"I'm a fabric person. And I consciously keep it that way. I design textiles — that's my forte — to experiment with colours, weaves, techniques, and most importantly to create a beautiful fabric," says the mother of couture hand-woven textile design.

I say mother of hand-woven products because she started out 20 years ago trying to promote handloom and found no takers in India. And in keeping with the old Kannada adage Hittala gida maddalla (which translates as the herb in the backyard is no medicine), she had to look outside the country to establish herself.

"Yes, I was in the international markets before I was here," smiles Neeru, her eyes crinkling up. "We are lucky that the country is rich in this heritage resource. Not many countries have the tradition of handloom," says this lady, who's now adviser to the Ministry of Textiles in the Central Government.

"In a country like Japan today, anything hand-woven is done in a studio and is considered a work of art; the weaver in Japan is an artist."

Today, her label is displayed at Maison & Objet fair in Paris, which is the leading trend-setting exhibition in the world. She also stocks at over 60 leading stores worldwide, including Le Bon Marche in France, Liberty & Selfridges in the U.K. She's managed to make inroads into the conservative Japanese market and the European market as well. (She does a wonderful imitation of how European women lovingly feel her stoles against their cheeks and squeal with delight when they discover how soft the material is.)

"It was a conscious decision at that time to move away from India because not many people were doing anything substantial for the development of the handloom market," explains Neeru, who's also quite unhappy that a textile creator often doesn't get the recognition that a fashion designer does. "In fact, without new energies to sustain handloom, the entire craft is going to be completely lost."

This National Institute of Design (NID) graduate says she's only trying to create contemporary and internationally acceptable fabrics and so does scarves, stoles, Western and Indian wear for men and women, furnishings, wraps and throws. In fact, her First Design collection of wall pieces, inspired by African weaves and using raw Indian tussar, flew off the shelves at Harrods, Liberty, Selfridges and Bloomingdales at Rs. 35,000 a piece in 1990. Folklore has it that Steven Spielberg has adorned a wall in his home with one of these creations.

Neeru's other high-profile clients include actor Shabana Azmi, news anchor Barkha Dutt and some well-known politicians; but she doesn't design specifically for them. They pick up what she makes, says Neeru who doesn't like to discuss her clientele.

Putting together pieces of history is another of her obsessions. Wherever she sees old fabric and heritage textiles, she picks them up, patches them to make them strong, lines them and gets kantha work done on them as value addition. And presto! another stunner for the wall.

The hackneyed perceptions of the West are fast changing and as the Indian image undergoes an overhaul, Indian designs and products are also gaining respect, says Neeru Kumar. The woman who's mixed fabrics, designs, textiles and textures to produce an internationally acceptable line is inspired by the Bauhaus School of design in Germany.

"I never saw imported fabric as competition. What we can produce handmade is far more superior. It has both the feel and the soul of something made by hand," she says with an understandable pride and conviction. Whether it's the Jamdani, ikat or cutwork she does, every single piece is the outcome of a huge amount of experimenting, and learning about the fabric before creating something from it. Colour, material, weights, dyes, shrinking cottons, pre-washing silks to check the dyes, and the nitty-gritty of getting the final length of aesthetic fabric, is unending. "A lot of thought goes into it. Every piece has a story," says Neeru passionately. But does a customer understand this? Or does handloom sell because it's fashionable now?

She smiles disarmingly and says: "A lot of them buy because it's fashionable. Unfortunately very few understand... but at least the product then should have the aesthetic to appeal to the layman," she finally justifies.


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