Monday, 8 April 2013

Ritu Kumar (Deccan Herald, April 2011)

In pursuit of living crafts

Ritu Kumar believes that no craft should die due to the lack of innovation. Juanita Kakoty meets the ace designer who wants to customise handlooms.
Down to Earth: Designer Ritu  Kumar with craftspersons.She studied art history and museology, but became a textile designer instead. With tenderness in her eyes and smile, Ritu Kumar, elegant in a monochrome churidaar-kameez and kantha-stitched dupatta, inside an office displaying exquisite wall hangings of Indian textiles, recalled the journey she undertook more than 40 years ago. “When I first went to the field in Bengal to study textile crafts out of sheer interest, I found a lot of it was not in practice. These were guild crafts — inherited from generation to generation — that were being lost. I got involved in reintroducing a little bit of their history back to the craftsmen. This turned into a lifework; and I soon became a catalyst between the marketplace and the crafts.”

It all began from the grassroots, in a small village near Kolkata. Getting somebody to produce the yarn, printing it; and in the end, finding no retailer for the products, opening the country’s first boutique in 1966 in Delhi. In her words, “A little store which sold the stuff produced in villages.” She was in her 20s then and the entrepreneur of a really tiny cottage industry. “India was just post-independence, first generation; and people my own age came to the store to look at what I was doing.” There was no marketing of her products; it was mostly word-of-mouth that made them popular.

“When I look back at it, I find a lot of dust, heat and travelling. I don’t know why I continued with it. Maybe I found it emotionally satisfying.” And just as one wonders how would that be so, Ritu Kumar revealed, “I would have been a painter, if I had not got into textiles; and the canvas just got so huge! There was an excitement about reviving highly sophisticated textile crafts, lost in history, and thus, an interest turned into passion”. Her journey has been all about forging a new road where none existed.

Ritu Kumar has penned down her experiences in a book — Costumes and Textiles of Royal India (1999) — published by Christies, London. The book is a key reference in academic fashion history. “The idea about writing a book started perhaps when I saw hand-block printing in Jaipur. I searched in vain for museums in India with information or catalogues on it. There was just no documentation of Indian textiles in India! I found them at museums in London and France though, catalogued as trade fabrics. I would get those back and reintroduce them to the craftsmen of the region to show what the old textiles/fabric looked like.”

“During all my travels I really found the need for a book of reference about what was there in India. I believe that some sourcing has to be created for the next generation, particularly in a field so rich. Otherwise, the way the rest of the world has lost its textile traditions, India might too.” This is what, Ritu Kumar held, made her write the book.

And the subject of the book became the royals of India because, “In all traditional places, the royalty would give patronage to the highest guild of a particular craft; thus eliciting the highest skills. The costumes and textiles of royal India reflect the highest, sophisticated forms ever achieved. I began studying them.” She was quick to admit though that “there are books to be written about the rustic textiles that came from these very regions. But those are another 20 books that someone can write.”

Ritu Kumar is the largest designer brand in India today and has been retailing in Europe and India since the 1970s. Her forte has been reviving sophisticated traditional Indian craftsmanship for which she has earned many a laurel, both national and international, including the French knighthood, chevalier des arts et des lettres. She has been an outstanding entrepreneur; and if one notices, every weft and warp has been informed by painstaking research.

For example, her recent ‘Falaknuma’ collection took about 4-5 years of research. It includes a lot of painting and prints besides embroidery that comes from the Kalamkari region in the Deccan. “I want to go back to Machilipatnam,” she declared in-between sips of warm tea, “From where our old textiles were exported all over the world. I find it a very romantic part of our history and extremely rich in imagery. Besides handloom, this is where I want to work on in the future.”

Handloom, she said, “Is one area where I have not been able to be a catalyst the way I wanted to. I tried once for six years but did not really do tremendously well. There is still a long way to go.” It is mostly due to the nature of handloom — since it’s made for the unstitched garment like the saree or odhni/dupatta, she explained, that it is difficult to put it into garments or into mainstream.

“Also, somebody has to understand handloom to be able to relate to it and wear it,” said Kumar with concern in her voice. “It has to have a mental history. But people live in a fast world today; they want to be mobile, they want to wear clothes that don’t come in the way. With handloom, there is a limitation. We have always done well with khadi, because it is a basic fabric and one can do other things with it. It can be engineered such that there is layering of craft one on top of the other. But with handloom, it’s a little difficult. Yet, this is what I want to do — customise handloom: make it simple and everyday.”

As we exchanged goodbyes, I hoped in my heart that Ritu Kumar is able to do with handloom what she has done with the other Indian textile crafts. Her words ring in my ears, “No craft should die due to the lack of innovation. Crafts should be living crafts. They shouldn’t belong to museums.”

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