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Silk route Padma Shri Ritu Kumar traces her journey from reviving the grandeur of the Mughal era to unravelling the many hues of traditional Indian designs and more

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Interviewed by Sapna Khanna

itu Kumar, the designer who has extensively researched the Indian design lexicon and revived many long forgotten weaves and motifs, has been instrumental in highlighting and encouraging many forms of traditional crafts in fashion design. Beginning with two tables and a few hand-block printers in a small village near Kolkata, the largest collection of hand block prints was showcased in Kumar’s first of signature boutiques in Kolkata. In the early 80s, Kumar discovered the embroiderers of Ranihati, a cluster of hamlets outside Kolkata. Realising their vast treasure of skills, she provided them with work space in their own environment, and gradually the craft of Zardozi that had once flourished in the period of Mughal era, was revived. This resulted in the production of wedding and evening wear of stunning splendour. It was Kumar who later synthesised embroidery and hand block printing to create the Kashida collection. The geometric phulkaris of Punjab, the mirrorwork of Kutch, the stylised plant and floral motifs of Kashmir, the white on white of Chikan, and the Kantha work of Bengal were blended with hand block prints to create fine garments of texture reflecting Indian aesthetics. The business expanded and kept growing. Label Ritu Kumar progressed to produce some of the country’s most exquisite garments and accessories in cotton and silk. Her collections thrived on traditional and textile crafts and the lineage of Indian design. With 26 boutiques in major cities in India and a list of India’s who’s who as her clientele, Kumar has managed to achieve commercial success as well as gratification from fulfilling a social responsibility of astounding proportion. Excerpts of an interview:

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The first exhibition, way back in 1968, was a complete ‘disaster’. There’s no other word to describe the experience. How did the journey begin for you? I always wanted to study the history of art and drama, which I did when I went to America on a scholarship during my time at Lady Irwin College in New Delhi. After graduating from Lady Irwin College, I received a scholarship as an exchange scholar to Briarcliff College in New York. At the university I took up History of Western Art and completed my degree. When I returned to India, I pursued a course in Indian art and history with a desire to learn more about our country and its heritage. The course provided me exposure to Museology - the study of museums. I acquired a diploma in Museology from Ashutosh Museum in Kolkata. This became the genesis of my interest in various art forms and crafts, and from there onwards it developed into fashion designing. And from there, it’s been a long haul – 40 years. While the focus has been on the revival of Indian crafts and textiles, how has the design sense of Ritu Kumar line of clothing evolved over the years? As I progressed, I got introduced to hand block printing, and subsequently started interacting with a cross-section of artisans across Kolkata. There was undocumented repertoire of knowledge and skills, and this was the foundation of my continued association with Indian designs and hand-woven textiles. And I strongly felt that it is not enough to discover old techniques, we must preserve them too. Tell us about your earliest showcase or exhibition experience. The first exhibition, way back in 1968, was a complete ‘disaster’. There’s no other word to describe the experience. I decided to mount my first exhibition using all the designs and techniques I had discovered while completing my diploma in Museology. Armed with my ‘research’ I included the classic and traditional letmotifs such as ambi, coramandel and tantric on heavy khadis and cottons. In the backdrop of the sixties, they were a great rediscovery. Or so I thought but not a single sari sold.

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India is one of the few countries to have an indigenous fashion handwriting that is not dictated by Paris or New York but is evolving. to four years to put it together. Christie’s offered to publish it when I was half way through writing it.

So what had gone wrong? People who came to see my exhibition were all praise but according to them, the saris reminded them of old bedcovers or something their grandmothers had worn. It made me realise that we all had a hinterland of design consciousness. I realised that I was trying to force my own research on people. The gap between consciousness and the baggage of colonial rule was too great to be bridged with such a short step. But here I learnt to blend artistic research with more contemporary form and fabric. Then you went on to launch your own boutiques? Yes, in India it was way back in 60s when the concept was unknown in the country and in London in mid 90s. Could you tell us about the book that you had laboriously worked on – Costumes & Textiles of Royal India? It was born from the need to preserve and provide a takeoff point for younger designers. I had discovered so much while I was journeying down the textile trail that I decided that I must put some of it down. It was a compulsive need. It took me a lifetime to research the book, and close

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This year began well for you as you were recognised with the Padma Shri – a first in the fashion fraternity. Could you share with us your reaction on winning this prestigious award for your efforts to revive Indian crafts, textiles and handlooms? I am deeply appreciative of the fact that the government has recognised my efforts in the field of fashion, textile and craftsmanship. India remains one of the few countries which have an indigenous and a strong fashion handwriting that is not dictated by Paris or New York but is evolving with the designers here. I am grateful for the support I have received from the crafts people of this country. The recognition of this fact is extremely welcome as it underlines the nature of newer areas of culture and the aspirations of the younger population of India who are as design savvy as they are conversant with the computer. Awards of this nature point towards innovative way forward in this country. With 26 stores in India, you seem to be on top of the fashion retail game. How much of global trends do you infuse in your lines? Our stores are built on our own fashion ideology as there is a strong indigenous handwriting which permeates the line. It must be different for different designers or collections. Also, we live in a global world today. The trends tend to be universal. I usually embellish or use traditional textile techniques but in a way that is contemporary. The lines evolve seamlessly. What is your vision for your label and for your stores – from where you stand today? There is diffusion planned in the next few years of classical Ritu Kumar lines with some standalone bridal stores. There will also be in depth diffusion in the stores with standalone label lines for a younger and contemporary person.

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The Silk route  
The Silk route