A personal journey with textiles


A personal journey with textiles

Fashion designer Ritu Kumar retells textile tales from her travels to South Asia and Europe at a wide-ranging exhibition in the capital

The act of retelling a multi-layered travel experience, that is as personally memorable as it is significant to a larger audience involves another journey. It may mean holding a flashlight to memory, describe colours that live outside the mundane vocabulary, separate philosophical insights from textures, smells, sounds, dress, identity, nature and culture.

“I would try to describe what I had seen felt and noted during my travels but friends and colleagues would find it hard to understand the beauteous complexity of my experiences,” says Ritu Kumar. The matriarch of Indian fashion, one of the most respected textile conservationists of this country is also a tenacious optimist.

Crossroads: Textile Journeys with Ritu Kumar, an exhibition in the capital that illustrates a series of forthcoming travelogues (the first is on Uzbekistan) authored by Kumar on her journeys through South Asia and Europe, takes visitors beyond the scrim of words. Curated by textile designer and writer Mayank Mansingh Kaul with noteworthy attention to depth and dimension, it represents Kumar’s memory and imagination, and the significance of textiles in the life and times of India and the cellular similarities and hand-skills we share with craft histories from other parts of the world. Such skills may be the only way to prevent us from “becoming another China”.

Over the years, China, has been the problematic “other” in Kumar’s mind. Literally as the unstoppable production centre of all things cheap and without distinction and metaphorically as a metastatic industrial monster that will demolish appreciation for the handmade. Kumar admits she identified herself as a nationalist many years back in the Seventies when the world was crazy about Western couture and older women from India bought French chiffons and pearls.

Kumar, 74, who began working as a young student of history and museology in the Sixties is 50 years old in fashion.

“You could either be a Twiggy or an Indian Bohemian in Kolhapuri chappals,” she says. She chose instead to be the barefoot doctor of craft conservation, working in rural clusters, starting from the then Dutch settlement of Serampore in West Bengal.

Balanced on Kumar’s three core interests –– handblock printing, embroidery and weaving, Crossroads assimilates mixed media collages that visualise her observations from her travels. For instance, a painting shows a dreamy bend in a river in the Calcutta of the Seventies with a group of karigars doing embroidery on its banks as white birds take flight.

There are Ikats from Uzbekistan and Ikats from Odisha. If one represents the vintage charm of an Uzbek bazaar, the other resonates the Geet Govinda invoking devotional praise for Lord Jagannath of Puri that formed woven Ikat patterns. The latter, as Kaul points out, is almost like a recreation of Kumar’s trance-like fascination for the divine rituals of Puri.

Archival pieces

Besides painted collages there are archival pieces from Kumar’s personal collection. An embroidered ghaghra-choli by a Rabari karigar from Kutch, woven drapes from Bengal, embroidered pieces from Kashmir, Gyasar brocades and zardozi from Varanasi, Kalamkaris from Srikalahasti and chintz prints from Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Wooden hand blocks, embroidery swatches, notes, photographs and walls covered with textiles give this exhibition the warmth of a private chamber. Kaul says it is worth noticing how the focus is on a male protagonist in Kumar’s rendering of Uzbekistan — an Amir or a reimagined young Babur in Andijan, his birthplace before his era as a great Mughal emperor.

Besides painted collages there are archival pieces from Kumar’s personal collection.

In contrast, the narrative is dominated by a matriarch of a pastoral community in the memoirs that represent Kutch. Captivatingly, the exhibition concludes with textile memories from Cambodia, Myanmar and Bhutan — a Buddhist thangka, on which an orange-hued gathering of monks in a collage symbolise an ascent to detachment after a long, layered journey.

Kumar, 74, who began working as a young student of history and museology in the Sixties is 50 years old in fashion. However, she started writing her travelogues only in the Nineties. She began observing a change for the better in crafts wherever she went and felt the need to document where to go, who to meet, what to buy for a functional directory.

“Else we will lose all this; it won’t last for even half a generation. The structures we have currently are not working, the handloom boards, the R&D, the weaver’s service centres are not working. Discounts will not help the crafts industry,” she says.

It may be the right time to also ask what happens to work like this once the exhibition winds up. Will it rest with the House of Ritu Kumar, a part of which under her son Amrish may be pursuing another direction in fashion? Or, should it find patronage and support from a museum or a corporate entity so that the exhibition like its creator travels too?


What: Crossroads, Textile Journeys with Ritu Kumar.

When: Till April 5, 10 am to 7:30 pm. Guided walks by the curator: 4 pm on April 1 and 5.

Where: Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre

Nearest metro station: Khan market