Neeru Kumar: ‘Simplicity Makes a Statement’

Neeru Kumar: ‘Simplicity Makes a Statement’

Far from the madding crowd, the veteran designer walks into the closet of her past work exiting from the front to now, arguing for modernity in weaving

A few months back, a small piece of information came around that textile designer Neeru Kumar had been invited by Californian home furnishings company Restoration Hardware (RH) to be photographed by famous American photographer Annie Leibovitz. RH had commissioned Leibovitz to shoot portraits of designers who collaborate with the company, specifically those representing diverse textiles. Kumar is the only designer from India who retails at RH.

When this writer asked her for a brief conversation about that photo shoot and some behind-the-scenes photos with Leibovitz in New York, Kumar regretted. Expectedly. Her communication style is a mix of reticence and clarity, a reflex perhaps of her practised art of staying far from the madding crowd.

Those photographs are still not in the public domain and Kumar continues to wear inconspicuousness to work every day. In the attention-seeking fashion business, where dress and overdress, statement-making and ‘publicity’ are the routes of sustenance, the textile conservationist keeps herself at a distance.


In the attention-seeking fashion business, Neeru Kumar keeps herself at a distance.

Priyanka Parashar

A distance, which is a product of her choices over the years, happenstance and lack of adoration Kumar felt for the buzzy side of fashion, when she showed for the opening of the 2011 edition of the then Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week. After that she absented herself from shows and soirées that define the fashion calendar every season, every year.

Type Tulsi, Find Neeru Kumar?

Consumers who cherish woven fabrics in graphic, non-embellished, natural textures know Kumar’s label ‘Tulsi’ for its home textiles and fashion garments. Her peers as well as colleagues from the crafts-textiles ecosystem admire her weaving interventions for being consistently experimental and minimalist.

Though the ‘new, new fashion media’ or the ‘millennial consumer’ may know her label, few may know Kumar’s contribution to woven textiles in post-colonial India.

The reason you find her in this series on decolonising textiles is because Kumar is among those few conservationists whose innovations led to products that were appreciated by global audiences long before textile art or modern-Indian home furnishings became the rage.


Kumar’s textile innovations have been appreciated by global audiences long before textile art or modern-Indian home furnishings became the rage.
Priyanka Parashar

In retrospect, Kumar’s explorations of Odisha Ikats, colour-blocked Khadis, black and natural tussars or Kantha gudris (quilts), bandhini on Chanderi, Indigo-dyed Jamdanis stand out. She says she was the first to present sophisticated, handstitched gudris when crafts-consciousness was just emerging in the India of the Nineties. It must be said though that crafts consciousness then was primarily an urban, elite response to the urgings of cultural activists like Pupul Jayakar and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

Then and Now: From the Nineties to 2022

“Untried colours, introducing 10 harness and 20 harness looms for Odisha Ikat weaving, changing the grammar of the sari with unconventional stripes or checks and colour blocks instead of traditional motifs were my ways of modernising,” she says, when asked to define ‘modernity’ in her work.

We are at Kumar’s workshop in Gurugram, which like her studio in Sarvodaya Enclave in Delhi includes a section that can double up as a handloom library. Wool-blended jackets and coats for the international market, Jamdani tunics, Shibori shirts, Bandhini on Chanderi, Kantha quilts, patchworked woven cushion covers, cotton-silk throws, bed covers and home furnishings surround us.

Kumar is dressed in a “simple” Indigo dyed cotton kurta and pants with comfortable sandals. Not a piece of jewellery or makeup on her. She would dress up later for the photoshoot. Her eyes glitter with warmth and curiosity. She listens better than she speaks. “I am most passionate about weaving,” says Kumar and through the conversation, opens the closet of her past work to allow the flashlight of this story to enter. Among the less known aspects of her story is her personal collection of Banjara (gypsy) textiles and another of vintage saris that she restored turning them to unique, upcycled textiles.


The designer graduated in 1980 from the National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad, which seeded ideas of decolonisation in her as with many batches of students. Few may know that before Tulsi became a standalone boutique in 1992 at Delhi’s Santushti shopping arcade, Kumar worked in the same space with Anita Lal, the founder of Good Earth for a few years from 1987. The two collaborated for a boutique where Lal’s pottery and Kumar’s textiles nestled together.

“I started experimenting from the time I stepped out of NID, encouraged by my mentor there to follow my passion for weaving. I was waiting to go to Odisha and revitalise the highly skilled Ikat weaving which I find superior even to Andhra Ikat,” she says. Kumar decided to use the skill set of Odisha handloom by bringing in and settling weavers in Delhi where she lives, so that she could personally supervise the yarn, the weaving interventions and tweak the loom settings to attain what she was looking for. “My work was more geometric than floral or figurative. I used colours that had never been used in Ikat. A sari is a piece of textile with a body, border and pallu and I represented it graphically,” she explains.


Viswakarma: the Transit Point for Textile Decolonisers


“When I was invited by Mapu (the late textiles expert Martand Singh) to create a piece for the Festivals of India, Viswakarma exhibitions in Moscow in the Nineties, the theme given to me was ‘Jaali,’” says Kumar. She adds that Mapu specifically asked her to work on tussar. “I made a trip to Bhagalpur and put my heart and soul in to it to create something that didn’t exist in the Bhagalpur tussar-khadi vocabulary,” she says. Her work, a wall hanging, was a twill weave in black and natural coloured tussar. Woven on a 20-harness loom by two weavers, it found its way to the exhibitions and became the cover of the show’s catalogue.

It also provoked the first gush of recognition and orders for Kumar. From Japanese stores to Bloomingdale’s in America to The Conran Shop in the UK. Orders came in, from individual global customers who had watched the Viswakarma exhibitions, as well as from stores giving Kumar a clear path of business pursuance.

A special mention in her work trajectory goes to Kumar’s 23-year-old collaboration with Japanese textile designer and artist Chiaki Maki that wound up some years back. The two shared a similar aesthetic and vision, collaborating on weaving, craft and business. Japan remains the busiest market for Kumar’s work today though she sells consistently, as she says, to Europe and the US. In India, Tulsi now has two stores in Delhi and one in Mumbai.


In totality, all the work that forms and informs Kumar’s oeuvre follows a pattern. Working with artisans, re-skilling them to a certain extent, giving them work, offering yarn, fabrics, and design interventions. From working for 15 years with a Bangladeshi craftsperson for her Kanthas who could do “exquisite running stitch”, a Khadi weaver from Bengal to several talented artisans from Odisha, she would bring artisans to Munirka village in Delhi where her workshop was located.

Starting from the late Nineties till later, her Ikat saris, colour-blocked Khadis selling from the Tulsi store in Santushti beckoned Sonia Gandhi, now the president of the Congress party and her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as customers. Both Gandhi ladies are known handloom lovers who wear their weaves in an aesthetic similar to that of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. These refined “Gandhi style Ikats” would then pull several Congresswomen and ladies in the political fraternity looking for similar iterations, says Kumar.

India’s love for bling and shine, however brought some intersectional decisions. Kumar says that in the last few years, she added garments and saris with embroidery as well as created velvet ensembles for her domestic stores noticing the demand from customers.


In the last few years, Kumar has added garments and saris with embroidery as well as velvet ensembles for her domestic stores noticing the demand from customers.

Discerning observers may agree that Kumar’s home textiles are outstanding. However, given fashion’s ever-growing fascination with form and experimental silhouettes, newer styling references influenced by younger buyers who seek glamour with statement-making clothes, her clientele is select.

Epilogue: The Minimalist Instinct

“Simplicity makes a statement,” says Kumar, when prodded about the complexity of contemporariness. “My instinct and aesthetic is minimalist, more Japanese in rendering and thought,” she adds.

A takeaway for those tracing textile decolonisation—like for this writer—is to explore what these words mean in fashion. And why fashion decolonisation could offer divergent discoveries.


Banner: Neeru Kumar at her farmhouse in Delhi. Photograph: Priyanka Parashar.

Zehn: Decolonising Indian Textiles is a series that celebrates designers, archivists, curators, weavers, scholars, institutions, revivalists and other artists who create modern, relevant connects with textile traditions.