Ritu Kumar: “I am not looking to be celebrated or applauded”

Ritu Kumar: “I am not looking to be celebrated or applauded”

Indian fashion’s senior most designer on the shift among women artisans and why international fashion brands have not been able to establish a firm foothold here 

A day before March 8, International Women’s Day, Ritu Kumar, the first brick layer between Indian fashion and hand-painted, hand printed, embroidered textiles hosted a women-only, “colours of Holi” themed party at her sprawling home on the outskirts of Delhi. For her hostess ensemble, she chose hues of yellow with a sunlit marigold tucked above her ear. Women in colours and colours of women: familiar Ritu Kumar thought kit.

Before she became the first bricklayer, Kumar was, in the late sixties and early Seventies a “barefoot doctor of textiles” (words, I must have repeated ad nauseum in my stories). She was co-traveller with other textile mendicants like the late Martand Singh. A few of them would go to crafts clusters in villages to script the first draft of the conservation and revival story.

Now, at seventy-five plus years of age, Kumar is the grand matriarch of Indian fashion. A museologist too who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013.


Ritu Kumar being awarded the Padma Shri in 2013 by the former President of India Pranab Mukherjee.

Kumar’s sweep over the decades is easily headlined by revival and reimagination of Indian textiles. Her full resume though would make one breathless. From early exhibitions of hand-block printed khadi saris in the Calcutta of the Seventies to dressing Miss India contestants, briefly heading the Fashion Design Council of India to hundreds of fashion shows, authoring a book (Costumes and Textiles of Royal India) to academic research and travel writing, Kumar has dipped her hands in the dye of Indian crafts all through.

In 2018, she showed Crossroads: Textile Journeys with Ritu Kumar, an exhibition of textiles, paintings and pieces collected over her travels in South Asia and Europe. Last year, she put on display Kanaat: A brief history of Handpainted and Printed Textiles of India. Her commercially successful design and fashion house that also makes four collections a year for Europe and the US, includes a thriving bridal couture segment for the India market, a pret business called Label and Ritu Kumar Home, the home accessories line she added last year.


When I approached her for this interview, she did not sound enthused (surely, she is bored of all interviews) but did not refuse. Her matter of fact mix of warm and dry manner remains steadfast. She speaks plainly but nor does she allow her baser thoughts, emotions, aggressions or disappointments to surface easily.

This time I met Kumar at Kalamkari, her head office in Gurgaon. As expected, she wore her tenacity without any accessories. But otherwise her lipstick-eyeliner, rings and bangles, polished nails, hair properly blowed out bit was in usual form—she has always liked dressing up, and is always in Indian textiles.

In this interview, she talks about why she is proud of India’s parallel wardrobe bohemia, the shift in the work of women artisans among other aspect of fashion. Edited excerpts…

What do you think about fashion in the subcontinent today in the context of your work and the industry at large?

Having seen for many decades how powerful international fashion players with deep pockets dominate the fashion market across the globe, the way they dictate what the world wears, I have to admit that 20 years back, I thought the same would happen to India. Some years back, when fast fashion brands entered India, I again thought we would all be wearing black short dresses. Today, I am pleasantly surprised that it did not happen. A parallel wardrobe may have opened up but Indian clothes have not disappeared. Even a country as individualistic as Japan fell prey to these trends as did China.

But even if the rest of the world thinks that in India we wear theatrical clothes, which we do, we have no problem with that. After Independence, when people like textile exponent Martand Singh and some of us would travel across India, we discovered a parallel bohemia. This had to do with khadi, Kolhapuri chappals and a sort of anti-establishment dressing. That was when India could not import a zip or a button. We had to pull out everything, every look and sensibility from what we had. So I am very proud of this country, which alongside the Zaras of the world has retained a strong identity of its known.


Are you content with the recognition you got from the fashion industry or the country at large?

I am content with my work. Sometimes I feel we ascribe too much importance to a very small section of fashion designers in the country. Compared to the Indian population, or the fact that a vast number of people do not even go to fashion designers, how important are we? Even the media is responsible for this perception of importance. So I am not looking to be “celebrated” or applauded. I wrote a book in 1999 which ran out of copies, was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2013. Besides, many of my designs were copied by Surat and Banaras. The work I did with hand block printing filtered down to mass markets. Today you get beautiful ethnic saris for ₹200 from that vocabulary of prints.

That to me is a fashion statement. Something that even the most ordinary woman can afford. I am content with that impact.


A photograph of model Lakshmi Menon from one of Ritu Kumar’s campaigns in the Nineties.

What do you feel about women karigars who, until recently, did not get any recognition in the crafts industries?

Even in the Seventies, when I started my work with zardozi embroiders in Bengal; rural families would do a mix of agrarian work with some allied jobs that could bring cash. There would be a loom in the house; one or two saris would be woven on it. The activity would pick up more during monsoons and so on. People in crafts were so incredibly poor. You could not talk about something as esoteric as what men did versus what women had to do. These were issues only we could think of in the cities.

Let’s say in Bengal, men do all the embroidery, and women traditionally did the shaving of the sui (needle) and the dhaaga (thread). They did ancillary work. In Kashmir, men do 100 per cent of the embroideries while women do the allied work, like dyeing. But in places like Kutch, women do all the embroidery and men collect to take it for sale.

This began to shift once the men started earning money from the craft they practiced. Then it made sense to involve women in the pursuit. What has really changed in the last 30 years is that many crafts people have become affluent. They can send their kids to school; the crafts have made a huge difference to their livelihoods. In Kutch, a majority of women artisans if not all have bank accounts. Wherever there is craft, women have really blossomed.

But the master craftsman still is a “man”.
Master craftsman is a pivotal person, who makes the design. Who tells the others where to tie the knots, how to dye, what to do. He is a mathematical genius. Some of them came from Uzbekistan, and went to Banaras. That kind of crafts knowledge comes when you are mobile which men were in earlier days. Women never got the opportunities to become master craftspersons. Wherever the craft went into a higher plane and evolved, like the work commissioned by Mughal emperors, men were the master craftspersons.

No two crafts in India have similar stories and realities. Take the Paithani sari for instance; I don’t see how women could have spent 10 hours a day weaving it in the past because that is the kind of time is takes. Now though I do see many women weaving in some clusters.


A young Ritu Kumar exchanging notes with an artisan. She would often adopt the role of a “mastercraftsman” to direct hand block printing or painting of textiles.

What should designers like yourself be credited for in this parallel bohemia of India?

I think my role really was that of a catalyst. I was an artist and I could draw. In some places, I could take the role of the naqshpath, the master craftsman. But the talent is really of our karigars. Without them, this large bridal world of Indian fashion would not be.

Are you an admirer of the Indian fashion industry?

To some extent yes. Designers have made sure that other agencies, the Diors of the world for example have not managed to find a foothold in India. In some way, I think the traditional vibe; the complexity of Indian culture misses international brands. They have not been able to line up here and obliterate Indian design. That is largely because of our fashion designers. The market needed us, the embroideries and the lehgnas. If we hadn’t provided them, maybe we would be wearing white gowns.

Does watching shows of Indian designers still interest you?

I used to really like watching what younger designers did but now Instagram has cut the tedium and saved many of us the trouble of driving for two hours to see a show.

Does any particular designer’s work interest you?

What interests me is when someone does something interesting with handlooms. Frankly, I think, we are done with crystals, bling, lace from Europe and all that. Synthetics really need to take a backseat. I want to know what we do with our very aesthetically sound handlooms. That is where real sophistication resides. I am not just talking about textiles but about the entire look. It is the higher end of couture, where less is more. I like what Rakesh Thakore does, have always liked what he does with handlooms.

Like all senior psychotherapists, who must periodically shrink themselves before they help others, how did you fashion shrink yourself over the years?

There were times when I felt I was really out of it. I felt I was not in fashion enough, not happening enough when it came to the market. I shrunk my work down to adapt to what this market could utilize instead of being all over the place. India is the widest, largest treasure house in the world I could have had to play with. The Bandhinis, the printed and painted textiles, the embroideries. I have been very fortunate.

What would you say is your foremost talent without which you would not be Ritu Kumar? 

It is my basic talent of being able to pattern cloth. As a country, we had cotton and the ability to dye and colour cotton in various hues and create printed fabrics. Nowhere else in the world could anyone deal with so many natural herbs and bring out so many colours. That too in a manner that they get absorbed into the fabric thereby changing the structure of the yarn itself. Through those processes, now I have probably become a specialist in printing. Not just reproducing what we had traditionally but by creating something original from that ethos. That excites me the most.


An Uzbek Ikat painting from Crossroads: Textile Journeys with Ritu Kumar an exhibition of collections, paintings and writings on travels in South Asia and Europe.

A black and white sketch from Ritu Kumar’s collected files of works that inspired her.

Are you a collector of textiles yourself? 

I have a huge collection of textiles. From 1969, for the last fifty years, I have collected thousands of pieces, which are lying in trunks.

Do you intend to make a museum? What happens to this collection? 

I have numbered, photographed and documented every single piece. I wish it became a museum of a kind, which younger students of fashion can access. Most among them have not seen a good or a bad textile. I always say that the institutions of fashion in this country need to get faculty, which can teach textiles. You can get faculty from New York to teach cutting in a fashion college, but we need a historian to teach aesthetics. Students these days are impacted by so many images from all over the world, like the Paris ramp, which is perhaps the most influential, and then they try to interpret it here without any Indian context, which makes it very complicated.

Do you wear some of the textiles from your own collection? 

I used to! The odhnis, I would love to wear. Not so much now, though I continue to wear hand-block prints. It is no surprise of course that I acquired so many old textiles in the course of my work. From Bhuj from instance, I came back with two cartfuls of old pieces.


A hand painted Kalamkari textile from Ritu Kumar archives.

A hand block printed textile with natural dyes from Ritu Kumar archives.

Do you think fashion week model needs to change or would it make any difference to the business of fashion if the two split fashion weeks came together? 

Let me ask you something. How influential do you think these two fashion week bodies are today for us to be even discussing this? I was the President of the FDCI board when the split you are talking about happened. I brought in Rathi Vinay Jha (former IAS officer) as the CEO and was trying to get the government to grant some land as a fashion avenue, but that got too complicated. Today, however, I am not in the least qualified to answer your question. I am not into it at all and I am not being facetious, as I know that we show Ritu Kumar Label at Lakme Fashion Week. However, I feel that the tools of social media have surpassed interest in fashion weeks.

Do you still enjoy taking a bow after a show at a fashion week? 

No! I am tired of all that.


Ritu Kumar with actor Aditi Rao Hydari as the showstopper for Kumar’s Benarasi weaves collection at Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/ Festive 2015.

What do you think about inclusivity, body positivity, bringing acid attack victims to the fashion ramp? Is it something that fashion should do or is it promotional?

Well, generally most of these things are promotional. They do not really impact fashion.

What about Label, the pret segment by Ritu Kumar. From time to time, one feels that it does not embody principles of your design.

Label is a halfway space which Amrish (Kumar, her son) has created for younger people who do not want to wear a sari or a salwar kameez but look for something Indian. The only thing I do is design textiles and edit or select prints for Label. The rest is their call.

What were the dark tunnels, the disappointments in your career?

Well more than a few. For one, in the early Seventies, I had created beautiful saris from Farrukhabad and Jaipur hand-block for an exhibition I organized in Kolkata. Shockingly, only two saris sold in two days and that too my friends bought them. I was catering to the chiffons and pearls crowd but had printed on khadi. I did not realise that these ladies did not even know what Khadi was. Later, I printed the same on chiffons and they flew. That was quite a learning for me.

The other was when all my hand blocks and prints were stolen in a robbery. This was early in my career. All my labour of love for the first five years of my work went in that. It was a Marwari firm, which would flood the wholesale market with them. We won all the cases later but I nearly threw in the towel with the frustration and anguish.

What should I write as your age, as there are a few versions on the Internet?

(Laughs), good then keep it ambiguous.

Banner: Illustration by Alpana Mittal.