The Gandhi school of dressing

MINT

The Gandhi school of dressing

For Neeru Kumar, one of India’s foremost textile innovators, the fashion industry’s renewed interest in handlooms is both timely and vital. She hopes it will provoke a sustained curiosity among younger customers and is waiting to see the commercial returns of this creative footprint.

Her point of view is compelling at a time when she completes three decades of working, and the fashion industry is in the throes of what many call a resonating textile comeback. When Kumar began working, revival and conservation were the only statements of the crafts movement in post-Nehruvian India. But today, work on textiles is not just fashion’s cyclical salute to all things gone by. Nor is it only about revival, as it was in the 1980s. This phase is of fierce and bold innovation. Design intervention in handloom is now as big, as expensive and relevant as it is in couture—exactly what Kumar has been doing all these years. In the present scenario, her work has become a reference point for younger designers keen to add new aspects to the old handloom story.

Meeting Kumar at her store in New Delhi’s Santushti Shopping Complex, as glitzy couture and jewellery weeks in New Delhi and Mumbai attract eyeballs, is like getting an instant bling detox. Her repertoire—diaphanous Chanderi kurtas, chiffon Shiboris, soft jackets in tiny Bandhani, experimental Ikats, tapestry-like dhurries and textured Khadi—is an antidote to couture’s fussy, ritual excess. She stops to point out the finesse of Bandhani on the stoles, the flaming colours of her Shibori range beyond the predictable indigo, a selvage border on an Ikat sari with a bright acid green border. Kumar is seeped in process and detailing in a grass-roots sort of way, as a modern couturier would be in a city atelier scattered with crystals. She frets over weaving looms, yarn finesse, making Chanderi more gossamer, changing the character of conventional Ikat with dramatic ombré or securing worn-out old textiles with Kantha work. “A textile is more important than the decoration on it; the handwoven is innately charming; functionality is fashion too and nothing needs to be expensive to be fashionable. It is about the price tag versus the character of the garment,” she says.

A loyal stream of customers, growing with the buzz around textiles, has helped her remain committed to the path she chose when she stepped out of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, as a young student all those years back. Kumar’s designs are not jholawalla but there is an earthiness about them, certainly not the kind you see on mannequins in malls. Her customers adore the handwoven. They would rather copy the Priyanka Gandhi Vadra dressing sensibility (Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her daughter are regular buyers) by being stylish in a minimal, yet impactful manner. By pairing a white cotton, sleeved blouse with a geometric Ikat sari the colour of lemon pickle. “Educated, evolved, elite. Like the Gandhis,” says Kumar, describing her customers. Author and activist Arundhati Roy is an example, she adds.

Of the two stores in New Delhi, one at DLF Emporio and the other at Santushti Shopping Complex, one of the oldest fashion playgrounds in the Capital, Kumar prefers the ambience of the latter. “My kind of customers throng here more, those visiting Emporio are luxury-obsessed,” she says.

Kumar refuses to be listed as a typical fashion person. “I am not a catwalk fashion person. I like to keep my distance from fashion weeks and I don’t chase the fashion media,” she says. In all these years, she has mounted just one ramp show—in New Delhi in 2010.

Not that it made any difference to her business. She defines her three decades in three phases: inventive Tussar weaving; taking Tussar to Japan and collaborating with well-known Japanese textile expert Chiaki Maki; and saving vintage textiles—old brocades from Varanasi, Paithanis from Maharashtra, Patolas from Gujarat—to restore them with the Kantha technique. All her work—silk, cotton or Khadi, indigo dyeing and printing—is dictated by her desire to work with the hands, a karmic fascination she picked up at NID. Kumar’s textiles, particularly stoles, are not only sold by more than 30 museum stores in the US and Europe but her dhurries, rugs and home linen is sold in various stores in the West and in Japan, and across Asia.

Her most intricate involvement has been with Tussar and Kantha, the latter a canvas for men’s jackets, women’s tunics, shawls and bedcovers. Other textile experts in the fashion community emphasize that this indeed defines Kumar’s contribution to the industry.

Over the years, the soft-spoken and reticent Kumar has set up 150 weaving units in New Delhi, urging second-generation weavers (mostly children of her older artisans) to set up home and hearth near her so that she can mentor them on a one-to-one basis six days a week. The pursuit started in 1990 when she began working with jacquard weavers from West Bengal and Ikat artisans from Odisha. Currently she is busy weaving linen and cotton together to make linen saris softer and wrinkle-free.

After a touch-and-feel session at her Santushti store, which astoundingly reveals the “fabric sounds” different handlooms make when handled, each with an aura and tactility of its own, we walk over to Basil & Thyme, considered a happening restaurant in the 1990s. Dressed in a red brick Khadi tunic with straight black trousers, Kumar pulls out her slim reading glasses from her pocket to look at the menu. A sense of quiet surrounds her. Is it maturity or is it the calm after existential fatigue, you wonder aloud. She smiles, adding that if that was a way to ask her age, she would rather pass the salt.

SHOPPING GUIDE

Tulsi by Neeru Kumar is available at these outlets-

New Delhi: Shop No.322B, Second floor, DLF Emporio mall, Vasant Kunj (46060975) and 19, Santushti Shopping Complex, Race Course Road (26870339).

Mumbai: 6, SP Centre, 41/44, Minoo Desai Marg, Colaba (66385470)

Bangalore: Opening shortly at Shop Nos.C-4 and C-5, Level C, The Leela Galleria, Leela Palace hotel, No.23, Old Airport Road, Kodihalli (25211234). For details, call 41329318.

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