Ritu Kumar - A Journey in Textiles

A new exhibition which not only showcases the works of designer Ritu Kumar inspired by her travels, but also illustrates the deep intermingling of textile traditions between different regions of India and the surrounding regions

By: Suman Tarafdar

Posted on: March 29, 2018

The contributions of the first lady of Indian fashion, Ritu Kumar, and Indian textile traditions have a few parallels. Over the decades, her work has focused on traditional printing and weaving techniques. She has extensively travelled through Europe and Asia, studying historical Indian textile collections and contemporary traditions of hand-making.

Five decades of this unique amalgam of travel, often in pursuit of design and technology, have led her to chronicle them in a book. As the first chapter of this book is released, the journey is also exhibited as Crossroads: Textile Journeys with Ritu Kumar, at Delhi’s Visual Arts Gallery till April 5, 2018.

Crossroads exhibition by Ritu Kumar 2018 Benaras brocades

It isn’t your usual exhibition though. It consists largely of wall displays – paintings, photos, collages, prints – even jackets, saris and vintage textiles adorn the walls, while a number of block prints and memorabilia, and impressionist mixed media collages and design books also find space on table displays. Yes, diaries and hand-written notes form part of the collection too. For an enthusiast of Indian textiles, it is like walking into a dream destination. Meandering from commentaries on natural landscapes, to cuisine and architecture, they also relate stories of encounters with individuals whom she has met along the way. These excerpts are illustrated with a variety of visual material, and include vintage textiles, that she has created to express the syncretic moods of the various places visited. They are placed against a backdrop of digitally-printed inspirational fabrics, which pick up on the motifs, textures and colours of textiles from related regions.

The exhibits are split into parts by region. The exhibition starts with Ajanta, and weaves through different textile regions of the country. “India’s legacy of textiles is too big to tell all these stories in one go, so I am doing it region-wise,” says Mrs Kumar. “It will be in many sections, informative, and hopefully instructive to the new generation of designers.”

Designer and textile historian, Mayank Mansingh Kaul, who has curated the exhibition, points to the connections between traditions during a conducted tour of the exhibition. “The block makers in Uzbekistan had a similar practice to those in Farrukhabad in present day Uttar Pradesh, who trace their lineage to Uzbekistan,” he says. He imagines young Babur, the first ruler of the Mughal dynasty in India, in his early years. “This is my imagination of a young Babar, recreating Andijan, the city where he was born.  I am trying to place him in the kind of interiors he may have lived in, in the Fergana Valley with rich mosaics, carved pillars, portraits of nobles on the walls… an elegant Babar making his way to India, long before he became known as the great Mughal emperor…”

Crossroads exhibition by Ritu Kumar 2018 fabrics from kutch region india

There are a number of collages, where scenes from the period have inspired or been imagined by Mrs Kumar. For example, a collage, inspired from Ajanta’s cave paintings, includes stitched and unstitched garments. An impressionist collage highlights the sophistication in attire and coiffure, which shows use of ikat, and possibly bandhini. Bordered fabrics with motifs of geese indicate a presence of handlooms.

Despite massive westernisation across the country, Indian apparel continues to favour sensuous, theatrical, colourful and amorous adornment, especially for women. Here, the layering of drapes and innovations in unstitched garments expresses a fondness of traditional rituals, unaffected to a large extent by the dictates of international fashion. Its origin can be seen as far back as two thousand years, and is evident across millennia in the art of different historical periods – from the cave paintings in Ajanta to Jain manuscripts and miniature paintings from various schools. The impulses seen here – of India’s distinct sartorial ethos – continue to resonate in contemporary times.

The book is split into parts to make it more easily understandable in today’s ‘instant’ times. It guides you on how to go, where to stay, who to meet. 

Crossroads exhibition by Ritu Kumar 2018 ikat jackets from uzbekistanThe first chapter in the book is on textile ties between Uzbekistan and India. Other regions - Kashmir, Varanasi, Bengal, Bhutan and Burma, Tamil Nadu, Masulipatnam, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, will be released in the coming months. The complete book, which will be released in 2019, could well be a holy grail for future designers, who will be able make the connections far more easily, relying on the painstaking work Mrs Kumar has done. 

Do not miss a painting of her first workshop in Calcutta’s Beliaghat Road, in an old fisheries godown (warehouse). “We converted the vast interiors with high ceilings into an ideal place for hand block, and later screen printing. It housed thousands of blocks carved in Farrukhabad, Sanganer, Bagru and Serampore. The repertoire of Farrukhabad block printers archives is the distinguishing feature of the unit and we recreated a vast number of forgotten designs at this workshop. India’s classics in both aesthetics and colour palattes… these came from a much older, famed tradition retaining an inherent understanding of proportion and scale,” says Mrs Kumar. 

The 1944-born Mrs Kumar, who studied in Delhi before training in New York and later studying museology in Kolkata, started with bridal wear and evening clothes in the 1960s and 70s, and moved into the international market in the subsequent two decades. Today, the label has three lines.

Part professional memoirs, part musings of an art enthusiast, this exhibition is sure to inspire viewers to delve deeper into the rich history of India’s deep textile traditions. And maybe inspire another strain of travel category? For India’s legacy of textiles is too vast to capture in a single exhibition, as Mrs Kumar herself points out.

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