March 18, 2021 Asmita Aggarwal

Booked for Posterity

Ritu Kumar talks about her soon-to-be-released book chronicling her 50 years in the design world; rise for need-based clothing and the recycling culture which is an inherent part of the Indian fabric

By Asmita Aggarwal

For the last 50 years revivalist Ritu Kumar has been a torchbearer of the textile industry and travelled to the interiors of the country to treasure hunt for languishing crafts hoping to bring them to the forefront. And now as time stands between her and the mammoth work, she is on the threshold of finishing the first draft of her book, based on myriad experiences being the design front runner of this vast and diverse country.

The book tells the story of where to go, what to do, where to stay when you are in the process of discovering traditional textile clusters. “It is like a travelogue, written from the eyes of a seeker, who is seeing, evolving and soaking in what she sees around, almost 50 years ago when my trek began,” she says.

Serampore, a former Dutch colony on the outskirts of Kolkata, produced she observed some of the most splendid textiles and the colonisers made so much money out of a small port. “Textiles actually made it all happen here, but it isn’t recorded in history, the book hopes to reveal such gems to the world,” she explains. Ritu made copious notes when she visited these small villages and kept journaling her way through them for many years, which will find a place in her book. The idea was to show the unexposed, not go to a crafts bazaar or fair, but the actual weaver who really knows what he is doing.

The chapters of the book are going to cover the textiles of Myanmar, Bhutan and Uzbekistan, such detailing is available that each chapter can be later fleshed out into a complete book in itself.  “The whole focus of fashion needs to be indigenous; we must create things from our own history. The problem in our country is it being excessively urban-centric so much so that many people in Kolkata haven’t even been to Phulia,” she exclaims.

The entire vocabulary of the design world has been set by what Europe calls fashion but here, the word designer makes it exclusive. If you go to Baneras, you can get the finest hand woven lehenga made, designers just put a tag on it, in fact, she asks if one really needs labels? “I think everyone is going back to their roots as it is practical and realism is really the answer to fashion, not Paris telling us to wear yellow declaring it the colour of the year,” she smiles.

Interestingly, Ritu has some many riveting experiences, to share like an international company offering to tie up for making shoes for brides to go with her ensembles, not knowing that in sacred ceremonies footwear is often left outside as a mark of respect to the holy fire. “Now girls are flaunting leather totes with hardware that only goes with Western outfits, the Indian-ness is lost,” she says.

Though what she is upbeat about is the digital era where if they can connect the artisans tucked away in interiors with the markets directly, it will uplift an entire family which is most of the year facing financial crunch. “Designers are just catalysts. Artisans who have been perfecting their craft for over 800 years don’t need us to tell them what to do. Yes, we can modernise and tweak what they produce. Plus, most people are sourcing Banerasi saris displaying them in malls, paying huge rents and selling them for ten times the price calling it ‘designer’,” she admits.

Ritu Kumar, who is showing at the FDCI and LFW phygital fashion week has extensively written about how Chinese fabrics are destroying the Indian handloom industry. And her activism along with others who took up this cause has now resulted in a ban on such imports. “The world is really changing and it will now shift to need-based clothing, and the non-waste movement will gain steam,” she says. Indian households for generations salvaged whatever they could from heirloom saris, whether it was the pallu which would be converted into a duppatta or adding gotta to the hems if they were frayed. “We are not an affluent country, we have always been frugal in our means so this is where real sustainability starts,” she concludes.

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