Of a different cloth

MAYANK MANSINGH KAUL

 

IT is around noon in the middle of December in 2019. A mild sun is expected to emerge through dense grey clouds. Stores in New Delhi’s South Extension market are slowly waking up to walk-ins, even as the streets outside are already bustling with people. A chaiwallah serves hot cups of tea to auto drivers waiting along a pavement for their next rides. There has just been a small accident close by, causing a big burst of frenzied activity. Outside the Ritu Kumar flagship, a lady parking attendant – an unusual presence standing out in a sea of male colleagues – is directing how a small space can accommodate the increasingly large number of cars pulling up through narrow gullies. Dressed in a crisply ironed salwar kameez uniform, she swiftly points me to an empty corner that I have not noticed so far, as I drive in.

The flagship’s facade is made of imposing black granite. Its display windows – two, on both sides of a central entrance door – carry mannequins with bridal ensembles for women. They are in a characteristic red, with an even texture of gold all over. The cuts of the garments and the intricate patterns of the embroidery
are familiar; they represent a distinct repertory synonymous with the brand. Over decades, hundreds of fashion shoots and advertising campaigns, dressing celebrities for special appearances and royals for weddings, this look has gleamed through as a classic. Created from elements inspired by the Indian subcontinent’s vast heritage of clothing and textiles, yet standing quite on its own, it exudes a contemporariness which is today taken for granted. As widely popular as its aesthetic may be today, it has perhaps received less attention than it truly deserves, in the country’s post-independence histories of fashion.

Inside the store, Kumar is supervising details for an upcoming exhibition, which she is presenting in a couple of days. Scheduled to be on view for just a few days, it is still large in scale. At a time when the country’s many historical schools of  hand block printing have merged into a generic identity in mainstream fashion, this is meant to be a reminder of those traditions which once embellished the textiles of its courts and sacred spaces, homes and bazaars; as highly prized traded products, they decorated interiors in several parts of the world from Japan to the Netherlands. She has conjured up large installations with tented panels, screens with patterns of bold flowers with sinuous vines, rooms within rooms of printed yardage. Copious amounts of it! They cover the walls from floor to ceiling.

 

 

The fabrics themselves cover multiple genres and aesthetics, representing almost four centuries of India’s textile histories. Kumar has designed them in a studio in one of  her company’s sampling units in Gurgaon’s industrial district called Udyog Vihar. From here, she also designs each print – among other designs for textiles – that go into the hundreds of collections sold through a large retail network. This includes almost ninety stores across three brands, which the company that she started more than half a century ago owns – Ritu Kumar, Ri and Label. Each addresses a different market segment in branded women’s wear, ranging from Indian bridal to western. The exhibition under preparation, with an emphasis on how printed Indian textiles were used in interiors, is meant to coincide with the celebration of a recently launched home products line. This carries a comprehensive range from cushion covers and duvets to crockery and candles.

 

 

I am meeting Kumar to discuss an ongoing project. We walk in together. She makes time to show me the various collections on display. The staff is busy, hectically helping clients trying outfits. Sales appear to be brisk. At a time when the country is facing a major economic slowdown, fashion designers elsewhere have been complaining about sluggish movement of stocks; stores are being closed, staff being severely cut down. ‘The fashion bubble of the last decade is bursting, finally!’ she exclaims. ‘It had to, sooner or later; it was unsustainable.’ She draws my attention to a digitally printed lehenga in the bridal section.
It has been layered over with a combination of machine and hand embroidery. Price points throughout
the store are affordable, compared to the astronomical figures, which other designers are charging these days.
This gives only a hint of the kind of  business acumen that her company has acquired since its inception.

Over the years, Kumar has been vocal about how the classicism that she stands for has always survived the vagaries and uncertainties of trends. Having started her career in Calcutta of the 1960s (now Kolkata) with a tiny printing workshop, her brand – and indeed she – is a household name unlike any other. As she talks in her unassuming, friendly manner, it is good to be reminded all of a sudden that she is indeed a major star of India’s fashion and textile world, quite unlike any other as well. A store attendant gently walks towards us and asks if she would be willing to pose for a photograph with some clients. She graciously accepts, ending up having a chat with them: where are they from? Are they happy with what they have bought?

The clients form a family of four – wife, husband and two daughters. They are non-resident Indians visiting from the United States. She mentions to them that way back in the ’60s, she was a young student there studying art history. They tell her that they have been buying from her stores since the ’80s! As we resume our own chat after a short while, I am taken back to an interview she gave for a special issue of MARG magazine some years ago: ‘When I started… there were hardly any books on the subject, no interesting stores and retail spaces… there were practically no references to start from. People like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar had done the groundwork to lay the foundations of craft revival in the country, and people like Mapu [Martand Singh], Rajeev [Sethi] and I, among others, comprised the second generation of individuals going out into the field to research… in a sense we were like barefoot doctors going out into unchartered territory.’

 

 

Martand Singh – who passed away a few years back – from those early starts, went onto become the Director of the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, and later, commissioned prodigiously ambitious textile projects for the Indian government. He eventually became involved with heritage conservation through the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Rajeev Sethi has since evolved his own oeuvre of landmark curatorial and interior projects that bring together handcrafts with contemporary art and design. Kumar channelled her research into building a private company, addressing both the Indian and foreign markets, pre-empting every major milestone of the Indian fashion industry’s growth, as well as leading its various stages.

Through this, Kumar travelled extensively across the country and the world, digging up rare archives of Indian historical textiles never studied by Indians before. Many such journeys culminated in Costumes and Textiles of Royal India, published two decades ago. It is the first comprehensive survey of the subcontinent’s clothing history, covering the ancient, medieval, colonial and contemporary period till the late ’90s.

 

 

The narrative of the exhibition on Indian block printing schools began with the archives from her first series of travels to Farrukhabad, on the provocation of Jayakar. In the early decades of India’s independence, this small town in Uttar Pradesh was legendary for its block printed textiles. Hardly any of their recognizable samples survived, however. In the same interview, she indicates: ‘…I was lucky to find a family of block makers who still had their great-grandfather’s blocks that were more than 175 years old! We printed with these blocks and made new ones as well, inspired by them. Most of the other printers and their families had burnt their blocks as firewood.’

By the time I first encountered Kumar’s work I must have been ten. It was the early ’90s. In those early years of economic liberalization, the onset of cable television brought programming on design, interiors and lifestyle to our living rooms. She was a prominent figure here, almost always dressed in handlooms. Poised and articulate, she had a natural flair for the camera, whether being interviewed on the theme of a latest collection designed by her or sharing details of a textile tradition that she was involved in reviving – Zardosi, Chikankari, Bandhani. Many such words brought alive a universe which seemed far removed from that we aspired to – Channel V and MTV, Benetton and Kemp’s Corner, McDonald’s and Pepsi; against their new ageism, Kumar’s work could be seen as a radical act in the reintroduction of the country’s cultural diversity in popular media. Some of us kids found ourselves staring at the possibility of taking up professions that had not seemed viable before.

 

 

The idea of fashion that eventually grew for us then was not only about its glitz, glamour and dramatic fashion shows. It evoked a clear sense of purpose, which went beyond the individualistic and congratulatory tone that western fashion seemed to stand for. It was for another kind exuberance and celebration – of life and creativity. A good thirty years from her first encounter with the block prints of Farrukhabad, Ritu Kumar was now synonymous with her own oeuvre of prints. They took from the Indian subcontinent’s vast historical repertoires, placing them in a manner that was of the time. She innovated many folds with their uses. Some of these print designs were embossed on leather using block prints, giving a new direction to leather work in Shanti Niketan – Rabindranath Tagore’s utopian arts centre set up at the height of the national movement – in West Bengal.

This gave rise to a new vertical of the company for accessories called Karabagh. However, aspirations among Indians who could afford designer wear were increasingly looking westwards. ‘There was a time in the late ’80s when international high-street labels were beginning to come into India, and we thought we’d lose Indian textiles and traditions again (as we did during colonial rule). At that point multinationals were getting very strong and aggressive in their marketing, and anybody who wore what they were not prescribing was considered ‘not happening’. But fortunately, that did not happen entirely – consumers still frequented shops like Fabindia and continued to wear Indian textiles.’

 

 

If the urban Indian consumer buying from the likes of Ritu Kumar and Fabindia back then – even if at entirely different price points – can be seen as representing a niche and elite section of the Indian market, the influence of the tastes that they created had a wide impact. Such tastes drew upon visual and material ideas which were invented by a small group of individuals in the private domain as well as a considered series of state and central government supported initiatives. Here, the revival of Indian handcrafted textiles was seen as important for a number of reasons: one, the exigency of providing livelihoods to a significantly large section of the rural population, where such manufacture addressed the need for a range of full-time to seasonal employment. Another was the need to articulate, perhaps, a new identity for a newly independent country, emerging from what has been seen as a culturally devastating British colonial rule.

 

Reflecting on the early decades of independence, Kumar has mentioned that ‘… not only were we discovering our crafts for the first time in such an intense manner after independence, we were also changing the mindset in this country: by then there had taken place a complete elimination of Indian design, and references for good taste were predominated by English aesthetics. We had no confidence in our inherent Indian sense of aesthetics and design, or anything indigenous for that matter. Anything Indian was considered old-fashioned. That was an initial challenge.’ On television, she once spoke about her first foray into producing block printed sarees on thick, handloom cottons. Presented in an exhibition in Calcutta’s hip Park Hotel, it was a disaster in her own words. Visitors commented on how the sarees looked like tablecloths from their grandmother’s homes. In a few months, she reproduced these prints on chiffon sarees; they were an instant sell-out.

The birth of a new Indian aesthetic in some ways also represented a moral call. The seeds were sown through the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, where local production was made the base for India’s economic and cultural resurgence. These sentiments were further developed into national institutions such as the All India Handloom Board, the All India Handicrafts Board, the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India, the Weavers Service Centres and the National Institute of Design, which looked to the country’s handmade manufacture as a base for modern and contemporary design.

Through the ’70s and ’80s experiments were being led for not only local private and government owned retail stores such as the state emporia, but a small export-oriented network of business. These export houses received government incentives, and eventually bourgeoned into the massive garment export industry that India has today. Kumar’s company was one of the pioneers here too, developing a large base for its domestic expansion through success in exports.

The completely unexpected start to the export side of Kumar’s business is a story in itself: Being based in Calcutta, she had slowly started venturing to the rural parts of Bengal, arriving at spheres of hand production in textiles which urban cities till then had not been exposed to.

One such trip took her to Serampore, a former Dutch colony, which had once been a flourishing centre for silk hand block printing. Developing a small collection of garments using what remained of such talent, she decided to present this at a trade fair in Paris. Their silhouettes were far from the clean lines that the West was familiar with; they played with Indian apparel styles, floral prints and in retrospect could be seen as bohemian, befitting the current India craze then for the hippie movement. The collection was sold out in a matter of minutes of the fair opening. Within a few months, it was in the display windows of luxury stores in Paris. Till then Indian fashion was seen as cheap, but this seeded a new direction for Indian fashion in the West on its own terms.

 

 

Imports, however, were restricted. In some ways then the aesthetics that India’s first generation of designers like Kumar developed were also borne by the country’s economy being closed to the world for a long time. ‘For almost 40 years, we were not allowed to import anything. We had to make everything we required, we had to improvise, and an organic handwriting of textiles and clothes began to slowly evolve. For instance, the trend of handmade cloth buttons in garments emerged during that time because we did not even have access to good quality machine-made buttons and zippers within the country.

Today one may take it for granted, but we are probably living in the only country in the world that makes and wears its own indigenous textiles to such a large extent. And that this has not been prescribed by any religious or social order means that such choices are made consciously and intentionally, despite access to everything from mill made fabrics to ready-to-wear imported garments.’

 

 

For us millennials, the entry of India’s myriad regional aesthetics, which Kumar’s work drew inspiration from as well as expressed, was otherwise largely invoked till the 1990s in  public broadcasts and government campaigns for national integration.  It was simplified, and further stereotyped through advertisements for tourism: anonymous people in Rajasthan dressed in colourful clothes photographed against the stark  desert landscape, sunrise against Himalayan mountains, vast expanses of green tea estates in Assam, Bharatanatyam dancers in a Tamil Nadu temple, Kathakali in Kerala,  the Hindi film industry in Bombay (now Mumbai).

In 1994, the winning of the Miss Universe and Miss World titles by Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai respectively, is believed to have given an impetus to the phenomenal rise of India’s beauty and grooming industry as it stands currently. It was only then that models were to start acquiring
the status of national celebrities, a space so far reserved primarily for actors and musicians, sportspeople
and politicians. As beauty pageants became increasingly popular, Kumar’s designs dressed their participants. So, there was Sen sitting against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal in an embroidered kurta with the sun ablaze. Rai in a block printed western style jacket with a Nehru topi. This was the new India not the India of when Kumar had started out in the field. The clichés were being moulded to suit a new idiom, even if references were anchored in a return to familiar Indian symbols.

In the nation’s capital, this was a time which saw the rise of the culture of Page 3 celebrities and Delhi Times. Fashion designers became national celebrities and acquired a cult status. Institutes of fashion design started mushrooming across the country, from small towns to big cities. As several next generations got involved in the field of fashion, references to Indian textile traditions as well as their uses have remained an important aspect of its ethos. Designers today continue to draw upon its skills and production base, even if the way they express creativity might have undergone a drastic transformation. This is unlike anywhere else in the world; no fashion market in the world has held onto its roots of apparel traditions in ways that Indians have.

 

 

Placing Kumar’s practice as well as the role that her company and brands have played in the history of Indian fashion and textiles, is a matter that will need to be taken up by future authors of Indian fashion histories; perhaps its first set of analysis may need to come from the peers themselves? It is possible, however, to already see that they inform a relevant set of questions with wider implications: how do we see their impact in the context of South Asia? What is comparable in other parts of Asia? How do they inform notions of fashion in the global South? What is their role in resisting western formats in design and retail from an international standpoint? How do they help us rethink the very discourse on  North American and Eurocentric modes of articulating and defining fashion itself?

 

 

Closer home, only ever so often has Kumar publicly pointed out that unlike in the West and many other parts of Asia where homogenization in fashion represents the very benchmark of a centralized production system, products and categories within a brand in India themselves need to be comprehensively thought out differently for cities. In such a scenario, retail environments and consumer expectations between Chennai and Ludhiana may drastically differ. Once, after a stroll together in a mall which houses the biggest luxury labels from around the world, she pointed out that in August, as the monsoon and its ensuing humidity raged outside in Delhi, their stores had started carrying products for the upcoming autumn and winter seasons (heavy woolen trench coats!) because that is what their global headquarters required.

Stores of Indian designer labels on the other hand, carried what are often referred to as late summer collections. With Raksha Bandhan – a major Indian festival celebrating the bond between brother and sister – around the corner, their display windows were already pre-empting the ensuing demand. Across the country, this time makes the onset of what is considered a hectic period of fashion consumption. By October the country’s most widely celebrated Diwali festival marks the next phase of occasional-wear shopping. From November through March sees the height of weddings and other kinds of celebratory events, to coincide with the relatively cooler months weather-wise. From April until July are the summer months, with low activity in retail stores. Although any Bengaluru based retailer of Indian designer brands will tell you – only to reinforce Kumar’s acute understanding of the diversity of the Indian market – that summer arrives early, and such stocks must be introduced by March unlike in other cities.

In an environment where the field of scholarship and curatorial work in Indian fashion is fledgling, there are practices within Kumar’s company, which seem clearly informed by her own background in art history. Meticulous archives are maintained. Before fashion shows became the stuff of organized fashion weeks, they were used as formats to engage with urban audiences in venues such as the Crafts Museum in Delhi. Simultaneously, curated exhibitions of her work around themes such as the Tree of Life and Zardosi, were presented in art galleries – the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Academy of  Fine Arts in Kolkata, among others. As part of The Festivals of India in the 1990s, one such exhibition travelled to Philadelphia.

 

 

In many such cases she faced resistance from the larger art fraternity; fashion was considered superfluous, even frivolous, back then. In recent years, some of the most successful exhibitions worldwide in museums dedicated to historical arts have been on fashion. It has taken the art world a long time to acknowledge the role of fashion in making its own deliverables accessible to wider audiences.

In the same way, decisions around the positioning of the brand have been astute. Collaborations with major television moments have brought Ritu Kumar to consistently new audiences and customers, as
they have themselves enlarged exponentially. If the 1990s saw collaborations with beauty pageants mentioned before, the 2000s saw a surprising yet successful collaboration with women anchors for cricket commentary when Indian sport began its ascent into its present culture of  star-led, mega-buck and mass entertainment. Even as other major Indian fashion designers vied for the attention of Bollywood stars to endorse their products as a way to influence customers, by the time this phenomenon gathered momentum, it seemed that Ritu Kumar had been there, and done that!

In recent years the business’s exponential growth has been led by her younger son, Amrish, at the helm. This has brought a fresh new energy to the brand, aside from significant steps to address changing market dynamics. The home line mentioned earlier is a step in this direction. As is a new apparel brand launched through the Covid-19 pandemic when Internet based sales took unprecedented focus as against physical retail. If rumours through the second wave of the same pandemic are to be believed, the home line is gearing up to be headed by a star architect and interior designer known for a savvy social media presence, as well as doing up the homes of fashionable film stars and industrialists. Ritu Kumar’s evolving strategies continue to make for a compelling business history that needs to be told as well.

 

 

In conclusion, while observing Ritu Kumar’s professional trajectory as part of the current theme, which celebrates extraordinary Indian women, we have already discussed several signposts. They recognize her role in shaping the aesthetics of Indian fashion from a cultural standpoint, as well as through leadership in business. They also remind us of the enormous efforts that have gone in articulating an Indian idea of the contemporary in personal style, which do not conform to the preoccupations of the West. On the contrary, they have resisted at every stage, what she has often called the monotony and drudgery of the phenomenon of the Little Black Dress. What will these values tell us about this moment when we look back in the years and decades to come?

 

 

For now, at the height of summer, as a pandemic rages in the world, one is taken back to the opening of the block prints exhibition in her flagship in Delhi’s South Extension. It was less than two years back, but feels like a lifetime ago. So many things, which define Kumar, came together that evening – textiles, friends, art, good food and wine. As visitors began their viewing of the exhibition with images of some of the oldest cloth remains from India, the famous Fustat remains, they wound their way through several rooms into a large canopy with dozens of Kashmir shawls, where the exhibition closed, their reds charging the atmosphere with an unforgettably visceral experience of what cloth can be at its highest craftsmanship. In between, sang the Manganiyar, taking us to Rajasthan. On its sands, caravans plied for centuries to become the conduits of cloth, connecting the West and the East. They reminded us of a time when Indian textiles clothed the world, when another kind of history was written with fabric – to borrow a phrase from Jawaharlal Nehru – as its leading motif.1

Footnotes:

* ‘Of a Different Cloth’ is the title of an essay by Rudrangshu Mukherjee in Martand Singh (ed.), Khadi: The Fabric of Freedom. Amar Vastra Kosh, Delhi, 2001-02.

** Mayank Mansingh Kaul (ed.), Cloth and India: Towards Recent Histories, 1947-2015. MARG Publications, Mumbai, 2016.

 

1. Jawaharlal Nehru is credited with this quote at the opening of the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad in 1949   personal conversation with Martand Singh.