Designer Ritu Kumar is no alien to Indian patterns and designs in her labels. Her latest exhibition, Kanaat, brings many of the nation’s ancient textiles back in the limelight, and beautifully so. From the resist dyeing and printing technique Ajrakh, to Sanganer’s hand block printing, the two-day long display was backed by travels from around the country. The Padma Shree awardee tells us about her inspirations, travels, and more! By Bayar Jain
1. Your latest exhibition, Kanaat, is inspired by diverse traditions across several regions. Tell us the story behind it.
Most of India is not very conversant with the country’s tradition in textiles because a lot of it was exported. Now, you have no contact with a lot of the old textiles that India had, and the genius there was in textiles. One of the reasons for this; most fabrics don’t last in the Indian subcontinent due to the heat. At the same time, the few things that are lying in museums are not accessible. We also don’t have a very vigorous communication system in the faculties teaching textiles to be able to communicate what India was, and what India once had. This exhibition is a retrospective of at least 600 years of traditions and textiles which belong, not only to one section, but to seven-eight sections of India; each one with its own handwriting. We brought up what it was about, what they did, what their specialties were, and the difference it made by trading with these countries. Trading textiles brought people to India; spices not so much. Today, the situation is that most of our textiles are available abroad, not in India. This exhibition was a way of addressing that situation. It’s more of an education.
Also, we’ve done a home-line based on these textiles. A lot of the home lines in India don’t even have access to these fabrics to be able to replicate them. We hope that people vibe with them now.
2. Why the name Kanaat?
The word kanaat refers to textile panels which were used to create walls, screens, and tents over centuries in the Indian subcontinent. Historically, many of these were meant for furnishings, interiors, and architecture. Forming travelling palaces, garden pavilions and scared spaces, they reflected the outstanding genius of Indian dyers, artists, and printers which developed in the Indian subcontinent over centuries. They conjured celebratory worlds of flora and fauna with the use of exceptional colours, fabrics, techniques and skills, producing masterpieces which remain unparalleled. Made for both local markets and for export, such patterned textile further inspired the growth of printed fabric in other parts of Asia and Europe.
3. What sets your home furnishings apart from your clothing line? And what are its similarities?
They’re home furnishings for one thing! And, not all these wall hangings etc. lend themselves for clothes. They were never really meant so much for clothes, as they were meant for Kanaat or wall hangings. There are certain languages in a piece of fabric on the wall, which does not necessarily have much to do with garments. But, it definitely has more to do with home furnishings, for which these were created originally.
I don’t see any similarities between them. The Jamawar shawl is a shawl. Sometimes, it is created into a coat etc., but the similarity ends there. Otherwise, we’re talking about the design itself.
4. We often see traditional elements in your collections. Why so?
I think we have the richest history of textile art in the world. I always go back to it, and I never seem to have finished locating something very exciting and interesting.
5. Lately, sustainable fashion and eco-furnishings is the trend, and shoppers are becoming more conscious of their buys. How are you incorporating sustainability in your labels?
Everything that I use tends to be of a hand nature, and very rarely mechanised — both, in its concept and sometimes in its execution. But, there is an earthiness and organic stream behind all of it. I think because of that, it lends itself to rooted concepts, and not so much to nylon and synthetics.
6. Where do you travel to seek inspiration for your work?
All over! I’ve been to Paris. I’ve been to all the places (included in the exhibition). I’ve been to Machilipatnam, to Andhra Pradesh, to South India, and to Kolkata multiple times. I travel a lot because you can’t understand textiles without travelling, since they come from all over the country. You cannot sit in an isolated space and work with them.
7. Milan, London, New York, and Paris are considered the fashion capitals of the world. Which one is your favourite, and why?
I go a lot to Paris because most of my work is there. But I would say I prefer Europe because it has a very old textile history. So, I tend to find a lot of things there. I don’t do very modern clothes, so it has to be places which have got a distinct history of textiles.