"I don't want to just make people look pretty"
Her four-decade career graph reads like a timeline for the Indian fashion industry. And now, Ritu Kumar being conferred with the prestigious Padma Shri is another feather in her illustrious career. In a freewheeling chat with Ruchika Kher, the celebrated designer spoke of her love for Indian crafts, her next book and her designs in Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children. Excerpts from an interview
Has the feeling sunk in? What were your initial reactions to the news?
Since fashion is not a category, I was not expecting this award, but it was a pleasant surprise. Recognition is always welcome and since this is for the work I have done in the area of Indians crafts, it makes me very happy. This is an area in which people have not been awarded before, so I’m very happy that it has now been recognised. This will lead to interest in this category in the future.
Did this award come late?
It is always nice to get awards — sooner or later is not the question. I have not thought about it.
Why doesn’t India encourage its designers with awards, as in the West?
Internationally, fashion as an industry has been around in a very formal way, for many years now. I got a French award and another in Spain several years ago. They already have a history and discipline of awarding people in this category. But our history of fashion is just about 30 to 40 years old. It will take a while before India does the same.
Will your award pave the way for such honours?
It’s too early to say anything. This is just the first step. However, I’m sure a lot of thought went behind conferring this award, so there is some change for sure.
What should be done to improve the condition of crafts and craftsmen in our country?
The Indian Government’s focus on handloom and craft is integral to popularise the textile. There was a time when the government was totally involved in this process; a little refocusing is needed now.
Could you tell our readers about your second book, after Costumes and Textiles of Royal India?
I’m working on my second book, which is related to my work done in all these years. It’s a book on design — my interaction with different crafts and designs in India. In the book I’ll talk about a few crafts, which people don’t even know exist. We have such a huge resource of textiles, which many countries have lost. I want to bring this resource to notice. I am still writing it, so right now I don’t know when it will see the light of day, hopefully soon.
Should younger designers also take the mantle of reviving Indian textiles?
I feel one should not dictate the design sensibilities of anyone. It is not necessary that the younger generation will also like or get excited about Indian crafts. If they like minimal looks and Western designs more, it’s fine; there is space for that as well. However, as far as I’m concerned, I find our indigenous handwriting very interesting. It’s a treasure trove, and I like exploring it. However, no one should stop you from expressing what you like. So I would not like to comment on what others should do. On the other hand, I feel many designers today are using Indian crafts in their own way.
You are known to stay away from costume design for films. Why?
It’s not a conscious decision except that I have been very busy with my revival work. Films in India are a full-time job. One needs to be on call all the time. This becomes difficult to do while one is busy with other things. Also, I didn’t get a very interesting project, which was challenging to do. If one gets to do meaty projects, then one can push the envelope; otherwise, I don’t want to just make people look pretty. With Deepa’s film, there was so much thought that went behind, and I was given a lot of time to do things the way I wanted to do.
Your works spans four decades. Is there something else that you are itching to do?
I want to do work on handloom revival. Plenty needs to be done in the area. I want to save it from choking. Also, I don’t want to stop working. With every collection, comes a challenge; if one doesn’t have that, life gets monotonous and boring. I don’t want that.
The Midnight’s Children Experience
I have designed around 5-6 sequences in the film, essentially for the weddings, so I was fairly involved. It was stimulating and challenging because I had to go back to the research I had done while writing my first book.
We were dealing with people in the 1930s, and there wasn’t a lot of photographic evidence or reference of that time, particularly as far as the brides of that era are concerned.
So, I had to guess the costumes, depending on the textiles that I knew were available at that time. Salman Rushdie didn’t give any suggestions (laughs); he just gave me signed copies of his books as a thank you gesture. He was happy with the result and never interfered with the process.