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Delhi Talks: India will be what our young women and men make it, not politicians, says fashion designer Ritu Kumar

Editor's Note:  This is the tenth in a 10-part series of interviews with well-known residents of Delhi on issues that they believe define the 2019 Lok Sabha election.


It was one of those rare evenings when the spotlight was not on Ritu Kumar, a well-known name in the fashion world. This was not an accident but a well-planned move choreographed by Kumar herself. That evening the mother in her overtook the woman who through her work has changed the definition of fashion in India.

On that evening Kumar ceded space to her son and let the focus be on him and his recently released film No Fathers in Kashmir. She was a proud mother.

When her son, Ashvin, mentioned her commendable work in designing the costumes for the much-acclaimed film, Kumar could not stop herself from giving him a tight hug.

 Delhi Talks: India will be what our young women and men make it, not politicians, says fashion designer Ritu Kumar

(File) Fashion designer Ritu Kumar. Getty Images

She spoke about the jamawar shawls and how she travelled long distances to get a sense of the original; she spoke about the kani, hand-woven in almost 80 colours, used more like blankets in Kashmir. Kumar spoke about how their fashion was cast in stone and did not undergo any changes: “The phiran is still relevant,” she said. Kumar also rued the fact that Kashmir, about which she had happy memories, was frozen in time.

This is not the first film that Kumar has designed costumes for. She did earlier too for Ashvin’s films: Road to Ladakh and Little Terrorist done over a decade ago. Kumar confesses that designing costumes for a film is a different ball game: you cannot design for a character but the entire film.

Kumar does not limit her creativity to costumes only: in the films, she has also done the furnishings and wall hangings: something that Ashvin made a point to mention in the context of No Fathers in Kashmir. It was, he said, nostalgic to see the crewelwork curtains in the backdrop.

Kumar started handling fashion when India was passing through a phase of wearing what your mother told you. She was among the first to introduce the boutique culture in India.

From starting work on two small tables in Kolkata, then Calcutta, some 40 years ago, Kumar is credited with dressing up film stars Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai. Therefore, it is not without reason that she is often called the first lady of Indian fashion: she was there where many then feared to tread.

Her first exhibition, again in Calcutta, was a disaster. The women who came to view it were clad in French chiffons and to quote Kumar “yards of pearls”. Block printing to them was nothing more than prints that looked like their grandmother’s bedcovers. She did sell a few sarees though but it was a “sympathy sale” as she says: “The women felt sorry that nothing had been sold and decided to pick up a few.” But once she understood the market and the Indian mind she was on a roll and has not looked back.

A romantic at heart, Kumar is idealistic about post-Independence India: her idea being that people should have freedom: “Freedom of choice, of expression and being the kind of individual they want to be, doing what they want to, dreaming big and going for the kill, as they say.”

Having said that, Kumar is aware that bringing this country together is “a miracle”. Therefore, she underlines the need to preserve what has been assimilated with our sweat and blood: “We need to look after what we have gathered bit by bit. We need to treasure this and build on this unique strength of ours. If we do not hold together we will fritter it away. Having broken the insularity, we should not go back to it. It is very easy to be isolated but difficult to be open-minded and take in the new and amalgamate it with tradition and what we stand for. India’s strength lies in achieving this unity in diversity and we should not allow it to be wasted.

“There is a lot of song and drama about the communal divide but I don’t think we should let it cloud our minds or overtake our thinking. We often say that this is not what we want and not what India stands for but we forget that despite the pitfalls we are holding together. Therefore, I am not among those who believe or profess that the ground is slipping; or as many believe that we are at the end of the road. On the contrary, there is a lot going for us. We need to strengthen ourselves and build on our strengths.

“The centre shall hold and this is evident from the fact that we can openly talk about the dangers and the threats that we face. As long as there are people who will speak up and voices which will be heard we are on track. I don’t lose sleep over the hullaballoo about us being stifled. I see this as propaganda. As a nation and its people, we are democratic and non-aggressive: this defines us; not governments that will come and go. We need to look beyond politics and not allow a handful to derail what we stand for, what we believe in and what we are.

“Much is made out of the extreme viewpoints that are fast emerging. I, for one, do not know how much of that is fact and how much fiction. The people I work with and the communities I interact with I see no traces of communalism. The world of craft, fortunately, is devoid of that poison. You may call this a limited vision but I would rather enjoy its fruits than getting sucked in the venom of hatred and divide. I believe in live and let live and am a votary of peace.

“Of course there is another side to this: news that all is not well; politics and politicians are playing havoc and there is personal angst of the people. These noises are loud and sometimes deafening but the ground I tread, things appear to be very different from what is being projected. Heavens have not fallen: at least not yet.”

"As for the elections, there are no clear conclusions or a clear road to which way we are headed. There is no wave. The writing on the wall a bit smudgy. To my mind, there is a rethink: unlike the last time when things were crystal clear.

“To me, freedom is important: an India without bias, one which is free to be creative and imaginative. On that count, I feel we are nearly there and for this, we have our younger generations to thank rather than elected governments. Our young people are fearless and stand up to what is wrong. They are willing to stick their neck out. The sooner political parties understand this the better. By undermining this strength and by underestimating the capacity of our young people they would be making a fatal mistake. It is the young India that stands to be counted. They will neither be dictated nor steered. The country will be what our young women and men make it, not the politicians.

“However what politicians and governments can do is to loosen their control over institutions: to let them be run by experts; to let them remain secular and self-driven. Take museums and creative institutes for instance. They are run by bureaucrats under the tutelage of politicians and governments. It is not their story, it is the story of craftspersons and therefore best left to them. The government should remain hands off rather than attempting to rewrite a script when they do not even know the grammar.”

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Updated Date: May 12, 2019 13:41:37 IST