Designer Ritu Kumar on revisiting Kashmir, the Indian fashion industry and her upcoming book
For veteran fashion designer Ritu Kumar, Kashmir never stopped to inspire her design, craft and narrative. The unique textile traditions from the valley are beautifully recreated by her and showcased in her son, film-maker Ashvin Kumar’s latest film No Fathers in Kashmir. Kumar’s association with Kashmir has been a long, evocative journey. As a child, she spent a lot of time there during the summer holidays and part of her family also belonged to Kashmir. During that time, she developed a natural likeness towards the picturesque territory. “Later on as my career developed, I realised there was so much research to be done on the Kashmiri shawl and it was one of the most developed textiles in the world. People around the globe still copy the aesthetics of the shawl and call it ‘Pasiley’, however, it is basically the aesthetic of the weaving of the Kashmiri shawl that people actually wear today”, says Kumar.
For the film, Kumar recreated the Kashmiri shawls that were actually worn by the locals in the olden times. In an exclusive interview, she talks about her time-honoured relationship with Kashmir, how the valley inspired the clothes and textiles showcased in the film and her new book. Excerpts from the interview:
Q: What was the inspiration for designing clothes for ‘No Fathers in Kashmir’? What was your takeaway from the journey?
Even though the film is set in the early 20th Century, Kashmir has not changed much since and the aesthetics of that part of the world are so fine and detailed that one could really not have taken any modern clothes and put them into the scenario so it was even more imperative that someone more aware of the colours and traditions of Kashmir does the costumes for the film.
-A lot of research that I did has to do with understanding the aesthetics of the stylised plants and flowers. The colours that are used to make garments in Kashmir come largely from vegetable dyes, which usually come from saffron and vegetables. Since Kashmir was an isolated part of the world and it was not easy for the people in the region to travel from the mainland to locate synthetic dyes. Most of the fabrics they use for their clothes in Kashmir are wools which are basically protein fibres.
- I have recreated Kashmiri shawls for the film which were actually worn by the locals in the olden times. I tried to recreate the look of the shawls by printing them in Delhi, the idea was to make them look like the old shawls. There was a lot of research which went into making the costumes. Even though there were not many costumes in the film, we tried to recreate what people wear there which required a lot of research.
Q: How did you manage to stay relevant to the narrative as far as the clothes are concerned?
We had a French and an English team who handled different parts of the film. We had to recreate the furnishings and interiors of the place because we couldn’t find something which looked authentic and the interiors of houses in Kashmir are very unique, for instance, the Kazak motifs on the Shikaras. It’s difficult to find fabrics like the ones available in Kashmir in modern day India and I had to recreate those as well for furnishing. The colour palette had to be kept well within control so the colours wouldn’t overshadow the sets, for instance even in the wedding sequence the colours had to be contained in a way.
Q: What were the key elements used in this collection for No Fathers in Kashmir? How did your memory of Kashmir play a role here?
After spending a considerable amount in the fashion industry, I realised that there was so much research that could be done on the Kashmiri shawls and it was one of the most developed textiles in the world. People around the globe still, copy the aesthetics of the shawl and call it ‘Pasiley’, however, it is basically the aesthetic of the weaving of the Kashmiri shawl that people actually wear today. I also tried to reproduce the Jamavar shawls by getting the local women from SEVA NGO to do the embroidery and make the women embroider the very beautiful phirans they wear but due to militancy and unrest in the area at the time we had to close down the unit and had to get them made in Delhi. I used a lot of different kinds of wools for the collection.
Q: As one of the stalwarts of the Indian fashion industry, where do you think we stand right now and is there something you would like to see in the current scenario that is missing?
One of the main changes I have noticed in the fashion landscape is that it has become much more open and aware of what’s happening in the international world. It is no longer restricted to what your mother told you to wear but it has an international as well as Indian dimension. Because of that, I think the wardrobes in India are very rich and much larger than anywhere else in the world – that is the exceptional part of India. One thing that is missing is support from the industry in helping the newer designers to professionalise themselves and finance both their collections and retailing.
Q: Fashion has been mostly recognised in India in the context of Bollywood films and in the last few years, we have seen a change in how Indian fashion is perceived. Do you feel that Indian fashion can stand independently regardless of its representation in Indian cinema?
Indian cinema has a very strong influence and as a matter of fact, I see now that there is more and more of Indian identity in the clothes along with western clothing. It definitely is adding a number of different occasions like haldi, mehendi to everybody’s repertoire and the dressing of Indianised clothing has certainly gone up, both in the films as well as in the market, which absorbs these films.
Q: What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book which I’m writing and that is more of a textile travelogue. The company is, of course, heading on to do their summer and winter lines as usual for all the 3 brands, Label, RK and RI. We are also expanding into home furnishings – this was something that we used to keep doing sporadically depending upon when there was space and time to produce it. We always did cushions, quilts and so on, but now it is going to be a full-fledged revival of the Indian prints through our home collection.
Q: What is the most non-fashion thing that has inspired you in your design journey?
Reading is something that I enjoy a lot and has inspired me over the years to innovate and create. I love reading and researching about the history of India in textiles and the depth that there is of the subject. I find it really inspirational that we were the first ones in the world to find a solution for dies and printing and we still remain supreme there.