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Ritu Kumar’s atlas of textiles

The designer packs four decades of travel across Europe and South Asia into a new textile exhibition

‘Dibakar’, from ‘Crossroads: Textile Journeys With Ritu Kumar’. Photo: Rajeev Rana
‘Dibakar’, from ‘Crossroads: Textile Journeys With Ritu Kumar’. Photo: Rajeev Rana

It was the 1960s and Ritu Kumar was working with block printers in West Bengal’s Serampore district. She vividly remembers one weaver: Dibakar, a skilled printer who went on to win the President’s Award for hand-block printing. In an ode to his exceptional craft, Kumar made a collage of the printer about three years ago, reimagining him at work in a zamindari mansion when these crafts flourished under aristocratic patronage.

Dibakar, as the mixed media collage is titled, is one of several exhibits on display at New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, where the veteran designer and handloom revivalist is hosting Crossroads: Textile Journeys With Ritu Kumar. The exhibition stems from a series of travelogues that Kumar, 73, is writing, chronicling her journeys across South Asia and Europe in the quest for elusive textiles and craft traditions.

Kumar’s appreciation for natural fabrics and craft traditions has evolved into an aesthetic signature, visible in her intricate embroideries and block-print patterns. These motifs and techniques have been drawn from her travels over four decades, during which she sought out local markets, designers, and craft communities. “I’ve found it mind-boggling to watch artisans produce such exquisite crafts in the midst of extremely modest work conditions," she says. “I’d keep notes of my travels—where I went, who I’d met, what I’d watched—and watched these areas change over the years. This story has been in the telling for a long time."

Ritu Kumar

The travelogues cover Kumar’s travels across 12 regions—Uzbekistan, Bhutan, Myanmar, Kashmir, Varanasi, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Machilipatnam, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan. The exhibition is a visual representation of Kumar’s stories, curated in collaboration with textile designer and expert Mayank Mansingh Kaul. Much like the travelogue, the exhibition moves like a map across time and place, using anecdotes, memorabilia, vintage textiles, and mixed media collages created by the designer herself.

Kumar says, “I found it difficult to narrate some of the sights in writings and decided to make collages for the books—I used photographs to make the collages and then painted over them." Clothing is the main subject of these collages, whether it is a crafts cluster in Varanasi creating an intricate needlework pattern on a river bank, or Ikat garments on women who look like they have stepped out of an Ajanta mural. One of Kumar’s personal favourites is a collage of the Rabari women she met while travelling in Kutch. “I took that picture about 30 years ago, and I think this world is not going to come back," she says.

Kumar has also created backgrounds for the exhibition and included her personal collections among the displays. These include a specially commissioned Kalamkari canopy, Ikat robes from Uzbekistan, gossamer-light Banarasis and Jamdanis, and metal block prints from her early business units in Kolkata. Also on display are chintz prints from Ahmedabad’s Calico Museum of Textiles, brocades from French embroiderer Jean-Francois Lesage’s Chennai-based atelier Vastrakala, and vintage Tanjore paintings.

The first travelogue on Uzbekistan was published in tandem with the exhibition, with the rest (11 travelogues) likely to be released in a three-part series next year. Kumar hopes the series will inspire travellers to engage with crafts communities and contribute to their preservation. “Many of the world’s textiles are now only seen in museums and ateliers. I don’t know if the next generations will be able to access some of the textiles that my generation has worn and felt. The value of textiles may not be immediately apparent, but these are histories waiting to be told."

Crossroads: Textile Journeys With Ritu Kumar is on till 5 April, 10am-7.30pm, at India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi

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