Ritu Kumar on how people mistook her saris for their ‘grandmother's bed covers’

Maybe in another life, I may not have driven myself so much, says fashion designer

Illustration by Job P.K. Illustration by Job P.K.


I was always a designer and an artist, never really a fashion designer. I had never even thought of it. I went to America on a scholarship, came back to Calcutta and took up museology. I was sent as part of the college programme to an archaeological site outside Calcutta. That was the first time I saw rural Bengal. We stayed there while the dig was going on. Seeing the immense talent there, I realised it would be selfish of me to simply guide people in galleries by becoming a museologist. And that is what started it off. I was not a fashion designer. I still am not. I don’t know what that term means. At best, I would say I am a stylist, and I am a good stylist.

Fashion in India has long been dictated by Paris, New York and the western world. Slowly, what had happened was that most of our country lost its identity; its crafts were in museums. And people were all wearing the same prescribed clothing that was coming from the west. Eight or 10 years after I started my work, I was worried that we would go the same route. Because the whole thing is so deeply rooted, with a lot of money involved, and with so many ways of reaching out to the customer. So how can anybody with a strong organic handwriting have a chance in India? In any case, luckily for me (maybe it was fate) I discovered an area where hand-block printing was done. They no longer did it and burnt their blocks somewhere in Serampore by the banks of the Ganga. They used to be pioneers in exporting textiles, mainly cotton, by the shiploads from India. The country had gotten comparatively affluent. We were not under any kind of financial stress. Things were going well. We had weaving and printing, and India was rich. And then it became one of the poorest countries in the world. In UP, hundreds of people doing printing and lakhs of them doing embroidery had no longer any work left.

We even lost touch with our designs. There was no place I could go to find designs to recreate. And that is why I had to go to England and Vienna to re-source Indian designs. It was tough, but I was very enthused and very angry, too, at what had been done to our country. So, we started printing the first few saris. But once they came off the printing tables, I did not know where to sell them because there was no retail in India. So, I took this worn-down place in Kolkata for Rs200 and we put up these saris there. Initially, the reaction was, ‘Oh, they look like my grandmother’s bed covers.’

Don’t forget to smell the coffee and see the woods along the way.

Very slowly, the weaves, the borders and the pallus lent more character to the saris than just the polka-dotted fabrics that we were getting from Europe. And then there came a time when we could not produce enough. We started getting copied by everybody from Surat and Banaras, and by anybody who had a printing capacity. In a way, that was great because it reintroduced an Indian idiom into the textiles of this country. And that has stayed.


It happened by accident. I was asked to come and judge the pageant in Goa. Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan] and Sushmita [Sen] had tied and mine was the tie-breaker question: What do you know about the textiles of this country? Sushmita said khadi was the only organic and real textile of India and she won the pageant.

Then I was asked whether I would like to design for the girls. I said yes, on the condition that the clothes were not going to be made in China. They had to be rooted in the textiles of this country—bandhani, zardozi, hand-block prints…. Once, Aishwarya was walking the ramp during her rehearsals for Miss World in a printed red chiffon bandhani sari. Everybody else was in jeans and little black dresses, and nobody could take their eyes off her. It worked because we have the most stunning repertoire of textiles in this world. I lost count of the hundreds of girls who took three or four suitcases of clothes from us. And they wore them with pride.


I had done this work on hand-block printing in Bengal in the early 1980s, where we lost the blocks that were made. I went to Farrukhabad, found the block maker and we brought back hundreds and thousands of blocks. A piece we put together got the president’s award for the best hand-block printed garment in the country. Then we did an exhibition of zardozi and that was taken all over the world as part of India’s contribution to embroideries. We have the crafts in our DNA, and I would be very unhappy to lose them.


I think one of the biggest lows was when I worked for six or seven years, researched printing, and travelled all over the world because I could not find any of the blocks in India. I did an exhibition in a small room with about 20 saris. And except for two, which happened to be bought by friends, nobody wanted to buy anything. It was the biggest low and the biggest learning. What I did wrong was that I had printed them on the original raw fabric that was used. When they were printed on chiffon, which was sexier and much more in tandem with the trend, they sold out.


Be yourself, do not try to be someone that you are not. There is no substitute for hard work. You cannot be lazy about the project that you are doing. And if your priority is only that it should fetch you a lot of money, you are losing out on so much. Don’t forget to smell the coffee and see the woods along the way.


Being a working woman and managing a home and children is one of the toughest things that any woman can achieve. Let nobody tell you otherwise. Maybe in another life, I may not have driven myself so much. You don’t want to take four flights a week, from shows in Paris to those in New York, and then come back home to help the children with their homework. It is all very cool but it comes at a price. Believe me, every day is a challenge. There is no one formula. Nobody in the world can teach you this. Your children are not interested in your work, they want their mother to be home. So, to a large extent, you have to figure out that you are doing what you are doing for yourself more than anything else. I feel guilty all the time. Because after a point if it is not about the money, then you are choosing it, because you love it so much. But I did miss out on many years of my kids’ childhood. So, there is no great merit in saying that a woman should work. It has to be a choice you make. You can get equal pleasure sitting at home and reading a book. Don’t go out to work if you don’t want to. You don’t need to compete, you don’t need to break any boundaries.

As told to Pooja Biraia Jaiswal