It all began in 1968 with four hand block printers and two tables in a small village in Calcutta. Forty years hence, Ritu Kumar is a leading light of Indian fashion, dressing beauty queens with unfailing regularity and never missing a step with style.
She has to her credit the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini award and Chevalier des Arts et des Lettre (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters), conferred upon her by France this year. Itee Dewan traces some lighter moments of her long journey.
“It’s just a number. It really doesn’t seem like four decades,” says Kumar. She started with research on the textiles and prints of the country in 1966-67. Next came trips to the culturally rich states of Rajasthan, UP and Delhi (she was in Calcutta then).
Just after she went into business, Kumar suffered what she calls a career low: “I held an exhibition of about 30 hand print saris in Calcutta. The show was a complete disaster.” She understood that no one wanted to buy “a print which looked like a bedcover on thick handloom cotton”. More so at a time when colonial influence was at its peak. She reintroduced the print in chiffon and that collection was a sellout. This, she says, was her career high.
A few years later, she had a curious encounter — on a flight to Calcutta, a co-passenger recognised her and asked why she had stopped hand block prints on saris. He rued that his business was on the rocks because he didn’t have designs to copy! Though stunned by his audacity, Kumar also recognised the compliment.
Her first boutique in Delhi was opened in 1968 in Defence Colony. “It faced a railway crossing. People inevitably got stuck there, and thanks to that, my store got a branding.” A small boutique in Calcutta followed and, as they say, the rest is history.
Didn’t it hurt to see her designs copied? “Imitation is constant,” Kumar says. “The only way out is to move on. In fact, today I’ll be worried if my designs are not being copied.”