IN Neeru Kumar's world, experimentation is integral to the warp of her life. As a Delhi-based textile designer deeply rooted in contemporising the craft tradition. As a 1980 National Institute of Design graduate, who's passionate about weaving. As a path breaker in showcasing Indian fabrics under her own label at 60 stores across 15 countries, including Selfridge's in London, Bloomingdale's in New York, and Le Bon Marche in Paris. Or as a consultant to the Indian Development Commissioner for Handlooms.
Reaching out beyond Delhi and Mumbai, she launched a Bangalore store on Vittal Mallya Road in January 2005. It offers cues to her core values. Through contrasting black geometric patterns woven into a textured tussar throw, the original Neeru imprint on the global textile retina. Through Banjara embroidered panels transformed into oblong silken cushions. Through fine khadi transmuted through shaded weaves into easy-maintenance office wear. Through jamdani and ikat weaves in an international palette that handlooms fresh directions. Most exquisitely, through old bandhej, Paithani or ikat heirlooms recreated as jewel-bright stoles revived through fine kantha quilting.
What intricacies shuttle through 48-year-old Neeru's creativity, against the backdrop of an international buzz about Indian textiles? Her commitment is to the sustained livelihood of practitioners, such as over 400 kantha embroiderers in rural Bengal, who add subtlety to her home range and garments. And over 700 weavers who contribute to her label.
Neeru recalls, holding up her tussar-based throw in Bangalore, "At the time when I created this in 1989, everybody wanted it. Its universal appeal fitted into American, British, European, even Japanese interiors. I got entry into the world's best stores. The First Design, as I called it, was the breakthrough in my life. It was copied in every corner of the country, though I did have it registered."
Other threads gradually interwove into the weft of her designs. Such as the jamdani weavers brought to her buzzing studio in Delhi. Her reinterpretation? Perhaps graded stripes on a green-grey silk-meshed sari melding into the pallav, with a burnt orange border. A European palette merging perfectly into an Indian textile. "This is a very contemporary colour," smiles Neeru, about her five-year-old jamdani project. "How an angrez would probably do it."
Of her engagement with weaving, Neeru reiterates, "To me, it's important to get what I want. To get the weavers to my studio, where the design and weaving are controlled. We can learn from them. Why don't some ideas work? But without a passion for textiles, all this would not be possible."
Neeru emphasises, "You cannot design textiles with the computer. You need to feel the material, to explore, be with the weaver. I'm a hands-on person. During your explorations, you might come across something stunning by accident. You have to be able to recognise its beauty."
Whether experimenting with Orissa ikats, Paithanis or Kutchi bandhini, tussar or khadi, she stresses, "Once you start learning about the material and its possibilities, you keep working on it all the time. You have to sustain the activity. And ensure the quality of both design and production."
Referring to post-independence Indian textile revival pioneers like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya or Prabha Shah of Sohan, she explains, "To us, they were like goddesses. Now, though all the traditional weaves, styles and colour are there, we have to take them forward. Revive them, create new awareness, give them new energy to sustain our skills. Recently, when I travelled to Orissa, it was heartening to see the villagers still wearing their ikat saris."
Beyond her clientele, which includes Sonia Gandhi, Rekha, Shabana Azmi, and Arundhati Roy, Neeru's skeins engage with the grassroots. "I've been involved with educating the craftsperson, keeping their traditions alive. I love buying old textiles, which have no jaan in them, though not antiques. Because I had access to kantha workers, I thought that was one way to save my old textiles, while creating new ones," she narrates.
Extending the story, Neeru recalls, "Ten years ago, a man brought me some kantha pieces. I gave him a tussar sample to work on. Three months later, he brought back a synthetic version of the tussar silk. He'd done all that work on it! But when I explained, he returned with plain, beautiful quilting. And my first customer was (film director) Mira Nair."
What of her interface with Tokyo's Kaori and Chiaki Maki, the famed Weaving Sisters? "I met them in 1990 through my First Design," the soft-spoken artist-weaver says. "Chiaki saw it at an exhibition and came to me. She insists my Delhi studio is the best place in the world for any textile designer to work. We work with silk, linen, wool, the finest cottons. We do embroidery and stitching. Over five years, we explored so many weaves and materials together for a contemporary look, basically home furnishings and shawls."
In the public eye, Neeru's image is inextricably linked to khadi. "While working on tussar, I felt the need to do something that was basic, beautiful, textured. That's when a khadi fellow walked in. We made five sample bedcovers. They all went, even in the international market. Then, we began working on lightweight contemporary kurtas that had an attractive play of colour and were washing machine friendly. An Indian, French or Japanese person could wear it with equal ease."
Amidst a sunburst of oranges, crimsons, reds, pinks as wearable or usable textiles, Neeru concludes, "Till five years ago, there was so much happening. Now, suddenly I feel too little is being done to save our textile skills. We need to create and to market with new energy... If we don't, ikat weavers may be forced to till the land."