A Sartorial script


Ritu Kumar's primer for designing costumes for Deepa Mehta's adaptation of Midnight's Children was her formative years of craft revival and research.

The children of Independence inherited a vast heritage of culture and history that had mesmerised the British. But inheritance must first be experienced and then interpreted, a lesson Salman Rushdie has often said he learnt while writing his stories. It is also something that Ritu Kumar, born in 1944, three years before Rushdie, experienced through her early work in Bengal.

In the early Seventies, Kumar, the barefoot doctor of craft revival, had begun work on a project in Serampore, West Bengal. Colonised by Denmark till 1845, Serampore became the centre of missionary activity in India under the British rule, known for the work of William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward. One of the by-products of this work was the introduction of fine, hand embroidery. A student of Lady Irwin College in Delhi, Kumar had won a scholarship to study art history in the US. Upon her return, she settled in Calcutta following her marriage. "There was no art history course, so I studied museology," she says, adding that it exposed her to the Bengal countryside, firing her curiosity to visit handloom centres. One such visit led Kumar to the embroiderers of Ranihati. It was with them that she contemporarised the craft of zardozi, which had formerly flourished during Mughal rule.

The Seventies was the decade when Rushdie winds up the plot of Midnight's Children, one of last century's biggest reads, set around the events that led to Partition and post-Independence India. The story of Saleem Sinai and his magical powers entwines characters from India and the West, constructing India's history with a fascinating backdrop of the country's indigenous culture.

Last year, Deepa Mehta (director of the cinematic adaption of Rushdie's novel) asked Kumar to design the costumes for her film, which has some of India's best known actors, including Shabana Azmi, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, and Shahana Goswami. The film, so far, has released only at global film festivals. The designer drew upon her research done in the formative years of her career to create the costumes for the ensemble cast. It also fed from her 1999 book, Costumes and Textiles of Royal India, which explores religious and regional stylistic traditions from India's ancient and medieval history, through the Mughal period, the British rule up to the 20th century. "I would not have been able to design for the film had I not worked on that book," admits Kumar. She refutes that among Indian designers she is not an incidental choice for this film but really the only one. "For the pre-Independence period, especially the 1920s, there was not a single picture reference. How much can you deduce by reading history? For my book, I had stumbled upon photographs of courtesans — both Hindu and Muslim, even those from Kashmir. There were also the lithographs and some writings, the latter mostly by the British. It was because I had researched the archives of royal households of Rampur and Pataudi among others that I could create costumes for Midnight's Children in a matter of months. I read the book again to ponder over the context, more particularly the script," she says.

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