Ritu Kumar started her career with four hand-block printers in Serampore, a historical city 34 kilometres from Kolkata, almost five decades ago. The fashion designer has been a champion of hand-weaves and hand-block printing since then. What many people don’t not know though, is how, or rather where, did Kumar’s fascination with India’s indigenous textiles take root.
“It all started with my first trip to Varanasi sometime in the 1970s,” says Kumar. “I couldn’t help but get wrapped in the warp and weft of Banarasi brocades. I was fascinated by the flavours, colours and unique energy of the city that makes it a place of discovery and learning.” More than three decades have passed since Kumar’s first trip to Varanasi but it still continues to enchant and inspire the fashion designer. She keeps revisiting it often enough to introspect on the cycle of life and death, indulge in delectable street food and “find design inspiration in its many hues.”
Over the years, as a tourist and fashion designer, Kumar has witnessed Varanasi’s calm and chaos, and is now in love with both. “It’s not easy to work in Varanasi though,” she says. “It’s too crowded and not very clean. The narrow lanes of Peeli Kothi, for instance, are crammed with wholesalers selling beautiful silk saris and brocade fabrics. But shoppers must first dodge stray cows, dogs and cycle rickshaws before they can buy anything. But again these are precisely the characteristics that add to the charm of this ancient city.”
Kumar, for one, always makes it a point to negotiate her way through the narrow alleys to get her fill of crispy kachoris, paans, lassi, flavourful chaats and piping hot samosas. “Every gali in Benares is a gourmet gali,” Kumar says. “One can write an entire book on the incredible street food the city has to offer. There is something new to discover around every corner.”
Her other favourite pastime is to explore the city’s bustling markets such as the Vishwanath Gali, where weavers sell gossamer Ganga Jamuna saris, shopkeepers deal incondiments and artists carve intricate wooden blocks. “There is never a dull moment,” says Kumar.“This vibrancy is what I love.”
Everything about Varanasi comes together seamlessly to create an indelible experience, says Kumar. “Expect to be surprised every step of the way.” Even though she usually checks in at The Gateway Hotel Ganges, Kumar packs her itinerary with local sightseeing to get a real feel of one of the oldest living cities in the world. She has visited the Ramnagar Fort (the ancestral home of the Maharaja of Benares), found spiritual solace in the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple on the banks of the Ganges and watched ashen-faced sadhus roam the city’s ghats.
Her trips are also intrinsically tied to her passion for Varanasi textiles. “I have been particularly fascinated with curvilinear patterns in gold and silver threadwork,” says the textile revivalist. She however notes with dismay that the city’s legendary master weavers are dwindling in numbers on account of poor patronage as gold and silver brocade is being replaced with cheap crystals and net. “Our CSR (corporate social responsibility) program is an ongoing project to preserve the sanctity of Varanasi’s age-old handlooms,” Kumar says. At the 2015 Lakmé Fashion Week, she showcased saris and lehengas in a collection called Varanasi Weaves. “This was a revival line inspired by old saris that I found in museums and from our private collection. These are now being reproduced by nakshband or master weavers,” says Kumar. For the project, Kumar visited homes and workshops of many weavers in an attempt to breathe life into Varanasi’s celebrated weave and “to reintroduce designs and colours that make the Banares silk fabric so beautiful.”
For this Padma Shri awardee then, reviving Varanasi’s textiles is her way of paying tribute to the timeless beauty of the city. But when it comes to absorbing Varanasi in all its glory, she heads to its ethereal ghats. “My stay is incomplete without taking a boat ride along the ghats,” says Kumar. “For it is moments like these when I take time to introspect on life, mortality and what it’s like to feel small in the larger scheme of things.” Being ferried by the boatman along the holy waters, Kumar often finds herself enthralled by the kaleidoscope of sights that swirl around her. When dusk descends, she makes her way to the Dashashwamedh Ghat to “see the surreal Ganga aarti”. The chiming of bells and priests performing the aarti with practiced coordination leave her spellbound. “For some the aarti is a spiritual experience, for others it’s a visual treat, but I can’t really define the feeling except to say that it’s the most beautiful and extraordinary atmosphere to witness,” says Kumar.
Perhaps it’s this magical journey of self-discovery and creative purity that keeps beckoning Kumar to this city steeped in centuries of tradition.
Radhika Sen is a writer, beach lover and self-confessed shopaholic. She often catches herself day dreaming about embarking on unforgettable European adventures and discovering something new every day.