Ritu Kumar’s ‘Costumes and Textiles of Royal India’ is far more than the title might initially convey. Ostensibly a history of the Indian subcontinent’s costume and fashion, it serves as a launch pad for the author’s expansive knowledge of her homeland as well as a fascinating insight into the history of India’s fabulously ornate and gorgeous royal costumes. “In essence,” Kumar writes, “this book is a celebration of royal patronage which was the lifeblood of so many textile guilds, Hindu and Muslim alike, and which allowed such a rich and diverse textile industry to ﬂourish. To study the evolution of costume is to study the history of a people and their relationship to their environment.” The ﬁrst section traces the history and evolution of court costume, from ancient India through the Middle Ages, Mughal India, British India and up to the current republican era. It is a territory too vast and a history too diverse for brief summary, but Kumar does an excellent job explaining the development of both the nation and its courtly fashions over a period of nearly ﬁve thousand years!
It’s admirably concise whilst rich in absorbing detail. Lavishly illustrated throughout – for the historical period there are some wonderful examples of early Indian art, statues, paintings and, of course, costumes – but it’s with the photography from the modern era where the title visually dazzles. From the mid- nineteenth century onwards some remarkable photographic material exists. The portraits of monarchy deposed during the British colonial era make for poignant images. The twentieth century photographs display the tremendous vibrancy and ﬂuidity of Indian costumes, and there is a nice counterpoint to these lavish images in a 1930 photograph of Mahatma Gandhi in a plain khadi spinning cotton on acharkha.
The royal theme is naturally interwoven throughout and a large chapter is devoted to portraits of royalty. They add a special touch and are clearly something the author enjoyed being able to include: “So many of the families of the former royal states were kind enough to sit for portraits dressed in their traditional clothes, some of which are seen here for the ﬁrst time. They may not always be wearing the most authentic costume of the respective state and some of the textiles may have been manufactured outside of India, but, in essence, the photographs reﬂect something of the splendour of a bygone era.” There’s also a section devoted to royal costumes modelled professionally. The photographs are stunning and the costumes would put all but the very ﬁnest modern designs to shame. These beautifully crafted, handmade garments are genuine works of art in their own right and a living tribute to India’s culture.
This book is the result of the author’s painstaking research and it has rightly received high praise from reviewers. As Martand Singh explains in the foreword: “Above all else, this book is a labour of love. It has required Ritu Kumar to travel and research for two decades. She has sought the advice of scholars, patrons, designers and ﬁne craftsmen from across the country. She is an important contemporary designer herself and her creations are, on occasion, worn by members of India’s former royal families. Her cut and draped garments and her interpretation of traditional prints and embroideries place her work ﬁrmly within ﬁne modern craftsmanship . . . In publishing this book, Ritu has attempted to share her own journey with people everywhere who are concerned with the relationship of head and heart.” It only remains to add that she has succeeded wonderfully and that ‘Costumes and Textiles of Royal India’ is a beautiful and distinctive title, superbly illustrated and researched – a gem of a title that does its subject matter and author proud.