Red Alert: Neeru Kumar's Passion for Crimson Textiles

Indian designer Neeru Kumar’s woven and embroidered textiles pictured here offer a contemporary expression of the traditional textile techniques that abound in the Indian subcontinent.

For several decades now Neeru Kumar has worked with indigenous knowledge and materials to explore their relevance for the contemporary market. Her work includes a range of traditional techniques such as kantha, khadi, jamdani and ikat, as well as jacquard and treadle weaving, and strikes that crucial balance between sustaining traditional knowledge and its adaptation for contemporary design.

The collection includes Kantha, where simple running stitch is applied to soft, worn cloth – often old sarees – stitched together as layers of fabric. What was once a leisure activity for rural women in Bengal has, thanks to Neeru Kumar’s initiatives, now become a source of livelihood for thousands of women in Bengal. Similarly, the resist-dye technique of ikat practiced by weavers in Orissa, a state in eastern India, now contribute new motifs to Neeru’s collections while helping to sustain an endangered craft.

Kumar graduated from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in 1980. Her sophisticated collections have made appearances at Maison et Object and Pret a Porter in Paris and Hiemtextil in Frankfurt. Her flagship store, Tulsi, launched in 1987 in New Delhi enjoys a loyal following. Outside India, her shawls, scarves, ready-to-wear garments and home furnishings are carried by such notable arbiters of taste as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, The Conran Shop, Anthropologie, New York’s Giggenheim Museum and Caravane in Paris.

Here Kumar’s palette focuses on the many shades and textures of red. It is a colour that is as mercurial in meaning as it is in life. Red is the colour of blood, warning and passion. Think of Anish Kapoor’s installation of “Marsyas” in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, inspired by the Greek myth of Marsyas who was flayed alive by Apollo or the intricate brick work of Arts & Crafts founder William Morris’s “Red House”. American authors John Steinbeck’s Red Pony or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter make colour central to their narratives. In film we see the little girl’s haunting dress in “Schindler’s List” – a rare moment of colour in a black and white film and the frantic obsession of a young tormented ballet dancer in The Red Shoes, based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

The ways in which red finds its way onto cloth are nearly as varied as our understanding of the colour’s meaning. Natural dyes such as pomegranate and madder root are used in textile dying to enhance the colour red; aged Moroccan carpets are washed in saffron to refresh their deep hues; the bodies of cochineal bugs offer yet another source of red dye (which recently caused a stir amongst vegan’s unwittingly enjoying pink-hued summer drinks on offer at Starbucks).

Victoria Finlay, in her book Color, looks back to the fugitive reds employed deliberately by the English painter J.M.W. Turner; today, the once crimson sunsets of his seascapes are left largely to our imagination. The bold crimson “Jantar Mantar” observatory in New Delhi, commissioned in the early 1700s by Maharajah Jai Singh II, has weathered time better. The name “Jantar Mantar” shares meaning with the very machines of weaving that produce the designs of Neeru Kumar: ‘supreme instrument’, ‘invention’ . . . apt inspiration for the richly-hued textiles Neeru Kumar continues to develop today.

Photo credits: Nelson Sepulveda & Mark Eden Schooley

Selvedge magazine (2013)