In the world of handcrafted textiles, Neeru Kumar is a rare and inspired talent, who has, over the past two decades pioneered something of a revolution in Indian textiles. Using traditional techniques and indigenous materials, but with constant experimentation and research, Neeru has created a whole new vocabulary in textile design. The combination of her unique sensibility, especially in tone and texture, with her profound knowledge of the weaving process and other textile techniques, as well as her commitment to support the craft sector has made such innovation possible. Through her prodigious output she has generated an exciting and original, extremely contemporary, design palette, while at the same time pushing forward the frontiers of the traditional skills on which her work is based.
A 1980 graduate of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, Neeru made her first commercial breakthrough in 1989 with her signature 'First Design', a black and tussar weave, which was acclaimed internationally. Widely covered by the media as a designer who had achieved a rare synergy between classic textile craft and contemporary design, her work is often described as 'contemporary classic'.
Entry into the export market led to Neeru's participation in major international trade fairs, including the Maison et Object and the Pret a Porter in Paris and the Hiemtextil in Frankfurt. Her clients include Liberty, Selfridges, The Conran Shop, Anthropologie, Le Bon Marche and Caravane. Endorsed also by the connoisseur, Neeru's textiles have been described as "collectible antiques of the future". Neeru's label covers a range of products including shawls, scarves, ready to wear garments and home furnishings. New lines and products are emerging all the time as a team of young designers work with Neeru at her studio, exploring every conceivable textile technique to discover new possibilities.
In recent years three areas of work have been particularly important in terms of research and development: Kantha, Khadi and Ikat.
Kantha, the traditional running stitch embroidery done on layered old saree fabric by women in rural Bengal to create coverlets and quilts, offered a range of possibilities. The technique has been taken forward by using the kantha running stitch to create products like shawls, bedcovers, cushion covers and yardages. A dying craft that was done traditionally just to pass time has been given new life and become an income-generating activity. This has happened because of design inputs that have transformed the traditional kantha into a contemporary, sophisticated product.
Khadi, the hand-spun, hand-woven fabric that Mahatma Gandhi favoured and which became a symbol of nationalism at the time of India's independence, has evolved into a very different product in the 21st century. Khadi offered Neeru the opportunity to work on varying constructions and weights of fabric, while experimenting with colourations. The colours of khadi created by her are vibrant and sombre, while the texture and weights being appropriate for various products. The Khadi designed by Neeru has a contemporary and global appeal that is hugely successful.
Ikat, like so many other highly skilled weaving techniques found in India, is a dying art. Used mainly in traditional sarees, ikat has received very little design energy. Neeru has, over the past few years, been working with a group if ikat weavers front Orissa to contemporise ikat designs and use them in ways which are economical yet attractive and new. Ikat, which involves pre-dyeing the yarn before weaving, is a very elaborate and labourious process, and innovative design is essential if it is not to be lost to future generations.
Neeru's experiments with traditional textile processes, whether in kantha, khadi, jamdani, ikat or jacquard and treadle weaving demonstrate the critical importance of innovation which brings to the technique itself new life and energy, while transforming the possibilities of the product that makes it possible to be kept alive and be available to future generations.