Mayank Kaul Mansingh | Curator of Exhibition 'Crossroads by Ritu Kumar'

Last month we visited the exhibition ' Crossroads by Ritu Kumar' at the Indian Habitat Centre in Delhi. The exhibition illustrates a forthcoming series of publications authored by fashion designer and textile revivalist Ritu Kumar on her travels through South Asia and Europe. These journeys have involved deep research and reflection on the textile arts of the regions and their unique histories. They come alive through archival textiles, vintage photographs, collages and paintings. Forming both professional memoirs and artistic musings, this is a personal perspective on dynamic handcrafted traditions at the crossroads of change.

The exhibition was curated by Mayank Mansingh Kaul, a Delhi-based writer and curator, with an interest in post-independent histories of design, fashion and textiles in India. A graduate in textile design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Mayank has curated exhibitions for organisations such as Khoj International Artists Residency, The Gujral Foundation and Devi Art Foundation. He is the editor of Taking on Art Design, Cloth and India: 1947-2015 and Baluchari: Tradition and Beyond.

We spoke with Mayank to understand his process of curating this exhibition: 

Could you walk us through the process of curating this exhibition? How did the project come into being and how it was conceptualised and curated. 

Mrs Kumar and I have been in touch over the last couple of years to potentially collaborate on a project - I have been a keen admirer of her challenging journeys in handmade textile revival and design, as well as how these represent the very trajectories of post-independence textile history in India, a subject close to my practice as a researcher, writer, archivist and curator-exhibition maker. And at the same time, she has been following my work in editing publications and curating textile exhibitions. Last year she shared with me excerpts from a forthcoming series of publications which she is authoring, through which she wishes to bring alive the personal and professional travels that she has undertaken, pursuing her love for history, cultures around the world and of course, Indian textiles. She was keen to bring this into a three-dimensional format in the form of an exhibition. Going through these excerpts it was clear to me that the information and insights contained in these writings would be relevant to bring to the public. In contrast to the larger-than-life persona of Mrs Kumar as a designer, and the face of what is perhaps the oldest fashion brand in India, I found that these writings convened intimate perspectives and thoughts. And this was particularly pertinent because her company celebrated 50 years of being in business last year! Further, in light of fashion in India changing so fast, these could remind us of the ethos of the continuing ethos of Indian dress and use of fabrics in clothing. 

The entire process of developing the exhibition was collaborative. We began with readings of her writings through several sessions and started marking sections which could be highlighted. We sat for several hours in her office-study, and I found the dynamics of her interactions with me and her team at work very interesting: she would go from explaining something that I had asked her about a visit to say, a craft centre, to giving final proofs to a collection of print designs! We would stop the readings at some point, only to be reminded that she had several books to further illustrate what she saw say at another centre and so on. We had long lunch breaks over home-cooked food where she spoke to me about unusual recipes from the places that she has visited. I loved this process, and it became clear to me that the intimate and highly personal journeys that we intended to present in the form of an exhibition must also express this sense of personal interaction. As a result, the exhibition was designed not as a formal one where viewers would not be permitted to touch display artefacts and so on, but where they would feel like they had entered her study - full of books, memorabilia, textiles and so on. Viewers could navigate their own paths through the exhibition and go in and out of excerpts from her diary entries and notes while getting a visual-material sense of the various textile-regions that she had visited. 

One of the ways in which her travels became alive for me was the textiles - both vintage and contemporary - that she had acquired on these trips. We, therefore, decided to draw from her own textile collection to illustrate the textile arts of the various regions represented in the exhibition. We were very clear from the beginning that the exhibition had to challenge the conventional white-cube form of exhibition making, where objects and textiles are divorced from each other. We wanted to express how rich India's textile traditions are and a use of layering helped us in this. Further, we showed how one region and its textiles connect to another; so we created unexpected juxtapositions. One example of this is the decision to show Kashmir shawls in the Bengal section of the exhibition, which was one of the largest markets for the Kashmir shawl in the Indian subcontinent! To extend the sense of personal interaction, Mrs Kumar and I led several walkthroughs of the exhibition. Finally, at the execution stage, a team of carpenters who have worked with Mrs Kumar's company for several decades handling the interiors of her stores across the country, helped us bring to life the design of the exhibition.  

A lot of design students and aspiring designers are unaware of the significance of curation in the field of fashion and how it marries art and history. 

Yes, I think we do not realise that curated presentations and exhibitions in the non-commercial sense - where the product is not for sale, help create reflections on a creative sector outside of the constraints of the market. The practice of fashion and design can be aided a lot if designers can interact with writers and curators. This can help both in innovation and in thinking more about why designers chose to design a certain way, and its final outcome within the larger society.

How do you think colleges need to change their approach towards education in the field of curation?

To begin with, students need to be encouraged to read more and to see more exhibitions. Faculty also needs to be exposed to such presentations. Let's take the example of the field of arts - if we have art fairs which help the commerce of the art world, we also have biennales which help show art outside of the gallery format. Each helps the other. In the same way, for fashion and design, students need to be shown that there are alternative ways to showcase their work and to impact the world beyond commercial fashion shows and design fairs. Curation has emerged as a form of study in recent years in art colleges in India, but not in fashion or design. Small education modules, to begin with, could help explore the viability of offering curatorial courses as well as their ability to contribute to expanding the field of fashion and design. 

As the founder Director of The Design project India, could you comment on the current landscape of Indian Textiles being used by contemporary designers and their awareness of sustainability and craft? 

That organisation no longer exists, it was started by me several years ago as a way to facilitate curated projects in fashion and design. This was a time when one hardly saw exhibitions or curated events related to fashion and design. In recent years, the number of such events, exhibitions, conferences and summits have increased several folds. Specifically, with regards to the questions of sustainability in fashion, design and hand-craft, we have to understand what this means. I have found that most designers take this up as a way of branding themselves and their work without realising what its meanings and implications are, and this is dangerous. For instance, it is automatically assumed that designers working with handlooms are sustainable designers - but often such handlooms use a lot of chemical dyes which are harmful to the environment. Or for that matter, designers talk about their businesses being Fair Trade-oriented when they have no clue what is a Fair Wage to be paid. Besides, India does not have agreed norms of what is sustainable, Fair Trade and so on, so unless such standards are set by the fashion and design industry, we should not succumb to farcical ideas! 

Do you think there are only a few who understand the value of our textile heritage?

 I think in India people understand textile heritage more than other parts of the world. It might be because textiles are such an important aspect of our religious rituals, ceremonies and traditional rites of passage! I think we are a culture and country that values its heritage a lot. 

What is the best approach for upcoming designers to be able to sustain themselves commercially in a global market, yet being true to our craft? 

I think each designer needs to find his/her own approach - aesthetically and in terms of retail and so on. I do think however that India itself is a huge market so the need to address global markets is overrated.