Riten Mozumdar: Free India’s first textile designer

Rabindranath Tagore wrote in ‘The Meaning of Art’ in 1921, “What is art? It is the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the real. But the individual mind according to its temperament and training has its own recognition of reality in some of its special aspects…” It rings true when one looks at the work of Riten Mozumdar, or Ritenda as he was lovingly addressed.

This post is a recollection on my relationship with him after seeing an exhibition on him in 2020.

An extremely nice, kind, tall gentleman who would softly talk about his work, his experiments with textiles and textures and patterns for hours at his home. He was so humble and self-effacing that he would try to walk away unnoticed outside his home, it was not easy for him as he was so tall. He had a childlike laugh and innocence about him, a charming personality and someone who was always positive so no one would let him walk away; he would be invited for all sorts of ‘addas’ (chat sessions over small cups of tea) at Kala Bhavan or Kalor Dokan in Ratanpalli. I have seen him several times in such ‘addas’ when he would softly smile and partake in intellectual discussions with Manida (K G Subramanyan), Jogenda (Jogen Choudhury), Sanatda (Sanat Kar), Jayanto Kaku (Jayanto Chakraborty), Jhanak Narzari Kaku (Jhanak Jhankar Narzary), Deepak Kaku (late Deepak Bhattacharya) and other eminent artists, sculptors, designers, art historians and professors of Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati University. Sometimes there was gossiping in these sessions and Riten Jethu would sweetly smile, his eyes would twinkle but he rarely gossiped. A most charismatic, dynamic and wonderful human so full of love ❤

Riten Mozumdar at the his beautiful home at Santiniketan. Photo: Amit Danda

An amazing human being:

I adored Riten Jethu. I was 19 and he nearly 70 when I was first introduced to him at Santiniketan in 1994. I was still living in Jaipur for my graduation and felt quite lost in that tiny town while visiting my parents on their short work stint there. Though I could speak, read and write Bangla fluently, I felt out of place and didn’t know what to do. I was studying English literature and my subsidiary subject was drawing and painting. Riten Jethu understood my awkwardness amongst these stalwarts and would ask me about my studies and my time at Jaipur. I had studied in Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls’ Public School, established by Rajmata Gayatri Devi, a former student of Santiniketan when she was a young girl known as Ayesha. Because of Rajmata’s attachment to Santiniketan, our school had taught us how to make Batik, Tie & Dye, Block Printing, Blue Pottery and other arts and crafts from scratch.

Our school’s crafts teacher Meenakshi Rathore is the daughter of the famous Kripal Singhji, the artist who revived Blue Pottery in Jaipur and made the city ubiquitous for it. Riten Jethu knew Kripal Singhji very well, they were friends from their Santiniketan days as both had studied under Benode Bihari Mukherjee. Riten Jethu would re-live those student days with me, sometimes filled with anecdotes but mostly about techniques of learning and working together in the team where Riten Jethu and Kripal Singhji worked with Benodeda, who was nearly blind, in painting the murals in Santiniketan. Interestingly, Kripal Singhji’s younger daughter Kumud is a classmate and dear friend. I would listen to him wide eyed, as he would take me on this memorable journey of his times with his mentor who doted on him like a father. (The above photos are of Shilp Guru Padma Shri Kripal Singh Shekhawat, left in his blue pottery studio and right with Chandrababu Giri where they painted the stunning frescoes in the Rajputana Sheraton Hotel, Jaipur in 1995-96. Photos are courtesy his daughter Kumud Shekhawat).

It was because of Benodeda that Riten Jethu spent a year in Nepal, learning woodwork, metal casting, block printing and making and so much more under master craftsman Kulasundar Shilakarmi.

After Jaipur, I went to study in MSU, Baroda, for my masters in English Literature and during that time my parents had a longer stint at Santiniketan before they finally shifted there in May 1998. Everyone there welcomed this shift, though I couldn’t reconcile to it for years. It was simply because Manida and Riten Jethu were there that I felt there was something to look forward to. I was the only female scooter driver there, much to the shock of delicate minds there, and both Manida and Riten Jethu indulged me when I would drive to their beautiful houses to meet them. If I met one, then they would enquire if I had met the other. Their stories would connect so that when I met Riten Jethu, the story he would tell me would remain incomplete until I met Manida. Their houses and gardens were so artistically and aesthetically created, every flower and fruit tree was significant for its form, fragrance and had been planted for their symbolism with Tagore or some art movement. I went to Kolkata in 1999 to study at NIFT and would visit Santiniketan nearly every month till I left in 2001 for my first job in Gujarat. Each trip to my parents had to include a scooter ride to meet Riten Jethu and Manida – they had so so many questions about MSU, Ahmedabad and their friends and former students.

Riten Jethu would always ask about me from my parents when I was out, when we met he would ask what I liked doing now and when I said I was confused in life (a perpetual state of mind), he would smile – he had the kindest smile I’ve ever seen. He was so soft spoken that one could barely hear him speak. I used to watch his hands, long fingers when he used to talk to a lost and unhappy person in her early 20s who had no idea what to do in life. He would mention several times that since he was colour blind, he focussed largely on his knowledge of black and white for his textile designs; this was his way of encouraging me to try to find my mojo.

He would explain in detail showing the ‘namdas’ he had designed, the textiles he made, the furniture we sat on designed by him, his association with John Bissell and FabIndia from 1966 – 2000, his textile studio out of a garage in Delhi, his work at exhibitions and his shop. He would reminiscence about his Delhi days and I would tell him how much I missed Jaipur – maybe that’s how we connected. He had returned to Santiniketan, the place he found solace, friendship and peace, he was hardly working anymore, but he missed his busy Delhi days. The difference of nearly 50 years did not matter during those times at his home, when his faithful Anil whom he had adopted as his own, would bring in a tall glass of fresh limewater and Anil’s little daughter would come and whisper secrets in Riten Jethu’s ears and his entire face would light up. Sadly, both Anil and his daughter left us in the last few years!!! 

Tagore wrote in the same article, “In perfect rhythm, the art – form becomes like the stars, which, in their seeming stillness, are never still, like a motionless flame that is nothing but movement. A great picture is always speaking…Art… has the magic wand which gives undying reality to all things it touches, and relates them to the personal being in us. We stand before its productions and say: I know you as I know myself, you are real.” Riten Mozumdar definitely breathed these words in his work, his creations always spoke eloquently yet silently to you, as soft and soothing as his voice.

The exhibition called ‘Imprint: Riten Mozumdar’:

Riten Jethu passed away in 2006, I could not meet him in the last couple of years of his life. I have no photograph of him or with him. All I have are these memories and more, of him, his house, his textiles and his furniture. All these rushed in when I stepped in at the gallery Chatterjee & Lal in Mumbai in February 2020 to see the exhibition ‘Imprint: Riten Mozumdar’ curated by Ushimita Sahu and Mortimer Chatterjee. I first visited alone and later took a group of 11, 18-year olds and they were as fascinated as I was with the splendid exhibition. As I walked through his creations and the information panels, I felt I was with Riten Jethu at his home and he was talking to me.

The exhibition started from the right of the entrance from his early life and then it chronologically continued but you were free to walk around and the information panels did not hamper with a break in the chronology. You could come as close to Riten Jethu’s creations or step back as much as you wanted to admire them, the display and lighting were just perfect to accentuate his work. The gallery staff was extremely polite and did not stare and judge my students so they also felt free and relaxed. They were in their second year of Communication Design at a private design school in Mumbai and were surprised how a textile designer could play with typography! And, Riten Jethu was a master at it. Some students felt eager to now explore typography through various media after this visit.

The small exhibition covered his woodwork, his prints, designs for exhibitions, furniture, textiles including a sari for Monica Correaa, wife of the renowned architect Charles Correaa, some work with FabIndia, letters and actual blocks along with textile samples from those blocks. Not once did we feel there was information overload or unnecessary gloating over him, the information was in lucid language without elaborate allusions and theories that some exhibitions tend to follow. It was delicate and exquisite as the work of its artist Riten Mozumdar! If he would have walked through it, he would have been rather pleased and would have acknowledged it with his gracious smile and commented on it softly.

Tagore also wrote, “Things are distinct not in their essence but in their appearance, in other words, in their relation to one to whom they appear. This is art, the truth of which is not in substance or logic but in expression. Abstract truth may belong to science or metaphysics, but the world of reality belongs to art.” Riten Jethu truly lived this!

Thank you Ushmita – your dedication and involvement comes through for this long overdue honour to one of India’s foremost if not one of the earliest textile designers. My sincere request to you, once the lockdown ends, to transform this to a travelling exhibition so that more young people can appreciate the work of this great artist. We sometimes overtly stress on the work of artists and designers from outside India not realising that at home there were giants like Riten Jethu who quietly worked on. Kindly publicise more on the digital platform so that it becomes more accessible and inclusive, as exhibitions like these are rare and create a ripple that seeps in our existence for long. Thank you Chatterjee & Lal, this exhibition needs to be seen

http://chatterjeeandlal.com/shows/imprint-riten-mozumdar/   


Jethu is a reverential term in Bangla for father’s elder brother or someone like him in age and respect.

Part of this post forms a review of the exhibition called ‘The magic wand of Riten Mozumdar’ written for Art Fact May, 2021, issue, for which I am an art critic.


The first and last photos of Riten Mozumdar are borrowed from the Indian Express and the Chatterjee & Lal websites respectively. The photo in the middle of the designer is by Amit Danda (thanks a ton for hunting it out). The photos of Kripal Singhji are sent by his daughter Kumud. The rest were taken by me from the exhibition.


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