In the spotlight
Undeterred by protests and the sedition case against her over the comment that Pakistan is not hell, actress Ramya talks to Gargi Gupta about courage of conviction and being fearless She shudders at the thought of having to design a motif for someone else
or someone who is the target of heated protests, Kannada actress Ramya sounds quite relaxed over the phone from Bangalore. “I think it’s every individual’s right to speak and express herself freely,” she says genially, adding, “but the underlying thing is to be fearless and not allow yourself to be bullied.”
Ramya, or Divya Spandana, her real name, is referring to her comment — “Pakistan is not hell” — rebutting Union defence minister Manohar Parriker’s recent comment that it was, and her refusal to apologise for saying so, despite the wave of protests and a sedition case filed against her.
Reiterating that she will not apologise for her remark, the heroine of several hit Kannada and Tamil films and former Congress member of Parliament says she’s had a lot of people expressing support for her stand, online and offline. “I just spent midnight to 4am liking all the Tweets as a way of showing my appreciation for their support,” she laughs.
But she also knows that many are upset with her, and says she doesn’t mind apologising to them. “If it makes them happy, I’m more than happy to apologise. At the end of the day, all I want is for people to be happy.”
Despite the threats ( a mob threw eggs at her car on Thursday), the spunky actress has turned down police protection. “Even as an MP, I was not comfortable with it. In Mandya, my constituency, I have campaigned at night, in places that did not even have electricity and I have never been so much as manhandled,” she says. So when two constables dropped in on Tuesday night, she sent them away. “I gave them some sweets and told them I’m fine, please go. I don’t need security,” she says laughing.
Shared ideas, values
Ironically, since it has had just the opposite effect and has further widened the schisms, Ramya’s speech in Islamabad, her first visit to the country to take part in the SAARC Young Parliamentarians Conference, had been a passionate plea for better relations and greater understanding between India and Pakistan. “We must step away from the infighting and domestic tensions, and embrace the power of the united front,” she’d said. And more:
R“We need a new silk road in our perspectives, of fresh sense of unity and shared ideas… Ideas have to thrive not just in conference rooms but in the world outside, with regular people.”
Ask her about her outspokenness, her courage to speak up for her beliefs, and Ramya credits her foster father RT Narayan for it. “My father gave me freedom to think, to speak and do as I want to because he wanted me to experience and learn for myself,” says the 33- year- old actress, who describes herself as an “independent woman who lives on her own with three dogs”.
It’s also family that accounts for Ramya’s entry into politics five years ago, at the height of her popularity itu Kumar utters the word ‘ miracle’ six times in a 50- minute conversation. She is incredulous — about her success as a fashion designer, about the acclaim and laurels she’s received over the last four decades, about the fact that a textile, khadi, came to be a symbol of a nation’s struggle for freedom. But most of all, she marvels at the journey of Indian textiles for straddling renown, ruin and revival. Kumar would know. Starting with a humble set up in Calcutta in 1969 with four hand block printers, she has been instrumental in restoring glory to craft and textile traditions, and growing as an eponymous, indigenous brand today. Over the years, the 71- year- old has travelled to the nooks and crannies of India in search of craftsmen to reproduce the magic of traditional weaves, dyeing techniques and embroideries. She knows intimately the intense and mathematical effort that goes into the weaving process, be it the spooling of yarn, the making of a jala or the working of the warp and weft on the loom. She has trawled museums and scoured through old collections for samples of old saris and swatches that she can take back to the masters, The result, be it Benarasi brocades, ajrakh prints, ikat weaves, zardosi, Lucknowi or Kutchi embroideries, reflects in Kumar’s numerous collections in which she gives the prized fabrics contemporary form. “We designers are catalyst. We are people who bring things together,” she says, matter of factly. “I would shudder to even start designing a motif for someone else to weave. “We have amazing genius among the 16 million people who practise textiles on an everyday basis, be it a weaver or a dyer or a nakshabandh. The more you work with the crafts, the more you realise that you have very little to teach, and a lot to learn.”
In revivalist mode
That Kumar has been synonymous with India’s traditional textile crafts is apparent and success in her film career, and her belief in “secular, inclusive politics” — her father was a personal friend of former Karnataka chief minister SM Krishna and her mother Ranjitha is a well- known Congress politician in Karnataka. Even her grandfather was in the Congress. “I grew up seeing politicians walk in and out of my home,” she says. In 2013, Ramya fought and won the by- polls of the Mandya Lok Sabha, but in the general elections a year later, she lost to the Janata Dal ( Secular) candidate.
Unlike politics, her career in films happened by chance, and despite her parents’ murmurs. The story, as Ramya says it, is fairy- tale- like: her aunt Anila Anand, who ran a prominent modelling agency in Bangalore, had taken some photographs of her while trying out a new camera. The casting scouts for a new film starring Puneet Rajkumar, the son of Kannada superhero Rajkumar, happened to see them and insisted on casting her. “My aunt told them she’d mistakenly showed them the photographs and I wasn’t interested, but they insisted,” recounts Ramya. The 2003 film, Abhi ended up being a big hit.
“Nobody is really in control of their lives, you just go with the flow. That is my belief,” says the actress, whose film Nagarahavu, a big budget fantasy- thriller comes out next month — her first release since 2014.
What about politics? Will she contest in the next general election? “It’s a long way off and I don’t plan these things,” concludes Ramya. from the many honours she’s received. Before being declared a Padma Shri awardee in 2013, she had received the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini award and had been bestowed the honour of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. Kumar accepts the laurels with a surprise and a surge of happiness, and yet remains circumspect. “Wherever there’ve been success stories, there’ve been some unsuccessful ones too. For instance, there’s no weaving left in Kashmir,” she says.
It’d be safe to say that this won’t be the case for the Benarasi sari, for which Kumar’s passion has been particularly enduring. Two of her recent collections feature the woven fabric, the Benaras Collection, and the Revivalist Collection, the latter, a pret line that the designer showcased on Saturday at Lakme Fashion Week. “The trouble is the Benarasi sari is no longer being made the way it’s supposed to be,” says Kumar, revealing how the Benarasi sari of today looks more like a “parchment” due to the use of mercerised yarn and metallic lurex over hand- spun yarn from Bhagalpur that was used in the 18th century. “As a result, the saris don’t flow, don’t hug the figure, don’t make you look attractive. And that’s the death knell of any textile,” announces Kumar, who roped in master nakshbandhs and weavers in the holy city to recreate 11 saris as per their original form, over the last three years.
At the same time, she offers a wider plan for the Benarasi weaves. “We don’t need to ask for alms for the Benaras to survive,” she enthuses. “Thailand has just one fabric, the Thai silk. And yet, nobody returns from Bangkok without a piece of one. Likewise, if our government uses the Benarasi sari as a symbol of what can be produced in India, in its most sophisticated form, and run a campaign like they did for Incredible India, leaving the design and the retail to the market forces, it’d be enough.”
That, certainly, would be a miracle!
Models in clothes from Ritu Kumar’s Revivalist Collection, which showcases Benaras, Ikat and Lucknowi traditions