Riten Mozumdar (1927 – 2006) was one of the most significant artist-designers of the Indian Modernist Design Renaissance in the decades immediately following Independence. Responding to the socio-economic and cultural upheaval sweeping through the country, Mozumdar, and his contemporaries such as Nelly Sethna, Ratna Fabri, Shona Ray and others, approached design as a complex nation-building idiom with a dedicated focus on modernisation as well as revivalism. Mozumdar’s oeuvre is marked with inventiveness, variety and deference for both historical perspectives as well as for newer icons of style and techniques. Between the 1950s and 1980s, his celebrated and influential praxis heralded a new brand of aesthetics. He was proclaimed by Jaya Appasamy as an ‘artist-designer whose creativity pointed forward into the future’. Mozumdar’s body of work displayed a diversity of range and materials exemplifying a rare mastery over mediums and techniques.
Best remembered for his contribution to the world of design, Mozumdar referred to himself as an artist-sculptor. His tryst with art began as a student in Tagore’s Santiniketan between 1946-50, coinciding with the dawn of an Independent India. Educated in painting, sculpture, design and crafts at Kala Bhavana, by luminaries such as Nandalal Bose, Ram Kinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee, Mozumdar was the product of a schooling which emphasised engagement with heritage as well as arts and crafts as integral to an all-round education. He cherished his relationship with Benode Behari, who came to look upon Mozumdar as a son.
Subsequently, under Benode Behari’s guidance Mozumdar devoted a year in Nepal training in traditional crafts and design with master craftsman Kulasundar Shilakarmi. Nepal was a medieval society with no strict dividing line between art and craft, and this provoked an appreciation of and involvement with, indigenous art and crafts. Mozumdar learnt sculpting in wood and stone, metal casting and beaten objects, banner painting and block making for book printing. Around 1951 he went to Delhi and later to Mussourie where Benode Behari had started a summer school and block printing unit. Here, both teacher and student created original block-printed material. By now, Mozumdar had exhibited several times with Benode Behari, Leela Mukherjee and, in one instance, with Ram Kinkar Baij. To quote KG Subramanyan “ Between 1949 and 57 he broke on the Indian art scene with an impressive spate of exhibitions of painting and sculpture singly or with others.”
Positive media reviews of his work helped Mozumdar gain a scholarship to study with sculptor Boris Kalin at the Academy of Fine Arts, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia for two years. From 55 to 56 he trained in an academic style, a marked departure from his previous training at either Santiniketan or Nepal. Whilst in Europe, Mozumdar received another bursary from Giuseppe Tucci, an Italian scholar of East Asian studies, to visit Italy. After completing his studies, Mozumdar made his way to Finland and was working at Arabia a Finnish ceramics company, when Armi Ratia the founder of Printex-Marimekko discovered him. He worked as a textile designer with Marimekko for ten months between 1956 - 57, making numerous original designs for their collection. The designs that he made here clearly demarcate a departure in perception and process; a move away from his earlier lyricism towards a crisper, more minimal, pared-down approach. Although a full-blown move towards abstract sensibilities would take a few more years.
Mozumdar travelled through the United Kingdom and the USA studying sculpture, ceramics, silkscreen and visiting museums before returning to India in December 1958. He met Charles Correa on the ship to India and forged a lifelong friendship. Together they represented India at the World Design Conference in Japan in 1960 and Charles also designed Mozumdar’s house in Delhi. Mozumdar, his sister Chitra, her husband Jolly Barua, a designer who worked with Shilpi and HHEC, Charles and Monika were a close-knit circle of friends who would meet often in Mumbai or at Mozumdar’s house in Delhi and discuss art, design, films.
Upon returning to India, his original vision and distinctive approach pushed Mozumdar headlong into instantaneous fame. He started a studio - M Prints out of a garage in 1959 and within two years had advanced to an outlet in South Extension with a dedicated workshop and thirty employees. Mozumdar crafted fabrics, dress materials, furnishings, saris, household linen and much more and was involved at every stage of the manufacture, at times doing everything himself. But he also worked with lineal block carvers from Rajasthan or Delhi and adapted traditional blocks to create contemporary motifs.
During his long career, Mozumdar was fascinated by calligraphy and text. Numerous designs feature various adaptation and permutations of Persian, Tibetan, Pali, Devanagari and Bengali script. Inspired by the Namavali gamchas of U.P. and Bengal, Mozumdar produced series of designs that celebrate text in its purely visual element divorced from a religious or social context, in some instances superimposition rendered these indecipherable. He also used images of ancient seals and stamps as elements in his designs. In a well-known work, he magnified the inscriptions from a two-inch Babur’s seal into a wall hanging. His art education coupled with his subsequent travels and time spent learning new design methodologies had, for him, rendered porous the boundaries between fine and functional art.
Although Mozumdar has stated in several instances that his use of text was only visual, these formal transformations raise the query whether an act of appropriation, in this instance - religious or social texts from Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism or other sources, remain apolitical? Mozumdar created these designs in the early ’60s, a decade and a half after Independence. The fact that he was able to create images which were well accepted and celebrated, signifies civil liberties of the individual, of mind, of conscience, of society as a whole and in turn, allude to the conceptual failings of secularism in India in recent years. Mozumdar was ahead of his time in employing visual exegesis towards the creation of new design perspectives.
His work was in high demand and sold through various outlets in India such as - The Central Cottage Industries Emporium in Delhi, The Cottage and Small Scale Industries Emporium and Chitra in Bombay, Bengal Home Industries Association and West Bengal Government Sales emporiums in Calcutta. Internationally they were exported to Liberty’s London, Illums Bolighus Denmark, Design Thai Bangkok. By 1969, he was a name to be reckoned with and counted Prime minister Indira Gandhi amongst his clientele. She acquired his pieces for personal use as well as gifts for foreign governments & dignitaries.
Between the 1960-80s Mozumdar was acting consultant to numerous public sector companies and private firms. Prominent amongst these are All India Handicrafts Board, TAARU, DCM, Everest Fabrics, Maharashtra Small Scale Industries Development Corporation, The Shop, Handloom Board etc.
In his capacity as a design advisor to AIHB, Mozumdar worked tirelessly to revive the Jalee work from Saharanpur in U.P, Ivory inlay furniture industry of Hoshiarpur in Punjab. As further proof of his ingenuity, Mozumdar researched and integrated the jaali (latticework)and arch styles of Indo- Islamic architecture into chairs, tables, screens. Adding hand-cut jaali emphasized light and shade as an intrinsic part of the object, adding airiness and transparency to what might otherwise be heavy and dark pieces of furniture.
Additionally, Mozumdar also designed a line of furniture which could be called contemporary- classic in style, for TAARU, and also under his label made by his trusted carpenter Yasin. The foray into furniture was an extension of his experience in wood carving and sculpture. These contemporary designs had noticeable Japanese, Scandinavian or American influences, although at times using jute strings to weave the seats, added an indigenous twist. His contemporary designs were indicative of the tastes of the time – minimal in lines, low seating, simple and fuss-free.
For AIHB, Mozumdar had also worked with Kashmiri Floor Coverings, Felting, Embroidered & Applique Rugs. Taking the experience of working with wool, in an inspired act of synergy, Mozumdar re-contextualised and transformed traditional Namdahs by combining tie and dye, discharge print, calligraphic blocks and embroidery techniques. These utilitarian rugs, usually meant for the floors, in his hands were converted intoobjects’ des art that could now be displayed on the walls. These comprise an important part of his legacy. Compared by many to tantric art, Mozumdar was insistent that his principal aim was the exploration of geometric forms, and in doing so certain comparisons were bound to arise.
Mazumdar was part of the ‘Living India’ show at MOMA in 1954-55 and The Scandinavian Design Cavalcade in 1956-57. He represented the Indian Cooperative Union at the World Design Conference, Tokyo in 1960 where he was also exhibited his wall hangings. In 1971 two of his shows -‘Tie Dye Rugs’- One Man Show of felted rugs Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York and ‘Tie & Dye & Printed Felt Rugs’ at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Copenhagen won him recognition and critical acclaim. In 1985 he exhibited in a group show ‘For the Floor’ at the American Craft Museum II, New York. This International Exhibition of Contemporary Handmade Rugs was shown at centres across the USA. Meanwhile, he continued to exhibit regularly in various venues throughout India including The Ford Foundation, India International Centre and Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi and Jahangir Art Gallery Mumbai.
An important phase of Mozumdar’s career was his association with FabIndia that began in 1966 and lasted until 2000. John Bissell and Mozumdar were very good friends and initially, the latter had created some paisley prints that had been well received. So, when Bissell wished to start a line of contemporary designs in 1977, Mozumdar was given a carte blanche. Using geometrical shapes in bold and colourful blocks and silkscreen, he created a line of household linen that became hugely successful and synonymous with the FabIndia ethos. To quote Meena Choudhury, Former chairperson FabIndia “Riten burst on the scene with his graphic designs, his bold colours, his stark geometric statement and I think that caught the imagination, particularly of the young. As far as FabIndia was concerned for almost 20 years there was no stopping the kind of desire that people had for these bold statements and designs… I recall people used to wait for the collection every week.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, Mozumdar was always on the lookout for new challenges. His first large scale public commission was the 1968 Gandhi Darshan-‘India of My Dreams’ Pavilion for which he created an awning depicting the religions of India in a symbolic form. For the India Pavilion at Expo’70 in Osaka, Japan he created a series of wall hangings in wool. Between 1972 and the late 80’s Mozumdar collaborated with Sachdev Eggleston Associates on several high profile and award-winning projects such as the 1972 Third Asian Trade Fair. Mural in Plastic for BHEL ( Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd.) Pavilion. For the Asia’72 Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan Delhi, Mozumdar built a massive mobile sculpture in wood, iron, plastic and paint, covering 20 metres in width and 12.5 metres in height, gaining reputation as the world’s largest mobile sculpture. He worked for International Trade fair in Algiers during the Non-Aligned Conference of 1973, on Interiors for the Ashoka Restaurant in Bangalore, Akbar and Surya Hotels in Delhi and other major projects in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Thailand. In each instance, his vision of the design element was always integral to the whole project with Mozumdar displaying a keen understanding of the possibilities inherent in the material and an appreciation of working in a collaborative format with architects and engineers.
In addition to his many accomplishments, Mozumdar also designed garments for FabIndia, Design Thai Bangkok and also under his label ‘Riten’, but predominantly for Bharati Sharma’s label Pallavi. These were exported to the Middle East, Australia and Canada. His clothing line was simple and striking and used dramatic geometric motifs to create a contemporary allure. Whether exported or for the local market, these were designed for the independent modern woman.
Mozumdar was a Member, Governing Council, NID from 1977-81. Upon his return to Santiniketan he was invited to take on the role of Honorary Visiting Professor at Kala Bhavana, Vishwa Bharati from 1990-2002. He was also an advisor to the Board of Studies at Shilpa Sadan, Sriniketan. At the request of the University, he had put together a proposal on ‘How to set up a printing unit at Sriniketan’, although, ultimately nothing came of it. Visva Bharati University honoured his contributions by bestowing him with the Gagan-Abani Puraskar in 1999.
The return to Santiniketan in 1988, marks Mozumdar’s return to art. He created a series of calligraphic paintings, mostly monochromatic relieved at times by splash of red or blue, made with acid dyes on silk with a drop shadow effect to the clusters of script. These works too, exhibit Mozumdar’s lifelong preoccupation with text, however, unlike his designs which primarily use it as a pattern or motif, by using excerpts from Tagore’s poem Dinanto belay (End of the day) which has specific inferences of death and angst, the artist underlines certain conceptual preoccupations. This independent series, beautiful in its austerity marks the culmination of Mozumdar’s dynamic and syncretic vision that straddles the spectrum of both the arts and crafts and disavows stereotypical categorization.
Riten Mazumdar passed away in 2006 leaving behind an illustrious career spanning five decades. In his lifetime, Mozumdar had worked and exhibited prolifically both nationally and internationally, yet today his immense legacy remains largely forgotten. To redress this lacuna, Riten Mozumdar: IMPRINT foregrounds this pioneering polymath’s narrative which has, with time, been pushed to the margins of documented history.
This exhibition is the second show based on the ongoing research of Riten Mozumdar scholar Ushmita Sahu. A more compact iteration was exhibited at Chatterjee & Lal in 2019. The show assembles never before seen archival material including namdas, furnishings, dress and sarees, scarves, design samples, wood blocks, metal dice for jaali work, drawings, photographs, calligraphy paintings “Dinanto Belay” series and more.