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The Weaves of Antiquity

Beginning with the fine needle found at the excavated sites, this art seems to stretch back in antiquity to more than a thousand years and is now living in international haute couture

In the course of my research, I came across a certain type of embroidery that seemed to be common to a cer-tain type of people. When I asked them more questions on who they were, they said: “ We have come from thar par kar.” They are those who have crossed (par kar) the desert (Thar). These migrants who have come to India from the other side of the desert, irrespective of their settling in any part of the north western India, practise similar embroidery. They have not lost their cultural identity in terms of their embroidery. It is the embroidery tradition, mutwa and soonf, as they are called, that links them to the other side of the border. These people are scattered over the deserts in the border states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Various ethnic groups from the same ecological zone are seen to be practising the similar embroidery. As a matter of fact, this becomes the important aspect of their cultural affinity to the other groups scattered over the vast distances. Mutwa and soonf embroidery are perfect examples from the desert areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan which resonate of embroidery from Baluchistan and Afghanistan.

While these are obvious areas of cultural influences that have travelled across and along with people, many influences have come and gone to be quietly absorbed in the existing local craft, in an almost unnoticeable way.

North-west India constitutes six major states of the country. These are Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and, Jammu and Kashmir.

Many of these states have been important trade routes across Asia since ancient times. This has resulted in many cultural influences from other countries. The area around Gujarat has been a notable centre for European trading companies who were exporting bulk embroidered textile goods.

It was only along the Indus river plain, the distinguished part of north-west India, that communities with settled urban culture started to appear. This part of the Indian subcontinent along the plains of the river Indus plain has some of the best archaeological sites depicting the Indus culture which has extended up to Dhaulavira in the Rann of Kutch, Gujarat and Rakhigarhi in Bannavali, Haryana. The discovery of the thin bronze needles in the excavations are exclusive attributive evidences of the decorative surface ornamentation of the manufactured textiles. This is also corroborated by the wrap worn by the excavated bust of the priest king from Mohen-jo-daro, Indus Valley.

The conventional and traditional embroi-deries of North-West India have specific references to the style and the techniques which are clearly understood in their cultural framework. Thus an embroidered fabric is not an exclusive piece of skilled display of any individual embroiderer but the expertise of the several who worked on the piece following the trail of the sequence.

Fundamentally, the embroidery styles of each of these states are regionally distinguished. The distributive character of these regional distinctions may be varied. Some of the embroidery styles elucidate the relationship between the people and their surroundings while others reverberate the historicity of the linkages, cultural affiliations, migrations and the settlements.

Interestingly, each of these states has independent schools of needle work which have allured the native user for ages. Embroidery in these regions has been a commercial activity as well as a household activity. The finest examples of embroideries were produced for the court, temple, market and household.

Embroidery patterns from the region

The mountainous regions of Kash-mir and Himachal Pradesh have nurtured specific embroidery stitches in local stylised picturesque depictions.

The styles practised in the Kashmir Valley include sozni, rezkar, tilla dori work, crewel embroidery, watchikan, and papier maché designs. The range of embroidered forms include wraps, costumes, furnishing items and accessories. The designs and motifs in Valley embroidery are mainly of the natural flora and fauna of the valley along with depiction of scenes of processions of the nobility. Sozni or the amlikar embroidery is the extension of the rafugar stitch practised in the 18th century to join the woven Jamavar shawls. This is the basic darning stitch employed to create very fine minute designs. Dorukha shawl in this stitch is one of the finest examples.

Chamba embroidery of Himachal Pradesh manifests the skilled use of double satin stitch on the body and the stem stitch on the outlines in the polycoloured silk thread. Popularly known as the Chamba rumals, this embroidery was practised earlier in the Chamba, Bilaspur, Nurpur, Kangra, Basholi regions of Himachal Pradesh. With the concentration of embroiderers around Chamba, the designs depict the narratives of the Krishna legends and other themes in double satin stitch. This gives the unique mirror image patterns on both the sides. The rumals are not only noted for their rich aesthetic effect but also for significance of the subject matter.

Pichvai of Rajasthan done in the fine chain stitch with silk thread are the back drops used for the Shrinathji Temple (Shrinath is another name for Lord Krishna). This is another localised tradition which depicts Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, with dark blue face.

Punjab and Haryana states have the tradition of embroidered shawls done collectively by the womenfolk for marriage presentations. Popularly called phulkari, this style depicts many regional distinctions. Characteristically using floss silk in monochromatic colour scheme, it generally employs false satin stitch along with the stem stitch. The Punjab phulkaris are primarily geometric depictions, while those from Haryana include the fine pictorial motifs. Bagh is the relevant example from Punjab and sainchi from Haryana. Caste, religion and ethnicity have also considerably influenced the various styles of the embroideries in this part of the India.

Meghavals, Rabaris, Raikas, Ahir, Mochi, Banni and several other groups have their distinctive embroidery styles. The powerful impact of religiosity and ethnicity is distinctly visible in the visual imagery of the embroiderers.

Rabaris are a community spread in Rajasthan, particularly in the district of Kutch. The rulers of Kutch, the Jadeja Rajputs were the patrons of the mochi bharat kam also known as ‘ari work'. The shoe makers or the mochis worked with a small crochet-hook-like instrument called ari to decorate the silk garments and the decorative objects with the chain stitch. The lyrical compositions of peacocks, alternated with maidens and flowers with a typically graded colour scheme are some examples.

Some of the settlers from other countries, when settled in these regions, continued to practise their indigenous styles of embroidery.

Chinai is the type of Chinese embroidery practised by the descendants of the Chinese embroiderers settled in Surat, Gujarat during the nineteenth and twentieth century. These groups are making long borders in fine Chinese stitch even today. They are attached to saris or other dresses as borders.

Today, Indian embroidery has been well taken into international haute couture. Consequently, various traditional embroideries have found a foothold in fashion houses.

Hand embroidery is a time consuming art. Increased demand of this handiwork affects the quality. Therefore when designers think of adapting various traditional embroidery techniques in contemporary fashion usage, it is important for them to gauge the availability of the talent available for this kind of handiwork.

Institutional efforts are now being made for developing talent among the younger generation without losing out on the quality and the fineness of traditional styles. These can be effectively used in contemporary dress, furnishing and accessories. Few of the notable efforts include large size screens developed from the Chamba rumal tradition by Crafts Council of India, while maintaining the excellence of the embroidered stitch.

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