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Abhas Costume of Kutch Region


Exquisitely styled and intricately embroidered, Abhas, the traditional costume of the region of Kutch, has entered the world of high fashion. Successfully adapted to modern styles by Anjali Mangaldas, this beautiful garment has become a rage with the fashion conscious women.

In the village of Kutch, the women looked beautiful in their fabulous Abhas as they swayed to the music. The twinkling lights played mischievously over the gold and thread embroidery while the sequins and badla work sparkled continuously. A woman in an abha, the traditional costume of the Khatri, Memon and Korja Muslim communities of Kutch is a sight to behold. This garment from Kutch, a district in Gujarat, has a history that is as colourful and exciting as the garment. In ancient times the women wore the abha embellished with beautiful tie-dye designs, zari thread embroidery that was very minute and intricate embroidery in coloured silk or cotton thread in a combination of a variety of stitches, integrating minuscule mirror discs into its elaborate and distinct pattern.

The word abha-has been derived from aba a word commonly used in the middle eastern countries which means a top garment or a mantle. The abha based on an age-old traditional classical cut and style, is basically a kalidar kurta without a slit on the sides, with a lose flair and it hangs lower than a normal kurta. The abha has been a collector’s item since the last four generations. The abha has been a collector’s item since the last four generations. The best have even been part of collections auctioned in the west by Christy’s and Sotheby’s Research scholars have not yet been able to pinpoint the historical period or influence on these costumes. Unfortunately modernity has compelled these lovely costumes into museums or wooden boxes in far off villages. The genuine abhas could be date back nearly a century.

Anjali Mangaldas from the well-known family of Hutheesing of Ahmedabad has worked tirelessly to revive the abha from its forgotten past. A student of textile designing, from the Royal College of Art in London and the Yale School of Art and Architecture in New Haven, USA, Anjali’s interest in costumes has been constant. In 1983 she decided to project the abha as it was meant to be. There is a new rage for ethnic Indian styles in the fashion market and the word abha is used for all kinds of embroidered garments which have no relation to the true abha. Over the past 30 years old authentic garments and costumes are becoming scarce as new mixed up versions keep appearing. Anjali however was not interested in cutting up folk embroidered pieces to patch up garments. She worked meticulously-for two years with tailors and craftsmen measuring and studying numerous abhas. What started off as a challenge developed into a small business. Soon word spread and people began to come to her for specially designed garments some her own and some belonging to others. But Anjalis emphasizes that the total revival of the abha is not possible because the highly refined and intricate tie-dye designs are not possible to recreate. Moreover there are no craftsmen left and the Atalas, Gaji and Chinese silks used are not available and real zari thread is extremely expensive to use. Also, sequins and other metallic material is not easily available in real gold or silver, which restricts the design. And so the only possibility left open for tapping the resources of craftsmanship in embroidery was to use the next best zari thread and material available to develop the new abha for the modern age. In her experiments, Anjali has retained the cut and style of the abha and in the embroidery she has explored the avenues of chain stitch and aari work in coloured silk thread as well.

The total garment consists of three parts, the abha, the kumbhi and the ijar.

The characteristic design of the abha is the tie-dye work on boarders of the hem and sleeves, a round medallion on the upper part of the sleeve, a yoke starting from the shoulder, both on front and back and making a typical geometrical form ending in a large half-stylized floral motif in the center of the abha. The simplicity or the intricacy of the tie-dye work and the amount of area it covers, denotes the degree of richness of the abha as per its use and by the age of the wearer. There are simpler ones for daily use and elaborate ones for special occasions. The materials used for the abha were Atalas of Gaji or a fine variety of Chinese silk and muslin cotton for the simpler ones. The garment is adorned with gold thread embroidery around the neck and shoulders. Even he seams which join the center portion to the two side pieces are adorned with embroidery or zari lace in the front and back. A typical neckline is a slitlike opening over the shoulder, equal on both sides fastened with a loop and a cloth ball-button to hold it in place. A few however do have front openings. The wedding abha is intricately embroidered on the entire yoke front, full sleeves, hem and seams and is a wonder of supreme craftmenship. Simpler abhas are embellished with golden tape or teiwork. The ancient abha is a tribute to the women of Kutch whose mastery over needle craft and aesthetic sensitivity were beyond compare.

The kumbhi or odhani is always a square with tie-dye work that is arranged in a pattern quite different from other odhanis. It is made of a single long piece of material like a sari with a zari pallu (corner) at one end. Woven straight on a loom and then cut in half and joined lengthwise together to make a slightly longish square with the pallu. The richer kumbhis have gold or badla sequins embroidery over the seam. The simpler ones have only zari lace attached over the longer borders. Very often the cruinkles of the tie-dye are retained to create an unusual effect.

The ijkar or the trousers were made of plain Atalas tie-dyed or plain Gaji or lined mushroom embellished with gold embroidery. The ijar borders are often embroidered to match the neck pattern of the abha. The more elaborate being embroidery upto 10-20 inches above the ankle border in various patterns.

The ancient abhas were embroidered with a special quantity of gold thread. A single thread was continuously arranged to fill out the pattern. Attached on the top surface of the material with yellow or saffron cotton thread stitched from underneath to form a uniform design of stitches. The whole area of embroidery was then beaten with a wooden hammer to flatten the thread, filling up the slight spaces in between and brightening the luster of the gold. Depending on the imagination of the craftsman and requirement of the design, sequins and other metallic embroidery were often added to the gold-thread embroidery. Today an abha can be valued in thousands. Anjali’s creations range from Rs.3500/- and Rs.25,000/-. The ancient abhas are of course priceless and those who value their worth are reluctant to part with them.

Anjali’s has experimented with hand-operated machine embroidery by itself and in combination with hand embroidery. She has evolved her own design arrangements within the limits of the cut and style of the garment without losing the essence of the costume.

No doubt those earlier abhas, now extinct in the region and mostly museum pieces, were refined and sophisticated to perfection in Banni region embroidery. There are innumerable beautiful and intricately embroidered folk costumes which have adorned the women of different cultures and communities around the world but the abha today is quite unique and distinguished by its special features from all other folk costumes of that region as well as anywhere else in the world.

It is remarkable that the abha holds its own high place even in a region renowned for its rich and varied tradition of embroidered costumes. Anjali Mangaldas ahs been responsible for organizing and establishing the Folk Art Museum of Gujarat which opened in 1976, which became a tourist attraction soon after. Today, the abha and Anjali mangaldas are synonymous as she has plunged all her energies into putting together a collection for the appreciation of the connoisseur and sharing the joy of creating something beautiful with all those who understand beauty.