The region of Kutch in North Western India is rich in vibrant and highly skilled textiles crafts, as many of my previous posts have highlighted. What I haven’t had space to discuss enough so far though, is the embroidery of Kutch. Kutchi embroidery alone has a multitude of varieties, styles, motifs and colours varying from community to community and region to region. As well as being a form of employment, produced as part of the maker’s dowry and a form of elaborate decoration, it tells specific details about the maker’s and wearer’s caste, social status and religious affiliation.
Girls are taught embroidery by their mothers at an early age, and the art is passed down from generation to generation. The young girl’s skill at embroidery can help her to find a good match in marriage.
Embroidery is done mainly by herding and farming communities, such as the Rabaris, Ahir and Soda Rajputs, traditionally producing fro their own use.
Mirrors or abhla are a inherent part of many embroidery styles in Kutch, making the fabrics glisten and shine. Various representations have been assigned to mirrors, such as water and its importance in such a dry region and their purpose in warding off the evil eye.
It is also possible that the use of mirror work in embroidery has its roots in Islamic art and architecture. Eiluned Edwards tells us that the ‘use of reflective surfaces was introduced to India during the Sultanate period and later consolidated by the Mughals. According to Indo-Persian philosphy, light was a manifestation of the divine at work in the world.’ An example of mirrors used in Islamic architecture is the Sheesh Mahal, the Palace of Mirrors in Lahore, built by the creator of the Taj Mahal, Emperor Akbar the Great.
There are distinct different variations in Rabari embroidery across the different Rabari sub groups. The three groups in Kutch are the Kutchi, Dhebaria and Vagharia. All trace their ancestry to the mythical Sambal, created by Lord Shiva to look after camels. Rabaris in Northwest India migrated from the Thar desert in Rajasthan in search of good grazing lands, camel breeding and herding being their primary occupations. Embroidery is an important part of a Rabari woman’s life, evident in the unwavering work put into her embroidery on a daily basis and visible in various important garments such as the choli, shawl and skirts, most elaborately embroidered for ceremonial wear such as weddings. Mirrors are used in various shapes and sizes and abstracted forms of scorpions, peacocks and parrots as well as flowers and geometric patterns are embroidered in chain stitch and accent stitches in bold colours. Back stitch bakhiya is also used to decorate the seams of women’s blouses and men’s kediyun jacket.
The Mutwa Muslim community live in various parts of the Banni region of Kutch. Their embroidery is extremely intricate and following the Islamic prohibition of depicting human or animal figures, their designs are mainly geometric and are characterised by fine stitches in bright, and sometimes metallic thread on silk or satin.
The painstakingly skilled suf embroidery is based on the triangle ‘suf’. It is counted on the warp and weft threads from the back and worked in satin stitch. The motifs are delicate geometric and floral. The above scarf was given to me by the Kala Raksha team as I left my position there. This quirky design is illustrating 2 crows who are unable to get the water out of the large heavy pot. One of the crows, the clever one, puts stones into the water one by one so that it will rise and be easier to drink from.
The Ahir who are traditional nomadic pastoral cowherds, claim to be descendants of Lord Krishna and migrants from the northern city of Mathura. Their embroidery is distinguished by the chain stitch that outlines the design and herringbone which is used to fill them in. Designs are influenced by the embroiderers’ surroundings and motifs include flowers, scorpions, peacocks, parrots, elephants and milkmaids. Mirrors, abhla are regularly incorporated into the designs.
Paako embroidery is practised by the Soda Rajput community and the term literally means ‘solid’. Chain and double button-hole stitches are used to create a tight, dense cloth of geometric and floral designs interspersed with mirrors.
Mochi / Ari Embroidery
Originally the style of trade embroideries for the royal courts of India, and exported to Europe for use as furnishings and hangings from the early seventeenth until the nineteenth century. Surat in Gujarat was the main production centre for these embroideries. The embroideries were typically worked in chain stitch using coloured floss on a white fabric stretched on a wooden frame. The image below shows the family of the late Adam Sangar producing Ari embroidery in the village of Mandvi in Kutch in 2008.
See my review of the SOAS exhibition World Eco Fibre and Textile Art where acclaimed Ari embroidery artist Asif Shaikh was talking and exhibiting.
The Garasia, Dhanetah and Fakirani Jats are all Sunni Muslims who have migrated from present-day Baluchistan, and are farmers and herders. Their embroidery is characterised by densely worked counted geometric patterns resembling cross stitch, and incorporating mirrors.
Patchwork and Applique
Across the villages of the banni (the large grassland area of Kutch), homes are adorned with quilts, usually produced by women as part of their dowry. The techniques of applique and patchwork are also what older women will work on, something easier on the eye than the fine detailed embroidery they would have been working on for so many years. Quilts are made up of layers of recycled fabric, including block printed ajrakh, a staple cloth worn by many men of the herding communities, and stitched together using running stitch and often interspersed with decorative stitches such as the bakhiya. Some are plain, others are adorned with rich patterned applique. Applique is also used to decorate the enveloped bag, the jild that holds all the items made and collected for the dowry.
Read more about Indian Embroidery in my review of Anne Morrell’s recent book Indian Embroideries.