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India is world renowned for its embroidered textiles. The belt comprising Kutch and Saurashtra up through northern Gujarat to western Rajasthan and the Thar Parkar district of Sind in Pakistan is the world's richest source of folk embroidery. These land are scrublands, little of which is cultivatable and only affords seasonal pasture for the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and camels. The people who live here therefore are small-holding pastoralists with merchant and artisan communities in the towns. They are divided by caste which, as in the rest of India, usually relates to hereditary occupation.
Each caste passes on unchanged from generation to generation its own distinct designs, colours and range of stitches which form an important part of the caste's cultural identity. They are worn as proud badge of caste cultural identity - caste and social status is indicated by colours and materials.
All these people share a common dowry tradition, which although outlawed in India, still persists The wife will bring with her to her new home costumes for the bride and groom, trappings for domestic animals and hangings for the home, all intricately embroidered. Most of these were traditionally stitched by village women, for themselves and their families, to create festivity, honor deities, or generate wealth. While embroideries contributed to the substantial economic exchange required for marriage and fulfilled other social obligations which required gifts, unlike most crafts, they were never commercial products.
Embroidery also communicates self and status. Differences in style create and maintain distinctions that identify community, sub-community, and social status within community. The "mirror work" of Kutch is really a myriad of styles, which present a richly textured map of regions and ethnic groups. Each style, a distinct combination of stitches, patterns and colors, and rules for using them, was shaped by historical, socio-economic and cultural factors. Traditional but never static, styles evolved over time, responding to prevailing trends.
Here are some of the styles of work - this is not an all encompassing list, there are many many more local styles.
From Pakistan, specifically Thar Parkar province and from western Rajasthan, designs are abstract or very formalised representations of flowers, foliage and disguised birds on red ground with mirrors (shisha) or, metal threadwork on a black ground. Mostly produced by Meghwal leather workers, but also by Lohana and Memon merchants, Pali and Dars landowners, Sutar carpenters and some Muslim herding castes.
What can be loosely called the Kutchi style is practised by Ahir herders, Kanbi farmers and Rabari shepherds, Kutchi is characterised by chain and open-chain stitching and the use of lots of mirrors. Motifs are floral as well as parrots, peacocks and occasionally human figures appear in the form of women churning butter or carrying water pots on their heads. A variety of colours are used usually on red, orange, white, black or green ground of cotton or satin.
Originating with the Kathi landlord caste, but now produced mostly by Mahajan or Bania merchant castes and the Kanbi farmers, Kathipa is characterised by the use of heer (floss) silk in elongated darn stitch running horizontally and vertically. Designs are geometric with an applique outer border, an inner embroidered border and the main field either a checkerboard of eight-pointed stars or an arrangement of diamonds and triangles. The heer silk is usually purple or red with white yellow or green used as highlights and mirrors set into the borders and at the junctions of the design.
The Ahir, Kanbi, Satwara, Mehr and Aboti of Saurashtra are all prolific embroiderers. The patterns they use are based on naturalistic flowers, animals, birds and human figures outlined in cotton chain stitching and filled in with herringbone stitch in cotton or silk. Colours are bright reds, greens, yellows, blues and browns, usually on white, yellow or orange cotton ground, which goes well with the mud-coloured walls of their communities.
Suf is a painstaking embroidery based on the triangle, called a "suf." Suf is counted on the warp and weft of the cloth in a surface satin stitch worked from the back. Motifs are never drawn. Each artisan imagines her design, then counts it out --in reverse! Skilled work thus requires an understanding of geometry and keen eyesight. A suf artisan displays virtuosity in detailing, filling symmetrical patterns with tiny triangles, and accent stitches.
Khaarek is a geometric style also counted and precise. In this style, the artisan works out the structure of geometric patterns with an outline of black squares, then fills in the spaces with bands of satin stitching that are worked along warp and weft from the front. Khaarek embroidery fills the entire fabric. In older khaarek work, cross stitching was also used.
Paako literally solid, is a tight square chain and double buttonhole stitch embroidery, often with black slanted satin stitch outlining. The motifs of paako, sketched in mud with needles, are primarily floral and generally arranged in symmetrical patterns. Ethnic styles express lifestyle. They are practiced by pastoralists whose heritage is rooted in community rather than land, and considered cultural property.
Rabari embroidery is unique to the nomadic Rabaris. Essential to Rabari embroidery is the use of mirrors in a variety of shapes. Rabaris outline patterns in chain stitch, then decorate them with a regular sequence of mirrors and accent stitches, in a regular sequence of colors. Rabaris also use decorative back stitching, called bakhiya, to decorate the seams of women's blouses and men's kediya/ jackets. The style, like Rabaris, is ever evolving, and in abstract motifs Rabari women depict their changing world.
Garasia Jat work is by Islamic pastoralists. Garasia women stitch an array of geometric patterns in counted work based on cross stitch studded with minute mirrors to completely fill the yokes of their churi, a long gown. This style, displaying comprehension of the structure of fabric, is unique in Kutch and Sindh.
The Mutavas are a small culturally unique group of Muslim herders who inhabit desert grasslands. The exclusive Mutava style comprises minute renditions of local styles: paako, khaarek, haramji and Jat work, though these are known by different names. Specific patterns of each style, such as elongated hooked forms and fine back stitch outlining in paako, and an all-over grid in haramji, are also unique to Mutava work. Though technique varies, Mutava style is uniformly fine and geometric.
Banjarra are a tribe of north Indian origin who moved south into the Deccan plateau more than 300 years ago as workers for the emperor Aurangzeb. They are sometimes called India's gypsies and may have some connection the the Romany and Gypsy people of Europe. They now live in several different parts of India. Their embroidery often uses a running stitch that results in a quilting effect. They use geometric patterns and a range of colours as well as cowrie shells, coins, and tassels to add to their work.
Patchwork and Appliqué
Patchwork and appliqué traditions exist among most communities. For many embroidery styles, master craftwork depends on keen eyesight. By middle age, women can no longer see as well and they naturally turn their skills and repertoire of patterns to patchwork, a tradition that was originally devised to make use of old fabrics.
Much of the good quality work that is available (in dwindling numbers) comes from the dowries of women who were married many years ago. Modern life has affected the lives of women who previously would have been banished into purdah where there was plenty of time to engage in embroidery. Nowadays, women spend their youth getting a good education instead of trying to learn the skills of their grandmothers. They are now exposed to television, movies, videos and magazines that were obviously unknown to their grandmothers and even to their mothers. They no longer want to wear the at times heavy and cumbersome garments of their ancestors and would rather spend their leisure time otherwise engaged than in embroidery.
Along with the breakdown of the caste system in many areas and the subsequent lack of a need to signify ones caste by clothing, this has meant a decline in the production of good quality embroidery. Much of what is still produced is of poor quality, destined to be sold to tourists in Delhi and Bombay. Although some areas such as Kutch, northwest Rajasthan and Sind where there has been little economic development, these skills are still alive and work is still produced, the amount is minuscule compared to years gone by.