Indian culture has a long and rich tradition of textiles along with elaborate ornamentation on those textiles. Excavations at Harappa in the Indus Valley have revealed needles and spindles, tracing back the tradition of weaving in India to five thousand years. Indian cotton and silks were traded with Rome and Greece in the ancient world and the beauty of Indian cotton is described by the ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Strabo. Chinese silk travelled the silk route to India and the Indian embroidery travelled back on the route to Europe.
India a source of textiles became a source of raw cotton for the Imperial British but the arts flourished hidden in family secrets and close knit communities. From the legendary fine muslins and Mulmuls of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar to the home spun Khadi in every village-a national symbol of Indian pride during the independence movement-textiles are enmeshed with the life of Indian people.
From wedding outfits to religious ornamentation, home décor and upholstery to wall hangings, textiles have been embellished, beautified, woven in particular styles, and hand printed with colors and designs unique to communities.
The crafts and technique learnt from forefathers is passed down families, sometimes a closely guarded secret known only to the ones who practice it. Patterns and styles of weaving have thrived and adapted to popular culture, though traditional motifs still remain strong and timeless.
Embroidery more commonly known as threadwork with a needle on cloth is one of the richer traditions of India, deeply entrenched in the life of the artists who create it. Beginning from royal courts, which patronized the craftsmen, to tribal women who are still the torchbearer of family craft, embroidery lives on in clothes, religious ornamentation, in dupattas, saris, bags, umbrellas, and home décor …the list is endless. Even now the hand embroidered works have an imperfection and beauty unrivalled by the machine embroidery.
Every region in India has its own particular style of embroidery. From the use of cotton, silk or metal thread to floral and geometric patterns, inlaid with mirrors or beads, or even knotted thread, the variation in style, pattern and even the colors used, changes from state to state, and even in villages within a particular state.
In fact in some regions the needlework is a woman’s domain, possibly the only outlet for her artistic talents. The tribal Rabari women of Gujarat showcase their odhnis, ghagras and cholis with inlaid mirror work and the Meitei women of Manipur, embroider shawls so closely worked that they pass for weaves.
From Kashmir, the fabled Paradise on Earth, comes the delicate hand embroidery done with silk thread on silk cloth in patterns of flowers and leaves .The Chinar leaf, the lotus, the rosebud, the parrot and the peacock are all expressed in the art which adorns the traditional Phirans (long woolen Kurtas) and the shawls. This is in contrast to the bold lines of Phulkari, done with silk thread on cotton, popular in Punjab and the Aari work of Gujarat in which the painstakingly etched out pattern is stitched with a long awl like needle picking on the thread, held under the cloth.
Once created for Royals, the Zari and Zardozi live on today in Varanasi, Lucknow, Agra, and Bhopal. Zardozi- embroidery with metallic threads- which once adorned the turbans and dresses of maharaja and maharanis is now widely seen in saris, wedding dresses and formal wear. For Zari, silver, gold and copper is melted and thin threads drawn out, which then are either woven with silk or cotton or used for embroidery. Pearls, beads, sequins, metal pieces are used for further embellishment. A latest twist has been the use of crystal.
The handlooms move in synchronization to create yards and yards of exquisite fabric in a variety of textures and patterns, most commonly used for draping saris-the popular garment for Indian women. Maheshwari and Chanderi of MP, Kanjeevaram of Tamil Nadu, Banarasi Silk of UP, Venkatgiri and Narayanpet of Andhra are but a few. The rich woven cotton and silk of Jamdani of Andhra Pradesh, and the light frothy Kota Doria of Rajasthan epitomize the contrasts which spoils you for choice.
Use of embroidery and Zari further enhances the beauty of the sari. In Bengal the Kantha embroidery on the earthy texture of Tussar silk saris, and in Tamil Nadu the heavy brocade of the Kanjeevaram, are examples of the ingenuity and craft of the Indian artisan
Printing techniques on fabrics
Along with embroidery, fabric is beautified by colorful prints. Here, too, regional techniques are varied. Craftsmen of Rajasthan, the desert state, produce the most colorful printed fabric. The technique also native to Rajasthan is the tie and die, Bandhej or Bandhini. Small knots of cloth tied with a thread and the entire fabric printed in vegetable colors produce vibrant patterns with dotted white circles. Variations on the Bandhej are the batik and the Leheria- a particular wavy design of the Bandhini in which an entire length of cloth is dyed in different colors. Sanganer and Bagru in Rajasthan have a technique of hand block printing patterns of flowers on quilts and cloth. Here, wooden blocks with intricate patterns carved on them are dipped in color and then imprinted on the fabric.
Kalamkari of Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh uses a pen like tool to draw patterns on cotton with vegetable and mineral dyes. Small piece are hand drawn and the larger block printed. Born as an art form to wandering minstrels embellishing their songs with illustrations, Kalamkari found its way to temples where even today you can find large religious panels.
Bagh, hand block prints from a small tribal town in Madhya Pradesh, is a study in contrast to the vibrant pulsating colors of Rajasthan. Black and red prints sharply contrasting on a white background with intricate geometric and floral motifs, impossible to replicate in machine printing, is a Bagh specialty. The fabric is painstakingly washed and a piece sometimes takes weeks to complete.
The plethora of styles, weaves, embroideries and patterns, in India, has a common factor, the painstakingly etched out designs carefully handcrafted and the amazing needle work by the master craftsmen and women. The motifs maybe modernized but the beauty is undimmed, only richer with the passage of time.