Weaving magic out of threads to revive the charm of Indian embroideries is behind the resurgence of this traditional craft. Akrati Bhatia and Aasim Zaidi explore the world of needles and threads
ndia&’s diversity is reflected in its art and craft. This is all the more true of embroidery, which has been made down the ages in all parts of the country. Mesmerising in its looks, embroidery has been a favourite with designers and is part of every woman&’s home and wardrobe. Whether it is the rich and famous, including royalty, or a simple tribal, embroidery transcends all. From tradition to contemporary styles, this art has the power to turn heads.
Indian embroidery forms are famous the world over and remain a living heritage in the country&’s rich textile industry, its rich and glorious traditions effortlessly interlinking myths, human hands and time. As with any dynamic art, embroidery too has evolved over the ages and faced the ravages of time. Often a poignant story behind struggling artisan families, several embroidery forms have been lost, some without trace. A few are sketchily made as the march of development and modern lifestyle takes over.
Bid to revive
Several projects and attempts have been undertaken over the years to revive and promote many forms of embroidery. Some have met with success and several forms are well known across the country and beyond. To name some, Chikanakari from Lucknow has found its way into several upmarket shops and designer clothes. Similarly, Kantha embroidery, which began as a means to stitch together babies’ swaddling clothes, is now found on designer clothes and home furnishings. Kutchi and Rabari embroidery forms are also a success story and who is not aware of Kashmiri embroidery or weaving techniques from West Bengal and Kancheepuram.
Sadly, not all have been lucky. Several techniques were handed down from mother to daughter and often the threads got lost. Some of the fading weaves include Kota doriya, which is fast losing its sheen as a sari fabric and is now being used in furnishings. Parsi embroidery is an example of how a century-old art can be so relevant, without putting up with those bleeding colors. Parsi embroidery is a unique part of India&’s diverse textile heritage. This unique artistic tradition has its roots in Iran from the Bronze Age but with time it has drawn influences from European, Chinese, Persian and Indian culture. Also in the list is Ajrakh, which is another remarkable example of the longevity and durability of craft in India. Ajrakh prints are dominated by the use of intense patterning and jewel-like colors: rich crimson and deep blue, black outlines and white accents are all obtained from natural dyes and fixed with an eco-friendly mordant and are in harmony with nature.
With a wide list of names in Indian embroideries the question that urgently rises towards our authorities, and in fact every individual, is: What is being done to revive and preserve our fading art and culture? Designer and master embroiderer from Ahmedabad, Asif Shaikh, who has been over the past two decades trying to revive Indian embroidery forms, said, “I as an individual, cannot make things right alone. Though I have been providing the artisans working with me, with all the basic needs of food, proper light, proper housing in my workshop itself and education to their children, there are thousands of artisans in our country still neglected.” He also felt that the authorities could initiate a better step towards this than an individual alone.
Stating that Indian embroidery art forms received much appreciation abroad, Shaikh said, “I have seen tears in people&’s eyes. We being in India do not realise its true value”.
Speaking about designers, the master embroiderer said, “What people do not realise is that these designers, who do not have knowledge about the background of different embroidery techniques, are destroying the livelihood of artisans. All they are interested in is earning a quick buck. Machine embroidery cannot replace the skills of indigenous artisans. These designers have no interest in preserving our rich embroidery styles for the future generation.”
Shaikh also believes that collaborations with designers can help many local craftsmen to improve their skills and adapt to modern times. "Designers today are using a lot of Indian embroideries in their works. If they don’t source it and rather work directly with the craftsmen, this in a way will not only help these people in generating income, but also teach them to provide high-quality designs," he added.
Culture minister Chandresh Kumari Katoch, who inaugurated an exhibition of Indian embroidery forms, titled Resurgence, said, “India has a huge untapped potential of craftsmen and artisans. A platform like Resurgence paves way for the restoration of indigenous handicrafts and enhances inter-state cultural discourse. It&’s overwhelming to see Indian handicrafts getting huge recognition across the globe.”
Over the years, several products such as Darjeeling tea, Kolhapuri chappals, or the Bikaneri bhujia have acquired a brand name associated with their respective areas. However, embroideries from various parts of India still await recognition. Sadly, when other countries are busy promoting their exclusive products to ensure growth and profitability, the Indian embroidery artisans are on the verge of being obliterated and unrecognised.
In a bid to revive Indian embroidery, some of them on the brink of extinction, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA), in collaboration with Asif Shaikh, an Ahmadabad-based expert in Indian textiles, showcased a variety of embroidery forms enhanced with modern techniques at an exhibition titled Resurgence: Revival of Indian Embroideries. The exhibition was the result of 20 years of effort by Shaikh, who curated the collection and has also been responsible for revival of some of the rarest and almost extinct embroideries in the country. “I have been working on it for over 20 years and the idea is to use these traditional textile techniques in a contemporary style," Shaikh explained. "It’s about re-inventing our dying craft and Resurgence is all about that and letting the world know about our rich heritage." said Shaikh, who is also a designer and master em
On display were intricate weaves of Zardozi, Parsi style embroidery, Danka embroidery with Zardozi work, bead work, Ajrak with embroidery, Soof embroidery, Rabari embroidery, Gotta-patti, Mughal designs and many more. Among the fading or extinct weaves and techniques are Karchobi, Aari work and Zardosi.
Caught in the frame
One of the finest embroideries was produced using Karchobi technique during the Mughal period. For centuries, the karchob, a traditional, horizontal, floor mounted frame, was used to create a spectrum of embroideries in India. In fact, the frame is so closely linked with the work, that the embroideries created on the karchob ~ though very different in the use of materials, techniques and effects ~ are traditionally referred to as Karchobi, which means “worked on the karchob” The karchob is a rectangular frame, which rests on wooden legs. The fabric to be embroidered is stretched across the framework. A karchob can vary in size ~ up to three meters in length and 60 inches wide. When working on large textiles, an embroiderer uses a large karchob and remains seated on the floor while working. For embroidery on small textiles a small karchob is used. “It’s very difficult to work on a karchob,” explained Shaikh. "In today’s fast-paced times when designers are jostling to make their presence felt, who has time for such painstaking job of producing designs on a karchob?"
Shaikh modified the karchob (frame), known as adda, used to hold the fabric. The modified scroll frame allowed one to experiment with different forms of embroidery. “While embroidery can be done in various ways: with the karchob, with a round frame, or without a frame, I think that working on the karchob extends the art of embroidery well beyond what is possible otherwise,” Shaikh said.
As the modified karchob allows up to 20 embroiderers to work at the same time on one piece of embroidery, it permits working on a large scale as well as volume for commercial production. Most of all, using a karchob helps give a perfect finish and polished look to the embroidery. Basically, two types of embroidery can be done on the karchob ~ Aari (chain stitch) with cotton, silk and metal thread with a number of variations in the stitch and zardozi, with metal thread and elements, once again using a variety of stitches.
Small and beautiful
Aari work involves working minute chain stitches using the Aari, a special needle with a notch at the head. The thread is pulled through the fabric from below to form a small loop through which the aari is used to pull the next loop. A continuous line of chain stitch is infused with fluidity as it traces the flowing outlines of motifs such as flowers and birds.
Shaikh&’s embroidery recreates the resplendence of Zardozi, metal thread embroidery, as created in imperial workshops of centuries past. Working with gold and silver threads, metal wires of different shapes and sizes (which are cut into required lengths) and metallic elements such as coiled wires (that are attached to the fabric by tiny stitches) he creates rich yet subtle works. “On completion it seems as if the fabric is embedded with silver and gold jewels,” explains Shaikh. Metal threads are looped through a needle and the motifs are embroidered wholly or partially in different stitches such as satin, chain, darning and stem stitches as well as couching. Most Zardozi motifs evolve from flowers, birds, animals, geometric and flowing designs.
Recreating a royal past
Inspired by old Mughal embroideries, Shaikh uses different zardozi techniques with stunning effects. He creates Vasli embroidery (similar to paste-board embroidery as practised in Europe) true to its painstaking traditional technique and effect. He first makes perfectly shaped, paper cut-outs of individual pieces of a motif that he has designed. He then stitches these pieces on to fabric and overlays thread on the paper with metal thread using stitches like the surface satin stitch to cover the paper. As the embroidery is very closely wrapped over the pieces it results in a flat, sheet-like metallic effect that has a rich, royal look.
Adding another interesting dimension to Shaikh&’s metal thread embroidery is Marodi work ~ Marodi means twisted. In this embroidery, the thread is twisted to make a yarn, and this twisted yarn is in turn used to work a twisted stitch that is akin to a loop that is twisted.
Untwisted thread can also be used to make the stitch. In this way, the simple karchob offers much scope
for embroiderers to create a range of exquisite embroideries for apparel, personal use and home decor