Embroideries by women in Asia have in the last decades been increasingly seen as a subject of study by cultural historians, anthropologists, and women studies scholars. These domestic embroideries, whether for daily use or as part of a trousseau, constitute a visual language, embedded with meanings that served as cultural markers of identity. An orally transmitted tradition, embroidery embodies the cultural pollinations that influence societies and play a dominant role in women’s lives.
It can be reasonably inferred that sewing skills have existed since the origin of the cultivation and weaving of cotton cloth. Though no extant tangible evidence of embroidered pieces are available in the Indian sub-continent prior to the late fifteenth century, archaeological finds in the ancient cities of the Indus Valley have unearthed bronze needles, indicating the existence of sewing skills as early as c 2000 BC. Furthermore, literary references, paintings and the plastic arts suggest that advanced and sophisticated techniques existed for embellishing woven cloth, leading to the conclusion that embroideries have been practiced in the Indian subcontinent for several millennia.
The cultural landscape of Asia has been bound together by a history of trade, migration and conquest, fostering cultural interactions that influenced and enriched embroidery styles. Fresh influxes of craft skills, motifs and symbolism were brought to various parts of Asia with the spread of religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Along the ancient trade routes, whether overland or maritime, all manner of goods were sold and purchased, among them sacred and secular textiles and embroideries. Thus disseminated across Asia, embroidery styles arrived in alien lands, intermingling with indigenous material cultures to create new vocabularies of technique and form. Examples of such cultural interaction may be evidenced in the Chikankari embroidery of Lucknow, the convent embroideries of Tamil Nadu, the tankha embroideries of the Buddhists and the Parsi Zoroastrian embroideries.
Chikankari embroidery, executed on the finest white muslin using white thread, is reputed to have been introduced into India during the reign of the Mughal emperor Jehangir (1605-27) by his wife Noor Jehan, the daughter of a Persian nobleman. Its floral motifs continue to be embroidered by women in and around Lucknow to this day. The cutwork embroideries of Tamil Nadu, termed as convent embroideries, were brought to India by the Christian missionaries who came into India with the East India Company, but the tradition has been strengthened and indigenized over the past hundred years. Sewn in luminous colours, the embroidered Buddhist tankhas can be seen in monasteries across Asia, from Sikkim in India to Mongolia, China and Tibet. An eclectic mix of cultural influences from Persia, China, India and Britain have combined with Zoroastrian symbolism to form the hallmark of the sophisticated Parsi embroideries reflected in the resplendent garas (saris), jhablas (jackets), and kors (borders). Cultural influences and embroideries originating in one culture and transferred to another took on a different meaning with modified motifs, color and placements, adapted according to suit the cultural receptivity of their new homelands.
Running parallel to the development of professionally embroidered goods for commerce and embroideries created in the karkhana workshops for the princely courts was the quiet, ongoing development of domestic embroideries. Almost always created by women in their homes for their own or for that of their families, for gifts and as part of their trousseaus, these embroidered objects were functional, even utilitarian, but always beautiful. Customised to individual choice, personal requirements and taste, even the smallest, most insignificant pieces were embroidered with a sophistication of design and pattern that reflected the experiences, values and economic circumstances of the embroiderers. They spoke of a culture and place and of a traditional visual language and technique, of diversity and commonalities within and among communities.
The importance of embroidery as a repository of the oral traditions of communities and as a link to unwritten histories is ably demonstrated in the extant traditions of several Asian communities where, in the absence of a written language, women used embroidery to record their experiences. The embroideries of the women of the remote and relatively isolated Li ethnic community in the Hainan Province of China are just one example where a rich, unbroken history can be traced back to the pre-Qin dynasty. Passed on through generations of women, their use of motifs and patterns provide insights into Li traditions and serve as the primary means of documenting their past. This oral transmission over generations has been maintained and continues in a culture that still has no written script. Indeed, the very uniqueness of the Li identity seems integral and connected to their embroideries and their process of creation. The meaning of the embroidered motif being as important as its ornamental value, the symbolism of an embroidery imbued it with an added dimension of value. As Li embroideries have been exclusively produced by women, they showcase a visual record of women’s view of their culture and traditions, and thus provide valuable historical, material and sociological information about their lives.
Often, using designs without any references or samples, yet in accordance with collective cultural memory, women’s domestic embroideries express an individual aesthetic within a framework of community tradition. Conforming to cultural expectations and representing generations of accumulated beliefs, the semiotics of the motifs, colours and patterning are clearly understood in different geographies within their region and by others who interact with their culture. Defining communities and tribes and signalling cultural differences, embroideries help individual groups express their identities, and their religious, occupational and group affiliations. In the Suzani embroideries of Uzbekistan for instance, regional differences between the cities of Bokhara, Samarkhand, Nurata, Tashkent, Pskent, Fergana and others were subtly distinguishable through the use of colour and design by the embroiderers, with the variations allowing for identification of the origin of the embroidery. The ethnicity and tribal affiliation of communities such as the Jats, Sodha Rajputs, Rabaris and other herding and farming communities of the Kutch and Saurashtra regions in Gujarat, the adjoining areas of western Rajasthan and the contiguous belt of the Thar Parkar region in Sind, Pakistan, can be read from their dress and embroideries. Likewise, the distinct red, blue and black embroidery on the rough, specially woven, white cotton drape known as puthukuli distinguish the Toda tribals who live in the Nilgiri hills of South India. Similarly, the Li embroideries of Hainan Province establish their group identity while distinct features such as the double faced embroidery of the women of the Run-dialect-speaking community distinguish the five major Li sub-groups.
Women embroider their dreams for a good husband, many healthy, children, fertile harvests, and protection from harm and ill fortune. The iconography not only marks tribal and community affiliations, it reflects the belief that the embroidered motifs are powerful portents and represent more than the embellishment and decorative surface that meets the eye. West Bengal and Bangladesh are renowned for their Kantha embroidery. Originating as a means of reusing and refurbishing of old, cotton saris and dhotis, the running stitch embroidery of Kantha fashions from textiles that are worn out with repeated use layered new quilts, spreads, wraps and small items of everyday use. Motifs imbued with symbols of blessings, protective and talismanic, social and religious, were embroidered on the layered cloth to be used as occasion demanded. In Karnataka, the woven blue-black Chandrakali sari presented to new brides is embellished with Kasuti embroidered auspicious motifs and symbolic blessings. An embroidered toran strung across a doorway in Gujarat does not only serve as a welcome to visitors; the embroidered motifs present powerful auspicious and protective symbols for the home and hearth. Similarly, the nomadic Banjara tribes spread across the geographic swath of Andhra, Maharashtra and Karnataka use mirrored embroidery to deflect the evil eye while in the Parsi Zoroastrian embroidery tradition, the motif of the divine fungus gives protection and symbolizes longevity and immortality.
From the Hainan province in China to remote areas in Laos, across the arid areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India to Uzbekistan, women’s embroideries have formed an integral part of their trousseau. Embroidery requires time, concentration, skill, commitment, an aesthetic sense and an in-depth understanding of the tradition within which the embroiderer is working – all qualities that are looked for in a prospective bride. Young girls learn the embroidery arts from an early age as preparation for betrothal and marriage. From the Punjab in India comes the Phulkari, a genre that includes the Bagh and the Chope embroideries started by the maternal grandmother and mother on the birth of her child. Wedding embroideries are made to drape the bride, be held as canopies at the wedding and as gifts to the groom’s family. The yellow or red Chope are imbued with wishes for prosperity, fertility and a loving union. In a similar vein, the Suzani dowry embroideries of Uzbekistan include awnings for the bride and groom, wall panels, and coverings such as the ruidzho bridal bedcover and other articles, the choice of colour and embroidered motifs of each symbolise fertility, prosperity and marital happiness. The splendid dowry embroideries of the Kutch and Saurashtra region in Gujarat, and the adjoining areas of western Rajasthan are well documented. In fact, embroidering for a dowry had become such an elaborate and time-consuming process that village elders of the Dhebaria Rabaris in Kutch imposed a ban on dowry embroideries to prevent the women from feeling pressured into complying with the rigorous dowry requirements of the community.
The complexity of stories that can be told through embroideries is reflected in domestic pictorial traditions that have been translated into embroideries, narrating folklore, legends and religious stories. The embroidered Chamba Rumals originating in the erstwhile Pahari Kingdoms, now in Himachal Pradesh are a case in point. Used as covers for ritual offerings, for gifts on ceremonial occasions and as wall hangings, the rumals depict images from the great epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Krishna Leela. These sophisticated embroideries executed in a refined colour palette were sewn by upper class women from the princely courts. The illustrations were outlined in charcoal and were often even marked with suggestions on the colour scheme by skilled miniature artists who were associated with the court. Using skeins of untwisted floss silk on a cotton base with running stitch for the outline and darn stitch for the filling, the vividly picturised embroidered scenes appear exactly the same on both side of the fabric. Outside the courts of Chamba where local women did not have access to the skill of miniature artists, the rumals existed as a folk tradition in which mythological events were embroidered on hand-spun cotton in bold colours that had a vibrancy and spontaneity in their narration of the legends and mythic stories. Over the last two decades the contemporary pictorial Sujnis’ of Bihar, embroidered for commercial markets, are narrations that do not tell religious stories as much as attempt to address issues of everyday existence. The embroideries tapping into the creativity of the women teem with narrative vigour, energy and minute detailing expressing surprisingly liberated images and thought. The significance of these embroideries lies in these stories that they tell of their lives from the problems of dowry to the importance of using condoms to prevent AIDS.
As communities have grown and changed, the spread of education for girls, exposure to media, increased connectivity and availability of all manner of goods has led to economic and social transformations leading to an increasing commercialization of embroideries that were earlier done only for domestic purposes. The recognition of the embroidery skills of women by marketers and development agencies and their subsequent harnessing has created a significant commercial product both for the domestic and overseas markets.
The work of organizations with the Meghwal, Suthar, Jat, Rabari and other communities in Barmer, Rajasthan and Kutch, Gujarat and the commercialisation of the distinct embroideries of the Lambadis, the nomadic Banjara community, the Sujani of Bihar and the Kantha embroideries of West Bengal and Bangladesh is just a small part of a story replicated across many cultures. Domestic embroideries have achieved the status of a readily marketable product – providing employment, income and thus empowerment to women embroiderers.
This commercialisation of production called for a modification in design and product range to suit the market. Adapting to changing trends has generated incomes for the embroiders, thereby assisting in the economic advancement of the women of these communities, and by extension, in granting them increased confidence and self esteem. The shift in the embroiderer’s conception of their craft – as a labour of love fashioning familiar objects of everyday use for themselves and their families, to a marketable skill, used to create products intended for the use of unknown customers in distant markets – has taken its toll on the craft form. Design content is often standardised, dictated by pricing structures and wages. It may be argued that this phenomenon has reduced creativity or resulted in a loss of authenticity but it is equally true that when handled sensitively, the mutation of traditional craft into an item of global consumption has enabled its continuity and the empowerment of its practitioners.
First published in “Sui Dhaga – Crossing Boundaries through Needle and Thread (Wisdon Tree).