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Leather Embroidery and Applique of Gujarat

Craft, Handloom, Art

Leather Embroidery and Applique of Gujarat

Mohan, Ranjana

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Using leather, multi-coloured threads, mirrors and cotton cloth the craftspersons of the Meghwal Community from the Banni and Pachchhan areas of Northern Bhuj create the most astonishingly gay and cheerful leather panels, mirrors, chappals and other decorative and utilitarian items made of leather.

Leather work is a striking example of a craft that has successfully moved out of the village milieu into the urban market. The craftspersons fashion products of interest for the larger city markets with accustomed ease. Buying their raw materials locally – leather from Ahmedabad, mirrors from the village itself – they create products that are being marketed and sold internationally.

Craft Tradition
Legend has it that Lord Krishna once killed a devil and freed a thousand women from his captivity. These grateful devotees followed Lord Krishna to Dwarka and brought with them a rich and diverse collection of embroidery stitches from a thousand places. Thus the Rann of Kutch has the reputation of producing the best embroideries in the world, whether on cloth, leather, on any other surface.

Practitioners

Habu Nath Harizan, the craftsman interviewed, learnt the craft from his father at the age of 17. He is now 21, but does not remember or recall how the craft he practices originated.

Famous for their leatherwork and unusually bold patchwork, the Marwada Meghwal community originally came from Marwar, Rajasthan. In Kutch they function both as leather workers and wool weavers, living and working closely with the Maldhari Muslim cattle herders from whom they obtain the hide of dead animals.

The Meghwal women are skilled embroiderers and do colourful finely detailed wall painting. They gather in the evenings to embroider their own clothes and make pieces for sale to outsiders. The leatherwork and embroidery done by the Harijan community has evolved into contemporary leather products fashioned by the Harijan community: some embroidered, the rest decorated.

Process and Technique
While the men make the leather products – mirror panels and chappals the women do the embroideries on these products with multi-coloured threads. The process is simple: the leather – goat hide for mirrors and panels and camel hide for the footwear – is cut into the desired shape according to the article being produced. Camel leather is hard and does not lose shape. If the product has embroidery done on it, this it is done first and in all likelihood it is the women who do it, with multi-coloured cotton threads on chappals and on bedcovers. Sometimes the embroidery is done on cloth, which is stitched onto the leather but quite often it is done on leather itself. Common motifs are peacocks, parrots, temples, flowers, elephants and geometric shapes. The men now take over. In case the leather is to be dyed into a different colour the dyeing is done before making the final product, using local dyes. The leather is then punched with patterns, using different shaped hand-held punches, according to the craftspersons imagination: the outcome is an elegant patterned look. Different coloured cotton cloths are stuck to the back of the punched patterns using Fevicol and the result is a cheerful, patterned, multi-coloured look. The leather is finally hand stitched into the shape the craftsperson desires and it is further decorated by hand stitching multi-coloured threads or wool onto the leather seams.
The tools and materials are few: leather, bought in Ahmedabad and leather cutting tools, needle for stitching the leather seams, punches with different shapes to make holes and patterns in the leather, mirrors bought locally, cotton threads for stitching, multi-coloured threads for decoration and embroidery, Fevicol for gluing together the leather and coloured cloth.

Leather is the mainstay of the Harijan community and the entire community practices this craft. There is little agriculture to supplement the income of the craftspersons as the area is dry. In season the craftspeople grow bajra, jowar and groundnut – but little else.

Products
The products are gay and reasonably priced and sold in towns, on orders, at haats and exported.

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