The archaeological evidence with regard to embroidery can be traced back to many ancient
civilisations, ranging from Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Mexico. It bears testimony to the
value and importance given to the art of ‘embroidery’, both for it self as well as an instrument
of inter-and intra-cultural dialogue, even political diplomacy. Embroidered fabric adorned
royalty. It was valued at par with music, dance and poetry, and was important enough to be
transmitted from one generation of women to next.
Asia has been the home of many traditions of exquisite genres of embroideries which have a social
context, an artistic from and a symbolic value.
IIC – Asia Project has been, in its second phase, exploring the manner and method of transmission
of knowledge within each unit and its transmission across borders. The IIC – Asia Project
organized a programme in September 2005 on the theme Sui Dhaga: Crossing Boundaries through Needle
and Thread, comprising a seminar, an exhibition and a craft demonstration cum-workshop, in
collaboration with the Crafts Council of India. Through these inter-locked events, attention was
drawn to the role to women who have demonstrated a high degree of creativity. Through the humble
and ordinary needle and thread, they established many bridges of communication between and amongst
This volume comprises some to the essays presented at the seminar by participants ranging from
Palestine, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. These make explicit the rich
tradition of embroidery in a social, economic and political context.
Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, Chairperson of the IIC-Asia Project, conceived and designed the three
The India International Centre has, over the decades, taken policy decisions to focus on specific
issues or particular regions. The IIC-Asia Project was launched in 1997. In the first phase, a
series of seminars was organized focusing on particular regions of Asia covering the social,
economic and political dimensions. In the second phase, a thematic approach was adopted.
Consequently, programmes have been organized covering the themes: India and Asia: Aesthetic
Discourse; Transmission and Transformation: Learning through the Arts in Asia; Anthology of Asian
Women’s Writing; Sui Dhaga: Crossing Boundaries through Needle and Thread; and Culture of Indigo –
Exploring the Asian Panorama, as well as four festivals of documentary films made by Asian women
What would the world be if there were no needle and thread? Naturally, no stitched garments! No
designer clothes, and no sense of being adorned with costumes embroidered in innumerable patterns!
We take this for granted, consider embroidery to be as natural as water an air, the sun and the
earth. However, perhaps it has not occurred to us, the modern, empowered, elite society, that
embroidery is no longer a part of the skills of the women or men who have entered the ‘mainstream
of development’. Once we become highly educated, be it in the humanities or the sciences
technologies, there is neither room nor inclination to pursue these arts, and the ancient art of
embroidery is de-prioritised and forgotten. And yet, ironically women and men alike wear
embroidered clothes, drape shawls and pride themselves in acquiring kaanthas, exquisite chikan
work, along with phulkari, mirror work and much else. All this painstaking, dedicated artistry is
the work of men and women who are generally categorized as low in the socioeconomic scale and who
are, at the same time being encouraged to enter what has been called the ‘mainstream of
development’ through formal education and economic upliftment. Planners and educators alike need
to turn their attention seriously to this paradox where the creativity, skills and knowledge
systems of the socioeconomically disempowered are signatures of Indian identity of those who are
economically and socially empowered.
The IIC, in the Asia Project, with intention and design, decided to re-invoke the advocacy for
acknowledging the creativity which is unique to rural economy and social structure. Not only
Mahatma Gandhi but also pioneering women such as Kamaladevi Chattopoadhyaya were responsible for
giving status, dignity and value to the hand spun, hand woven and hand embroidered fabric.
Embroidery is one among such arts, today called crafts. It had been known in ancient
civilisations, whether Mesopotamia or Mohenjodaro, China or Egypt, Russia or Mongolia, Tibet or
Kyrgystan, Mexico or Puerto Rico. There is no country in the world, ancient or contemporary, which
does not pride itself on the distinctive skills of embroidery. In ancient times, embroidery was an
essential accomplishment of the woman. She wove her life into that embroidery, sent messages
through its patterns, waited for heroes to return. She laughed and wept with the needle and the
Embroidered cloth then was a powerful, multi meaning instrument of communication. It represented
royalty was used in diplomacy and was the healing soothing therapy of women in distress. It is
through their embroidery that they communicated, through their embroidery they expressed their
hopes, and through their embroidery and its patterns that they dried their tears.
Today, when these very embroideries have become the only instruments of livelihood and have been
displaced from life cycle. intercommunity dialogue and intra—regional communication, there are
very serious questions to be asked. N 0 longer is the mother transmitting her knowledge and her
values through the patterns of the phulkari; no longer does the phulkari stand for class or
estimating the social status by the number of phulkari’s a household owned. Earlier the phulkari
could be localised in terms of design, the part it played in the life cycle. in the annual cycle.
It was an indicator of the woman’s life, as also family and social relationships. Poetry was woven
into the phulkari. Today phulkari’s are made and there has been a fresh impetus but with the
motivation of providing livelihood to poor women. Valuable as this is, it is clear that phulkari
has been displaced from the value it denoted in the life cycle of
woman. This new impetus has also not made a structural connection with the systems of formal
education. Thus the embroideries are 'objects` to be collected by museums as decorative art or are
designer items for the market place. This is also in respect of the kaantha, chikankari, sujani,
the mirror work of the Rabaris, and many more.
The HC-Asia Project invited women from different parts of Asia, particularly Palestine. Tran,
Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, Pakistan. Bangladesh and Vietnam besides India, to explore aspects not
necessarily only of design and redesigning for contemporary use. but to investigate more carefully
the several methods by which these embroideries became the instrumentalities of active cultural
dialogues between and amongst countries.
This enterprise, in collaboration with the Crafts Council of India, was divided into three
parts—a seminar, an exhibition and a workshop. The seminar was inaugurated by Smt Justice Leila
Seth, a Trustee of the HC. While the seminar explored both the routes of contact between and
amongst these countries through specific embroideries, the exhibition juxtaposed embroideries from
different countries of Asia in underscore both similarities as also distinctiveness. Further, it
explored the long journey of certain embroideries from Afghanistan to Vietnam, such as what is
popularly called ‘White on White'.
The exhibition was enriched by the generous participation of collectors particularly Shri
Chhotelal Bharany, as also women who lent exquisite pieces of embroideries—phulkari. kaantha,
chikankari, suzani. sujani and khamak. We are grateful to them all.
The workshop was lively and provided a special opportunity for women from different countries of
Asia to interact with each other
and to exchange notes on their skills as well as life experiences.
The present volume comprises only the papers and essays which were presented at the seminar.
Understandably not all the participants at the seminar sent their papers. Despite this limitation
the volume is different from other volumes on embroideries and textiles which have been written by
museum, textile and embroidery specialists. It was not possible to bring out a professional
catalogue on the exhibition.
The essays in this volume focus attention on the main thrust of the IIC—Asia Project, namely
cross—cultural dialogue. The volume begins with a lucid article by Ritu Sethi which calls to
attention the role of embroidery in intra—cultural dialogue through trade. It also sensitively
points at the transition which craft undergoes when moved from its cultural context into a market
Shadi Parrokhyani poignantly speaks of 'Land. Memory and Identity’ in Palestine. She places
needlework within the context of fifty years of struggle loss of land, home and yet it is the
humble needlework of the Palestinian woman which makes a constant and conscious effort to
fabricate a people’s identity through her needle and thread. Amita Walia takes another route in
the essay 'Moonlight on White’, which allows the reader to understand the Imperial embroidery much
Phulkari is common to both India and Pakistan. Much has been written on phulkari by specialists.
not to mention the important work of the late S.S. Hitkari, who drew our attention not only to the
geometric and floral patterns but also the occasion and the poetry connected with each design.
T.G. Singh's essay takes the exploration further. Charu Smita Gupta turns her attention to the
picturesque frame of non-cognitive expression which was the main theme of the seminar.
Ruth Chakravarty’s essay—‘The Story of Chikan' narrates the details of this intricate form of
The essays on suzani and kaantha make explicit the aesthetics of these embroideries as also their
journey in Central Asia, India and Bangladesh. In particular the suzani patterns in Uzbekistan
have been praised for their dexterity. Shakhlo Abdullaeva explores this world of suzani. The story
is complex and intricate.
Kaantha is highly valued today. It represents the dynamics of tradition and change, of innovation
and adaptability. Once upon a time, kaantha was a layering of women’s lives, where the grandmother
preserved her old sari; the mother added a layer, so that there would be a softest of soft bed
sheet for the newborn baby.
These were not just layers, because each layer had embroidery, a running stitch in patterns which
came with aspirations, blessings and filial love. These were all stitched together. Pieces of
cloth were also stitched together, fragments made into a painting of cloth matching any
contemporary painting today called collage. Kaantha was a coalescing of different generations and
poignant stories of hope, even despair. This comes through in the essays of K. Padmaja and Niaz
Zaman. Kaantha was as popular in West Bengal as in Bangladesh. Today it is disengaged from the
life cycle, but it has had the resilience to adapt itself not only to domestic market but also to
The essay by Rangina Hamidi on ‘Stitching Hopes, Dreams, Desires: the Khamak Embroidery
Afghanistan brings to the fore many common strands between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. She
sensitively unravels the secrets of stitching hopes and dreams. Samina Khan brings in a
socio—economic dimension of embroidery in her essay ‘Recognising Jisti as Work of People of Hazara
Judy Prater, who has spent her lifetime with the Rabaris in India, has traced the embroideries
both in India and Pakistan. Her essays
is an insightful presentation of the artisans mind. Once again, as in the case of phulkari or
suzani or chikankari this is the work of disempowered women. Besides there is perhaps excepting in
schools of fashion technology no course in the formal system of education on the kaantha nor are
embroideries considered part and parcel of the curriculum of the art schools of India. This is
perhaps explained by the nineteenth century perspective of making a distinction between arts and
crafts, functionality and beauty, not to speak of value.
No endeavour of this kind, however small, can be organised without the willing and generous
cooperation of several institutions. In this case the principal collaborator was the Crafts
Council of India. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations provided financial help. There was
always the cooperation of the old loyal friends who have generously given their experience and
expertise, time and energy in a spirit of altruism. They are just too many to be listed here, but
each one of them will know that I thank them both individually as also collectively. An attempt
has been made to acknowledge them at the end.
Lastly, I like to record the IIC—Asia Project’s — appreciation for our co—publisher, the
indefatigable Shobit Arya, of Wisdom Tree.
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