Embroidery, the decoration of cloth with design by needle and thread, is an dating back to antiquity. Indian embroidery designs are as vivid and varied as the culture of India. Each region and each sect has developed its own embroidery style, technique and pattern over the centuries.
The book apart from briefly tracing the history of this art, enumerates various styles prevalent in different states of India.
Embroidery, that is the embellishment of cloth with design made by needle and thread, is an art that stretches back to hoary antiquity. The word 'embroidery' is a Middle English word derived from the old French 'broder' meaning edge or border. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in garments embroidered in gold and robes of kings and noblemen were embellished with embroidered designs as were the trappings of their chariots. The design was made with threads of linen and wool, the hair of goats and camel and exceedingly fine strips of gold and silver.
According to the Bible, Moses covered the Holy of Holies with a veil 'of fine linen embroidered with cherubim of blue, purple and scarlet. The temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem was adorned with an embroidered curtain. Long before the advent of the Christian era Babylon, Persia and Sidon had achieved great perfection in the art of embroidery. Alexander was dazzled by the specimens of Persian embroidery brought to his notice. China and India also had developed the art from early times.
Over the centuries, embroidery has been used to adorn everything from the smallest personal possession like handkerchiefs and underwear to the most sumptuous state regalia. Curtains, cushions, wall hangings, state robes, throne canopies and seats, ordinary everyday clothes, bed and table linen have all provided gist to the embroiderer's mill. The adornment is done on all kinds of pliable material, which can be pierced with a needle - linen, cotton, wool, silk and leather.
Gold, silver, silk, cotton and wool threads, animal hair, precious stones, pearls, shells, insects' wings, seeds and enamel are all used to produce effects of ravishing simplicity or awesome grandeur. The precious material was never lost for whenever the base fabric was worn out and the garment or decorative piece could no longer be used for its original purpose, the gold and silver threads and precious stones were extracted and sold. This has always been a common practice in India, which also existed in Europe until the last century. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars English ladies melted down the metal in the gold embroidery of uniforms, to raise money to meet necessary expenses.
Fragments of embroidered cloth dating from early times have been found in Europe and Asia. Pieces of tapestry of leather and felt excavated from burial mounds in the Altai Mountains dating from the 4th century B.C. show amazing dexterity in the art of appliqué. Seven different kinds of cloth are used to depict a horse, rider and a griffin. The work done with horsehair using very fine needles has a strong folk element and is startlingly alive. A fragment of embroidery from the Sassanian dynasty of Persia in the 6th century shows men with details of jewellery and clothes along with trees. Another obviously of a garden, dating from the 4th or 5th century A.D. originating probably from some Eastern Mediterranean country, is decorated with rows of amazingly natural looking trees.
The European climate called for wall hangings and curtains to warm interiors and keep out draughts. High born ladies spent all their leisure hours embroidering massive tapestries with scenes of religious and historical happenings. The Battle of Hastings, which brought the Normans to England and is the start of the historical period of English history is depicted in the huge Bayeux tapestry. Bed handings and table covers were other items on which the ladies exercised their skill as were items such as chalice veils and altar clothes used in churches.
Ecclesiastical robes celebrating the pomp and grandeur of the church, vied with royal robes in splendour. They were embroidered with silk and gold and silver threads showing various incidents from the Bible or recounting the history of a particular saint. The cloak said to have been worn by the Emperor Charlemagne at his coronation, dates from 1200 A.D. and carries a stylized representation of the Imperial eagle. The insignia of the Holy Roman Empire consisting of items worn by the Emperor was embroidered with gold and silver thread and pearls.
Gloves, dresses, cushions, curtains, vests, gentlemen's suits, fire screens, christening dresses and shawls, chairs, handbags, hunting pouches, shoes, sashes, pillow covers were all embroidered. The Victorian lady prided herself on the number of embroidered antimacassars, table covers, etc., that filled her house as had her counterpart four or five centuries earlier on the minute and elaborate work of her tapestries which teemed with horses, dogs, men, trees, flowers and legendary birds and animals.
A group of pictures from 14th century China done with infinitely fine stitches could easily be mistaken for paintings, so life like are the expression, so natural the stance and background and so smooth the surface. How old the tradition of embroidery is in China no one can say - some authorities assert that the art originated there - but the Chinese also embellished articles of everyday use as well as ceremonial regalia with the needle. Their skill with the needle has few parallels anywhere in the world. No girl was considered accomplished until she achieved proficiency in the art.
Needles have been found at all excavation sites in India dating from the third millennium B.C. Figurines found at both Harappa and Mohenjodaro are clad in embroidered garments. The sculptures of Bharhut and Sanchi, dating from the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., show figures wearing embroidered veils and headbands. In Ajanta, figures are also shown wearing garments embellished with designs. While it is not possible to say with certainty whether these were obtained by embroidery or printing it can be presumed that, in view of the widespread knowledge of the art of plying the needle, some of them must have been produced through that medium. In the 13th century Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler who visited India on his way back from China wrote of the leather mats of Gujarat as being of red leather depicting birds and beasts in gold and silver thread sewn very subtly. He saw couches and cushions made in the same way and considered them more skillfully embroidered than anywhere in the world.
Literature also confirms the use of needles. An invocation in the Taithriya Samhita runs "I invoke with a fine eulogy Raka (full moon) who can be easily called. May she, who is auspicious (or good looking) hear (our invocation) and understand in her heart (its meaning); "May she saw her work with a needle that is unbreakable; may she bestow on us a son that is worthy and would posses immense wealth." A Rigveda hymn says, who based his account of India on the diaries of Megasthenes, ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya in the 4th century B.C., describes Indians as dressed in robes worked in gold and richly flowered muslin.
Unfortunately, no specimens of this early embroidery exists. After the 16th century, however, we find a profusion of embroidery of various kinds. A great many of these are preserved in the Calico Mills Museum at Ahmedabad and are found in other parts of the world.
Gujarat was renowned for its silk embroidery on cotton. This was done in very fine chain stitch and, according to Barbosa, who wrote in 1518 about the products of Cambay, the most important port of Gujarat, the art seems to have been used to produce 'very beautiful quilts and testers of bed finely worked.' These quilts were carried to Europe by the Portuguese and enjoyed great popularity. Merchants of the East India Company were anxious to export these items to England where they fetched high prices. Patan, the historical capital of Northern Gujarat was an important source for such goods and in 1631 King Charles I, by a royal proclamation permitted quilts of Pitania embroidered with silk to be brought to England by servants of the Company as articles of private trade. A large embroidered bedspread in Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, England, would seem to be one of the earliest specimens of this trade which was described by a writer as being worked in many colored silks on a cotton ground.
During his visit to the African country, Melinde, in 1502 Vasco de Gama was given a white embroidered bed canopy said to have been made in Bengal. He regarded it as the finest bed canopy he had ever seen. This was high praise indeed for all beds of the rich and reasonably rich in Europe which were decorated with such canopies to protect the sleeper from the cold and all were embroidered to a greater or lesser extent. Apparently the white silk embroidery of Bengal, done presumably with twisted thread, was highly valued. When the Portuguese King, Sebastian, was killed in a battle in Marocco in 1578, the enemy was rewarded with rich gifts for handing over his body. These included a white Indian bedspread of Bengal quilted all over and worked with very fine white silk thread, fringed with yellow silk thread and with tassels.
Embroidery was, obviously, given as much importance by the Mughals as other arts. The Mughal emperors, being great aesthetes naturally took pride in their appearance and paid attention to their clothes. The Ain-i-Akbari describes Akbar's wardrobe and state, "His Majesty pays much attention to various stuffs; hence Iranian (Persian) and European and Mongolian articles of wear are in abundance. Skilful masters and workmen have settled in this country to teach the people an improved system of manufacture. The imperial workshops in the towns of Lahore, Agra, Fatehpur, Ahmedabad, Gujarat turn out many masterpieces of workmanship and the figures and patterns, knots and variety of fashions which now prevail, astonish experienced travelers. His Majesty has himself acquired in a short time a theoretical and practical knowledge of the whole trade; and on account of the care bestowed upon them, the intelligent workmen of this country soon improved
and made in other countries
" In 1663 Francois Bernier, the French traveler, visited the court of Aurangzeb and described the imperial worshops, "There are besides some large halls which are the 'kar-kanays' (karkhanas), that is to say the places where the craftsmen work. In one of these halls you see the embroiderers occupied in their work with the master who supervises them. In another you see the goldsmitsh; in yet another the painters" Although Aurangzeb had the makings of as ascetic and lived simply and frugally, he realized the value of pomp and pageantry on State occasions. However, his age saw the beginning of the decline of the empire and the craftsmen working for the imperial court, lacking patronage, soon dispersed to other parts of the country to seek new patrons and to blend their own skills with those existing locally.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Gujarat was an internationally famous centre for embroidery. It was the silk chain stitch embroidery on cotton which won renown at this time.
Embroidery, like other arts, reflects the cultural traditions of the people. In India the peacock, lotus, the elephant and above all, the mango have provided inspiration to artists for centuries. The mango is an overwhelming favorite and variations of the design are found in different parts of the country under names associated with more or less similar shapes e.g. the windblown cypress in Kashmir and the cashewnut (godambi) in the South Kashmiri and the cashewnut (godambi) in the South Kashmiri embroidery shows the pastel shades and shapes of its flora - the iris, the lily, the saffron flower and the chinar leaf which appears repeatedly in all art forms of the valley, Rajasthan and large parts of the South favour the tulsi plant, gateways and arches of temples and shrines, the lotus, peacock, figures of deities, horses, elephants, bullocks, birds and mythological animals. North India shows motifs which are Indo-Persian in origin.
The embroiderer plied his needle not only to adorn garments of personal wear - usually of the finest cotton to keep the heat at bay - but to shawls, carpets, wall hangings, roofs of tents, trappings of horses and elephants and bullocks, tray and book covers and a host of other items.
Commercial embroidery is a highly specialized art and is based on division of labor. The design is stamped on the cloth by the changer, the printer. This is done with wood blocks having the design carved in relief on one side. The dye is made from red earth mixed with gum mucilage. The embroiderer's effort is to cover the design fully with stitches but if any part of it shows after the completion of the work it can easily be removed by washing. Sometimes the figures are drawn by painters in pencil on muslin and in chalk on wool. The cloth is stretched on a horizontal frame raised sufficiently from the ground to make it possible for the embroiderer to work comfortably without having to bend too far forward (needless to say, the embroiderer always sits on the floor). The needle is always pushed away from the person plying it and never towards him. Scissors are used but most often a piece of glass or china is used to cut the thread.
Like the weaver, the Indian embroiderer is an artist whose sense of color and design never flags. He avoids useless and wasteful decoration, always keeping his product within realms of good taste. The best Indian art has a universality whose infallible harmony and grace never fails to please. It displays a pure and refined taste which raises the product above the status of being mere craft and lifts them to the pinnacle of creative art.
Embroidery is done in all parts of India, the work produced in each area having its own distinctive character. In many parts of the country such as the Punjab, Gujarat, Kutch, Kathiawar, Bengal and certain tribal areas, the art is folk in origin and inspiration and still forms a vital part of the everyday life of the people. In places like Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Kashmir the rich gold, silver and silk embroidery and the delicate chikan owe their origin to court patronage and still cater to an urban clientele. It is noteworthy that whereas the folk craft is produced almost entirely by woman working at home, the sophisticated work is a male prerogative except for chikan work, which is also done by women as a means of supplementing the family income. All master craftsmen are men and the best work is done by them.
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