; ; ; 22 Feb 2017

Craft of a Forgotten People

Voice of a Garment by Pallavi Patke.

Reposted from Unmaking Things 2012-2013.

Embroidered Cotton Skirt Deposited by John Miles with the University of Brighton Dress Archive in 1983, Collected from Kutch by John Gillow. Image © Pallavi Patke, 2012

Unfortunately, skirts such as the one above are not made any more, as the community which produced it no longer practices the traditional art of embroidery. [1] But this old embroidered garment, displaying invaluable skill and technique, remains as a testimony to a web of stylistic and regional influences. A very similar skirt of rural Indian origins appears in John Gillow’s text Indian Textiles, where it is referred to as a Bhansali wedding skirt of a woman from Kutch, in the state of Gujarat, India. [2]

District of Kuchchh (Kutch) of Gujarat State (India). Image from Wikimedia Commons

This skirt is an extant example of the potpourri of regional and artistic influences of the creative folk embroidery art of Gujarat. The embroidery incorporates a version of professional Mochi embroidery (Mochibharat), formerly pursued by cobblers; a longstanding popular traditional craft practiced in Kutch, which received royal patronage until faced with extinction in 1947. The embroidery comprises very fine chain stitch, originally in silk, created using an “ari” (akin to the European tambour hook). [3] The tradition of Mochi craft gradually disseminated amongst several other castes and communities and, although it no longer retains its former glory, continues to surface in some of the domestic embroideries of the region.

Apparent in the garment is a combination of stylistic elements from three different communities: Kathipa, Kutchi and Lohana. The colour and material of the base cloth of the skirt, diamond and triangle motifs, and some of the stitches point towards the Kathipa embroidery style, whereas the chain stitch and peacock and floral motifs can be identified as features of the Kutchi style. [4] The use of brightly coloured silk floss in the Bhansalis’ embroidery style, apparent on the skirt in the vertical orange rectangles filled with long darn stitches in smooth orange silk threads creating a satin like effect, suggests further links with Lohana embroidery. [5]

Confluence of Different Design Motifs in Embroidery to form the Unique Style of the Bhansalis. Image © Pallavi Patke, 2012

The Bhansalis appear to have developed a well assembled design speciality of their own, representing an amalgamation of different regional variations to which they were exposed. Bhansali is ‘a caste of Hindu farmers who are largely settled in Kutch but can also be found in Saurashtra and the rest of Gujarat.’ [6] The Bhansalis also originally resided in Sindh alongside the Lohana merchant community. [7]

Design motifs are artistic representations of an embroiderer’s prowess, but are also a distinct characteristic feature of each community. Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher have commented upon the significance of a community’s dress in identifying members of a particular group, and according to Eiluned Edwards, ‘Stitched details reveal aspects of daily existence: stylised women carrying water pots, ranks of flowers, parrots and peacocks compete with space for camels’. [8] The embroidery on this skirt consists of stylised flowers, peacocks and a popular recurring motif referred to as the “barfi” motif. It is diamond shaped and often used to represent a stylised form of leaf. [9] The term “barfi” is also Hindi terminology for a square or diamond shaped sweet, generally distributed among people in India during festivals or on an auspicious occasion. Comparisons can also be drawn between the geometric and symmetrical arrangement of floral motifs surrounding the mirrors and the decorative lanterns hung from ceilings during Diwali, the popular Indian festival of lights.

The skirt comprises a rainbow of ten colours, including the background colour. John Gillow states:

Costume in this part of India is embellished with embroidery and mirror-work and made as colourful as possible in order to provide a pleasing contrast to the generally dun shades of the surrounding desert landscape. Particularly vivid are the clothes of the children and young women. [10]

The brightly coloured nature of this skirt could also suggest its relation to a nuptial context. Eiluned Edwards writes, ‘The occasion of wedding provides a showcase for the women’s artistic prowess and vividly illustrates the community’s coherent sense of aesthetics’. [11] In Indian Textiles, discussing a wedding odhni that belonged to a Bhansali merchant, it is stated that the community ceased embroidering dowry items around 1960. [12] This is the time around which the Bhansalis are likely to have abandoned the creation of embroideries and migrated elsewhere in search of other professions, suggesting the skirt may not have been produced later than this period. In her account of the dowry traditions of the Rabaris of Kutch, Edwards, quoting Vicky Elson, explains:

Dowry embroideries are made in the nurturing environment of a woman’s home. She embroiders among other young women who have the prospect of a similar transition ahead of them, and with older women who have weathered the experience of becoming wives in sometimes hostile surroundings. [13]

The embroidery on this skirt suggests the reflection of the innermost desires, history and culture of rural Gujarati communities through craft. Although this garment struggles to provide insights into the personal experiences of the wearer or producer, it can reveal intercommunity interactions and challenge the bounded nature of regional styles, as highlighted in this study of a single object.

1. ‘About Kutch’, Kutchi Community Portal [accessed 28 November 2012]
2. John Gillow and Nicolas Bernard, Indian Textiles (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008), p. 70
3. John Gillow and Nicolas Bernard, Traditional Indian Textiles (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 58
Ibid, p. 61
5. Carol D. Westfall and Dipti Desai, ‘Gujarati Embroidery’, ARS Textrina, 8 (1987), p. 30
6. ‘India Glossary’, Asia InCH, [accessed 6 December 2012]
7. Jyotindra Jain, Folk Art and Culture of Gujarat: Guide to the Collection of the Shreyas Folk Museum of Gujarat (Shreyas Folk Museum of Gujarat, 1980), N.pag.
8. Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, ‘Introduction’, in Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts, ed. by Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Women, 2 (New York; Oxford: Berg, 1992), p. 2; Eiluned Edwards, ‘Embroidery: The Vanishing Heritage of the Nomadic Rabaris’, Textiles Magazine, 25 (1996), p.17 
9.  ‘India Glossary’
10. Gillow and Bernard, Traditional Indian Textiles, p. 60
11.Eiluned Edwards, ‘Marriage and Dowry Customs of the Rabari of Kutch: Evolving Traditions’, in Wedding Dress across Cultures, ed. by Helen Bradley Foster and Donald Clay Johnson, Dress, Body, Culture (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2004), p. 67
12. Gillow and Bernard, Indian Textiles, p. 66
13. Vicky C. Elson quoted in Edwards ‘Marriage and Dowry Customs’, p. 76

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