From 10th century Bayeux[i] to 21st century Gurgaon is a very long journey. One I embarked upon while researching embroidery practices that could have influenced my own. Jawaharlal Nehru once said that India’s history could well be defined by the history of Indian textiles. I think he was right. India’s textile diversity and heritage is unsurpassed in the world, its history full of intriguing socio-political implications. These amazing fabrics have been a source of admiration and significant trade with ancient Greece up to present day exports. As a textile artist, I draw upon them for inspiration, as much as focussing upon a concern for the eroding value of crafting practices that gave us these superlative textiles.
It’s been primarily my work with craftspeople which inspired me to espouse the role of artist-craftsperson. I specialized in woven textiles, but have worked with embroidery for almost two decades now. Until recently, I had not looked beyond traditions of the subcontinent to understand its practice in India, aside from some curiosity regarding the flourishing international trade and induction of British, Portuguese and Chinese motifs. What has interested me is the concept of crafting, with its deep roots in the art making of ancient India, which predates these travellers and subsequent trade. Working with the hand interests me even though we live in a fast-paced age, driven by mechanical and digital technologies, in many ways because it provides a counterpoint.
It’s been said that the hand inspires the ‘mechanical’ technologies invented. Whatever machines do is what the human hand has made first. William Morris’s[ii] lament and the ideologies of the arts and crafts movement[iii] were based on loss of excellence in design owing to the inferior capacity of machines, at the beginning of the industrial age. But, as technology improved so did the product of machines, and today, in Japan many fabrics made with advanced technologies possibly have no precedent with what the hand has done. Many such ideals have been disproved in time but history enables one to unravel stories of what people thought and did to examine their influence on what we do today.
It can be a fascinating journey is what I realized in my quest to discover the cross-stitch connection in my art. Two textile artist friends, Elaine from Boston and Maggie from Perth, strongly recommended reading ‘The Subversive Stitch’ by Roszika Parker. I got a copy from Amazon.com and commenced reading with much anticipation as soon as it arrived. But, I was disappointed. There was little mention of cross-stitch and its inclusion in contemporary stitch vocabulary. I was nonetheless intrigued how art history[iv] had categorised everything that women are and do, as being “entirely and essentially feminine” regardless of economic or social position, especially with regard to embroidery.
Apparently, it was the Victorian[v] interpretation of mediaeval[vi] embroideries which led to this thinking. Mediaevalism permeated every aspect of Victorian culture. Of particular interest were mid-century religious revivals where embroideries for the church formed a significant part. This created opportunity to chide women for their decadence, for having regressed from embroidering devotional motifs to pretty flowers and more in the same vein. Mediaeval revival[vii] enhanced the Victorian perception of women as the frail sex, untouched by intellect. But not without contradictions: they, who were at the mercy of their physical weakness and volatile feelings, were also meant to provide the spiritual face of their class thus occupying a ‘higher’, ‘purer’ sphere than men.
This perception provided some misleading interpretations of history. The legendary Bayeux tapestry[viii] was cited as the work of a loving wife rather than the collective endeavour it was. This 270 feet x 20 inches tapestry [circa 1086] was supposedly embroidered, single-handedly by Queen Mathilda, wife of William the Conqueror[ix]; a herculean, if not impossible task. Thus Mathilda became a source of inspiration and fantasy. Historians, including women, presented her as an ideal for perfect Victorian femininity – working in private, for love. Her glory, a reflection of her husband’s and reward coming after only death. The image of the mediaeval noblewoman embroiderer became ossified into a stereotype: “Immured in the restricted walls of a convent; needle alone supplied an unceasing source of amusement; with this she might enliven tedious hours, and depicting heroic deeds of her absent lord...... softened by the influence of pious contemplation, she might use this pliant instrument to bring vividly before her mind the mysteries of that faith to which she clung”[x].
With years of colonialism and influences thereby, there is a possibility these ideas could somehow have found their way into the Indian cultural psyche, which got me thinking. In re-examining the reasons why I choose to embroider, I wondered, whether somewhere deep in my socio-cultural make-up, I was drawn to this because it’s been considered ‘women’s work’. To the best of my knowledge it was men who did the embroidery work in India, especially in the professional karkhanas[xi] but, in the Western world, the embroiderer became part of the feminine stereotype. Eyes lowered, head bent, shoulders hunched - characteristic posture of a person sewing became symbolic of repression and subjugation.
In addition, silence, as stillness of the embroiderer, was interpreted as either serious concentration or a cry for attention. In terms of the stereo-type, the self-containment of the sewing woman was interpreted as seductiveness, a sexual ploy. In some cases the silence of a woman bent over her needlework was cited as submissiveness or deference to men. And some interpretations also cite the image of the embroiderer deep in her work as disturbing: “Bel-Gazou is silent when she sews, silent for hours on end, with her mouth firmly closed ............She is silent, and she – why not write down the word that frightens me – she is thinking”[xii]
My curiosity was stoked. This ‘historical’ power of silence whilst engaged in embroidering intrigued me. That evening, I focused on what I thought and felt while rummaging through colourful skeins, threading the needle and piercing the cloth with it. For me, none of these ideas had a conscious connection, nor made any sense. I love the coloured threads and ritual of embroidery. I find pleasure in the whole process and could not relate to this as being indicative of subjugation or the subversive rebellion Victorian’s associated with the woman embroiderer. It did not seem to fit. Women do face sexual discrimination in India, so it did occur to me that this could have become second skin to an extent that, despite the socio-cultural implications of being a woman in India, I was unaware of it.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, one of three sisters with no brother, I personally did not face discrimination in any overt way. I know my parents wanted a son for my father had picked out a name, which was eventually given to my elder sister’s youngest son. Since we did not have a brother I cannot evaluate if we were treated different to men. My father was determined that I learn to drive a car and also typing for he believed that the future was all about computers, but we were not really educated with a career in mind. My elder sister was married when she was twenty and so was I. It was an unsuccessful ‘arranged’ marriage and divorce at 22 years of age that brought a career into focus.
My mother was the only girl child of a not-so-conservative Punjabi family living in Delhi, with three, protective, doting elder brothers who rarely allowed her out of their sight. She did a B-Ed[xiii] and taught briefly but chose not to work professionally after marriage. My mother was born in 1932 and I, almost thirty years later. Times had changed, but many things get passed on subconsciously. However, to my knowledge, my predilection for embroidery could have little to do with this. Of us three sisters, I was the only one who took to it from an early age. Maybe my Irish convent[xiv] education inadvertently influenced this, but I do not recollect the nuns teaching us needlework. Whatever discriminations one may face being a woman in this country or in the world, it is neither this idea nor a rebellion to assert the converse which inspires me to embroider. Aside from pleasure in working the materials, it is the ritual of making - seeking to emulate ideals of hand-crafting, prevalent in art practices of ancient India, which motivate me to ‘paint’ with the needle.
Most professional embroidery done in this country, even historically, is and has been done by men. I conducted workshops in Kashmir in 2003 and 2004 for chain-stitch embroidery and the craftsmen were primarily men. Women had recently been inducted but, lacking skill in the craft, their work was gauche by comparison. The fine Sozni[xv] workers are also men. Chain stitch or ‘Ari’ work, which is the mainstay repertoire of most fashion designers in the country, is done almost exclusively by men. But with Kantha[xvi], Chikankari[xvii] and other embroideries women do now work professionally too.
The subcontinent has a rich history in embroidery. Earliest needles excavated at Mohenjo Daro[xviii] dated about 2000 BC indicate a tradition of sewing and the possibility of embroidery. There are early references to the reign of Chandragupta Maurya[xix], where Megasthenes[xx] the Greek Ambassador from Seleucus[xxi] describes richly embroidered interiors and shimmering dresses embellished with gold. The earliest chain-stitch embroideries are said to have evolved from embroideries done by the Mochi[xxii] community in Gujarat and accounts by Marco Polo[xxiii] mention exquisitely embroidered leather carpets. Later, the Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa[xxiv] makes note of fine chain-stitch silk embroideries in reference to the beautiful quilts of Cambay[xxv]. According to noted textile historian Rosemary Crill, there are few societies in which embroidery played as important a role as in India, be it our rural tradition for dowry, wedding paraphernalia or the courts of Mughals and other ruling elite. Embroidered textiles have adorned carved stone halls as well dressed nobility. And a thriving trade made Indian textile products famous for two millennia where embroidery was at the forefront of our rich textile tradition.
Through the long British rule in India ideas regarding embroidery as essentially women’s work, along with its implications of subjugation and subversion, must have percolated somewhere into urban Indian thinking. I have been city bred through and through and cannot claim influence of a rural Indian culture where women embroidered, making things for their home and personal use. There is a possibility that the Victorian ideas, and their impact on generations before me, could be buried somewhere deep in my subconscious mind. However, working with embroidery for me, has been about a conscious return to an ancient Indian tradition.
I draw inspiration from this tradition of crafting which nourished the ‘whole being’ “Corpus anima et Spiritus.”[xxvi] My embroidery is creative self-expression. Working with my hands is meditative. The process engenders a balance of inner and outer worlds and is an important source of solace. I have worked with craftsmen in rural India, where the simplicity of their lives impacted me deeply. I also found that though their skill continues, they are dependent upon urban designers for the creative input. This relegates them to becoming merely skilled labour, moving away from the traditional, dual role of the craftsperson as designer-producer. Their remuneration is pittance compared to what those who employ their skills earn and also the income of other professionals today. My endeavour is an attempt to restore a lost dignity to the notion of crafting by becoming a craftsperson-artist myself. Presenting this work in the art gallery is a means to bridge the prevalent art-craft divide which not only diminishes the ‘art’ of textile making that framed an important dimension of our cultural heritage, but one that could curtail the continuance of this inherited glory.
[i] Normandy, France
[iii] Design movement pioneered by William Morris that flourished 1860-1910, its influence continuing up until 1936
[iv] Research done in 1981
[v] Period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 – 1901 was a long period, of peace, prosperity and national confidence [for the British]. Culturally there was an inclination towards romanticism and mysticism with regard to religion, social values and the acts. The Victorian era is also associated with values of social and sexual restraint.
[vi] 5th to 15th centuries [Middle Ages – end of Classical antiquity or collapse of Western Roman Empire to beginning of Renaissance]
[vii] Begun late 1830’s
[viii] Is an embroidered cloth not an actual tapestry, which depicts events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, culminating in the Battle of Hastings. It contains about 50 scenes embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarns.
[ix] Was the first Norman King of England, reigning from 1066 till his death in 1087
[x] Parker, The Subversive Stitch pg 24, [quoting from C. H Hartshorne, op.cit. p3]
[xii]Parker, the subversive Stitch pg 9-10 [quoting from Colette, ‘Earthly Paradise’ 1966 p.205]
[xiii] Bachelors in Education
[xiv] Loreto Convent, Tara Hall, Shimla
[xv] Fine needle embroidery done mostly on shawls, Kashmir
[xvi] Traditionally it is basically a running stitch embroidery [with some variations] on layered fabrics [usually old and worn sarees] creating a quilted effect , done in Bihar [Sujni] and Bengal [Kantha]
[xvii] Chikan [derived from Persian word ‘Chikeen‘], literally means embroidery. It is a traditional embroidery style from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and a variety of stitches  are used to create a kind of Jaali [lace or shadow work] effect. It is usually done on transparent or semi-transparent fabrics like muslin, mostly white on white.
[xviii] Now in Pakistan
[xix] 320BC -298 BC
[xx] Greek explorer and ethnographer of the Hellenistic period
[xxi] Approximately sometime before his death in 298 BC
[xxiii] Travels, late 13th Century
[xxv] Now called Khambat [Gujarat]
[xxvi] Mind, body and spirit - Ananda K. Coomaraswamy