Saturday, 10 January 2015

Textile traditions of Kutch [Part I] - Guest Post by Archana Shah, Founder-owner of Bandhej

The first image of Kutch that I remember seeing was the face of Puphli on the cover of a calendar, shot by Dashrath Patel. As students of design studying at the NID, we had heard many stories about this exotic land, but it was this picture that had captivated my imagination and roused desire to visit Kutch. Encouraged by our teacher, Helena Perhentupa at the NID, in the summer of 1976, I visited Kutch for the first time, with two dear friends, David Abraham and Sue Mace - little knowing that this would be the start of a life-long affair with this mysterious land and amazing people. 

During that trip, we were mesmerised by all we saw and experienced - the landscapes, mud architecture, the vast variety of embroideries and their very fascinating costumes. But what amazed us most was how people had spontaneously opened their hearts and homes to us, to complete strangers from the city, whose ways were totally alien to them. 

Bhungas/mud architecture

The people of Kutch have produced an incredible wealth of knowledge and skills to survive in the midst of sustained scarcities and natural disasters. They evolved a way of living that had great respect and concern for the land and its scarce natural resources, harnessing them with ingenuity and using them wisely.

The word Kutch comes from kachchha, meaning a turtle that has come out of the sea.  It is believed that, in the last 30,000 years, the land of Kutch had twice dipped into the sea and probably stayed under water for a few thousand years before it resurfaced. People continue to believe that Kutch is a temporary landmass and will, one day, return to the sea.

It is difficult to study Kutch in isolation. It needs to be understood in the context of a broader, composite culture of the Thar Desert, including Sindh in Pakistan and the Barmer region in Rajasthan. Despite the political boundaries that divide it, the region's cultural identity prevails because of a shared history, common physical environment and similarities between the various communities in their physical features, their dwellings, clothes, food, embroideries, crafts and music. The Kolis and the Bhils are the oldest inhabitants of Kutch. Over the last 600 years, many migrant communities from Central Asia, Baluchistan, Afghanistan, Sindh and Marwar have settled in Kutch adding cultural richness to this region. 


The Great Rann of Kutch, which includes Sindh, has had a reputation for producing some of the finest embroideries in the world. Embroidery, as a means of ornamentation, has existed for thousands of years. Traditional cultures all over the world have used elaborate embroideries to decorate their own clothing as well as their living spaces    

Kutch has also produced some of the finest resist dyed textiles
such  as the block printed Ajrakh and tie-dyed bandhanis - and a variety of textile crafts such as woven textiles such as  the mashru-brocade and extra weft blankets, wax printing, rogan painting, camel belt braiding, namda felt rugs and many others.

During that first visit, we had stayed with Gulbeg Miya Hussain, known as the king of Banni. In the few days we stayed with his family, he introduced us to the various communities living in Banni, the traditional grass lands, home to the many pastoral, Maldhari communities.

Maldhari wearing Ajrakh

Unlike the farming communities, women of the pastoral communities such as the Rabaris, Ahirs, Bharwads, Meghwals and the Muslim Maldharis of Banni and Pachcham had a lot of leisure time. After completing their daily chores like collecting water and firewood, cooking, cleaning and feeding the children, the women would sit together and create embroideries for themselves, their men and children and for their homes and cattle.

Meghwal Woman
Costumes and embroideries of each community were distinctly different and it was easy to identify communities from the clothes they wore. The women used a lot of embroideries...... often, seeing them in their finery, I would think they were dressed for a special occasion only to discover that this is how they dress in their daily lives. Most of their savings were invested in jewellery, worn by their women at all times. 

The embroidery pattern was sketched by hand or marked with a needle or stick dipped in mud or they counted the warp and weft threads to embroider their designs. The women embroidering the piece would improvise the design as they went along, using a number of small mirrors, to highlight their bright, colourful creations. Their patterns were also reproduced on the walls of their circular bhungas, in mud relief work, in-layed with small mirrors. With no electricity, a single oil lamp would brighten the interior of their homes. 
Cholo - bandahni kapda, zardozi embroidery
The distribution of motifs created different patterns. The person embroidering the piece added her own personal touches and interpretation with the choice of colours, making small variations as she went along. Each piece had a distinct character and no two embroidered pieces ever looked the same.  Depending on the pattern, it could take months to embroider a blouse. The embroidered backless blouse - the kanjari or cholo - is worn only after marriage. Young girls wear a long multi-panel tunic with no embroidery.

For these women, embroidery was not only an expression of creativity but also an occasion for social interaction and emotional bonding, as they sat together and chatted with one another while doing their embroidery. This, in many ways, became an important repository of their traditions. The nuances of the craft were passed on from mother to daughter, and thus an age old tradition continued within families. 

Tying Badhani dots before dyeing
Since embroideries were part of the dowry of a girl, she, with the help of her mother would start creating embroideries from the time she was seven or eight years old. By observing their mothers and the other women in the family, the young girls learned about the distribution of colour and creating traditional patterns.

 An Ahir woman once explained to me,  “Our embroidery has 
Ahir Woman
remained unchanged because, through the ages, there were women who guarded the rules, enabling the tradition to be passed on, safe and secure, from one generation to the next.” She continued, “What I like most about tradition is its promise of constancy. There is a sense of order and rhythm that can be depended upon. I like the fact that certain customs that we follow today were practised by my grandmother and great grandmother and will continue to be followed by my granddaughter and great granddaughter. I draw strength and comfort from the timeless nature of tradition.”
The embroidery done by the Ahir women is one of the most striking features of the community. Distinctive embroideries and appliqué embellishments are extensively used on all their clothing especially for the young, and to decorate their homes. As the woman grows older her clothing becomes more subdued with sparser embroidery. The old women wear no embroidery and prefer to use deep tones of red and maroon.

The Rabaris are also very fond of embroideries. Their work is very dense and time-consuming, and the motifs and patterns reflect aspects of their culture and environment. They have a repertoire (repetwaar) of motifs that include the camel, peacock, parrot and scorpion, and trees like the baval and amba. Each woman arranges these motifs in a style of her own, creating a unique design that reflects her personality, talent and creativity.Apart from their elaborate embroideries, the young Rabari girls wear a lot of bead decorations.  For their men, they embroider kediyas  and bukanis, and decorate the seams of their woollen blankets. 

Rabari Girl

The Rabari women in Kutch dress in black wool which insulates and helps maintain the body temperature, keeping them cool in summer and warm in winter.

It is believed that, a few hundred years ago, the Rabaris migrated from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan to Kutch. At that time, Jaisalmer had a Muslim ruler. Once, passing along the road, he saw a marriage celebration in full swing. The ruler heard the music and decided to visit the wedding mandap (tent). He was so completely captivated by the young bride that he expressed his desire to marry her. This was not acceptable to the Rabaris, as they never marry outside their own community. But they found it difficult to refuse the king’s request. After much thought, the elders informed the king that he should come the next day to claim the young bride, as that was the auspicious day for the wedding.

The king was pleased but the families of the bride and groom were distressed by the turn of events. It was decided that a few young men along with the couple should escape, while the dancing and music continued. The next day when the king arrived with his wedding procession to take back his beautiful bride, he discovered that the young girl had disappeared. He was so furious that he ordered the entire Rabari clan to be tortured and put to death. Since that day, Rabari women wear black in mourning.

The Rabaris marry on Janmashtami, the birthday of their deity, Lord Krishna. The boy goes to the bride’s house for the marriage to bring back his bride. 

Kediya [Ahir]
The Rabari bridegroom is elaborately dressed in an embroidered kediya and chorani, and is decked with gold, silver and bead-work ornaments.

In 1983, my friend Hiroko and I attended Rabari celebrations at Mindiyara village where 52 weddings took place in a single night. As we stood at the village square, every few minutes a wedding procession passed us on the way to the bride’s house.

Even today though child marriages have been prohibited by law, they do take place in Kutch.  The two fathers carry their children, and walk around the fire to take the wedding vows. At one such wedding, the bridegroom wore a peacock feather with a bulb that flickered on and off as the fathers walked around the fire with the bride and groom fast asleep in their arms.

The embroideries, which were once created for personal use, are today made to earn a living. Far from reflecting their own creative sensibilities, the embroideries feed the demands of the urban traders who provide patterns printed on fabric pieces along with the thread required for the embroidery.

Exquisite embroidered textiles were also commissioned by the royalty, religious institutions and rich patrons. Influenced by Mughal karkhanas, in the early 18th century, Ramsinh Malam, under the patronage of Maharao Lakhpatji, set up many workshops in Bhuj and Mandvi to produce textiles and artefacts.

Highly skilled craftsmen were employed to create intricate embroideries and woven textiles, paintings, lacquer-work, enamel-work, jewellery, silverware and other artefacts. Under the royal patronage, vast quantities of superbly crafted pieces of art, architecture and textiles were created, which provided regular livelihood to a large number of artisans.

Hindu Mochis were employed to create the finest silk embroideries, while the Muslim artisans created grand, embossed gold thread embroideries. Mochis, the cobbler community artisans employed by the royal karkhanas, created intricate chain-stitch embroidery. They used a long awl to embroider on fabric. The embroideries were done mostly on satin silk, with threads of silk floss imported from China, which came in through the port at Mandvi.

A ghaghara piece in yellow satin silk, embroidered in chain stitch by a Mochi artisan was first exhibited at the Great Exhibition, in London, in 1851, and drew international attention to the richness of Kutchi embroidery. This was the first in a series of World Trade Fair exhibitions on culture and industry, the largest trade show the world had ever seen. Several varieties of Indian textile techniques were shown at the fair and Indian artisans were brought to Europe to demonstrate their skills.

From Kutch, embroidery, leather-work, silverware and jewellery were showcased at this exhibition. Owen Jones, one of the collectors for the exhibition, commented: ‘The Indian and Tunisian articles were the most perfect in design compared to any other that appeared in the exhibition. The Indian work, in particular, showed all the principles, all the unity, all the truth, for which we had looked elsewhere in vain.’  In this he echoed a broader admiration for Indian arts, crafts and textiles.
Personally, collaborating with craftspeople has been one of the most fruitful experiences of my life and I have learned as much about human relationships as about craft processes and techniques. It has become the base for my design vocabulary and has had an immense impact on my visual language and design practice.

Archana Shah is a graduate of NID. Inspired by all that she saw in Kutch and particularly the bandhani technique,  in the early 1980s, when she started her company to design and manufacture handcrafted clothing, she named it BANDHEJ – thus celebrating her ties and bonds with the Kutch region.


She has also written a visually sumptuous book on Kutch entitled ‘Shifting Sands’ published by Bandhej.

To buy the book at a special discount