With geographical salient, disparate regions and rich cultural diversity, India is steeped into cultural lore. The 28 states of India are endearing in more ways than one and in this post, we will equip ourselves with the distinctive characteristics of 8 time-honoured handloom and embroidery of India. This article was originally published in Travel Links Magazine.
As we foray into the rural alcoves of one state and navigate into the urban landscapes of another, we realize that perhaps we are a unique country blessed with a range of tantalizing regional cuisines, fabulous architectural marvels, sublime natural beauties and heterogeneous art works. The vibrant Indian bazaars spread happiness and our festivals are source of jubilation. While we thrive on our culture and folklores, we are described best as the oldest creators and connoisseurs of art, craft and handlooms.
It is no hidden fact that the golden hands of the Indian weavers and artisans give shape to emotions into designs and India boasts of vast range of handlooms and embroidery. When it comes to their origination, we must thank our villages and the artists for their primitive simplicity and enchanting artistry. India is one of the biggest treasure troves of hand-crafted products and the list is exhaustive and globally acclaimed. From Pashmina shawls of Kashmir, Patola of Gujarat, Muga Silk of Assam, to Kancheepuram sarees of South India, we excel in both, traditional handlooms and old-school artistry.
Let us indulge in the epitome of fine craftsmanship and cultural ethos.
1. Puthukali of Toda Tribes
The Todas have earned popularity for being one of the most unusual ethnic group in the Niligiris or the ‘Blue mountains. Having been around for several centuries, they prefer to adhere to secretive customs and casteless system of their own. They are also known for their unique love for buffalo herding and authentic embroidery garments. So, while you are exploring the beautiful green outskirts and rolling tea estates of Kothagiri, Ooty and Coonor, you must not forget to ask for the Toda tribes and their bamboo huts. And if you see a white fabric (usually one piece or a shawl), enriched with rich red and black motifs, you must know its Puthukali. This artistry that emerges from this area is a rich and embossed embroidery work, done on the reverse of the cloth. Colloquially, it is also known as “pukhoor”.
The art of decorating cloth with needle work using different types of threads is called embroidery. These Nilgiri tribes make use of nine unique embroidery patterns, which include the sun, moon, squirrels, rabbits, and buffalo, quite prominently. They make use of three colours, pale white, red and black only for they are of great significance to the tribes. The ladies of the tribe do not use any particular stitching pattern but are inspired by nature and local mythologies. A finished product is reversible with both sides. Along with the art, don’t miss the rich biodiversity of the Nilgiri region which is home to nearly 3500 species of flowering plants.
2. Rumaal (handkerchief) embroidery from Chamba
And they say ‘Shimla nahin basna, Kasauli nahin basna, Chamba jana zaroor’
Don’t settle in Shimla, not even in Kasauli but do check out Chamba.
Let us head to the quintessential region of Chamba to be lured with the tales of Himachal Pradesh’s unique kerchiefs, once patronised by the royals. While the state is blessed with rich history, architecture, art and agricultural delights, its needle art work is one of the most precious and aesthetic art forms from the region. Chamba Rumaal embroidery or the kerchief with double-sided embroidery is believed to be the favourite pastime of the queens of the 17th century. There are many embroidery practices in India but this has a distinct characteristic of its own. Beautiful figurines and patterns were used from the mythological stories. Some of the motifs were also taken from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Later, when the King and the nobles hired artists to record the court happenings in Pahari paintings, the ladies copied them with their stitches.
Since the royals had a fascination for these kerchiefs, the cloth used were usually handwoven cotton(khaddar), muslin (mal-mal) or silk. The best part about these rumaals is that there are no visible knots giving a smooth effect on both the sides, thanks to (do rukh) double satin stitch. The technique of the stitch is such that it is done in downward to upward manner which creates an outstanding finesse. These kerchiefs were exchanged as gifts during weddings and royal ceremonies. Many self-help groups and individual artists have kept the art alive even today and one can buy these art works during your visit there or in art exhibitions.
3. Tangaliya from Gujarat
There are many unique craftsmanship of Kutch Saurashtra region of Gujarat and one such is Tangaliya woolen shawl from Saurashtra. Mostly carried out by Dangasia community, there goes a lovely legend behind this art. A shepherd married his ladylove from the weaver’s community and later when he was disowned by his own family, he stayed with his in-laws where he combined the two skills. He used the wool from the sheep and did weaving on the cloth made by it. Another folk tale says that there was a barter system between two communities, Bhadwads and Dangasiyas. The former provided wool and the latter thrived on their weaving craftsmanship.
The word Tangaliya signifies lower part of the body. It was supposed to be a drape for the waist but gradually it evolved into a shawl. The other name of Tangaliya weaving is ‘Daana weaving’ which is inspired from the style of it. The high density of tiny and bright-colored dots lend a bead effect to the embroidery. The placement of these ‘danas’ on the dark or light cloths gives birth to four different styles- Ramraj, Charmalia, Dhunslu and Lobdi. The danas are weaved by wrapping up of small pieces of yarns and are placed in patterns inspired by floral and geometrical motifs.
The craft is not just restricted to the preparation of shawls or dress material but is also quite popular from home décor accessories.
4. Chendamangalam dhotie
When we are talking of handlooms, God’s own Country, Kerala cannot be forgotten. Some of the world class hand-woven fabrics are produced in this region. When it comes to white sarees and dhotis worn during marriages and festive times, the unique combination of Kerala sarees and mundus with a kasavu (gold zari) border win hands-down. Chendamangalam is a village of weavers in the Ernakulam district in Kerala and one must visit the place for its dhoties. This charming region rich and traditional handloom quality.
The magic of the dhotie lies in the rounding of its warp threads. One of the most prominent features of a genuine Chendamangalam dhotie is that the dhoti is woven with undyed grey cotton yarns. For a fine texture, there is no room for compromise with thread density. The dhoti has a very fine surface due to fine count cotton yarn and is patterned with Kasavu Zari.
5. Balarampuram sarees of Kerala
Balarampuram is also one of those villages of India that safeguards the traditional varieties of hand loom textiles. The sarees produced here reflect the contemporary cloth wearing style of Kerala. Located some 13 kilometers away of South East of Thiruvananthapuram, Balaramapuram is the place where the national costume for women of Kerala comes from.
It is believed that handloom was weaving was introduced in this region by Highness Maharaja Balaramavarma (1798 – 1810) and it started with 7 weavers who had come down from Nagarcoil and Thirunelveli in Tamil Nad. Today, all the families are descenetsa of them. Though it is believed that the he age-old techniques are still followed and that’s the beauty of these sarees, either in zari designs or coloured yarns.
Do explore Balarampuram for its temples and cuisine.
6. Kasooti or Kasuti from Karnataka
This one brings a lot of cultural significance from the state of Karnataka. It is one of the most popular art forms of the state and is one of the oldest forms of Indian embroidery. It is believed to have been originated in the Chalukya dynasty. Every thread must be counted for its accuracy and that also becomes its USP. Drawing the pattern or design with a pencil or charcoal is how it should begin. The name Kasuti (Kannada) is made from two prominent words Kai (hand) and Suti (cotton).
The four prominent stitches are like strong pillars of this embroidery- the gavanti or double running stitch, the muragi or zig zag running stitch, the neygi or darning stitch and henthe or cross stitch. Kasuti work involves intricate stitching and some of the common patterns used are gopura, palanquin, lamps and chariot. Parrots and other geometrical motifs also adorn a Kasuti saree. One very interesting observation about the embroidery is that it that sometimes its pallu design may not have any theme and patterns and that makes it unique. Kasuti is usually done on silk fabric or matty/canvas like material.
7. Mangalgiri Cotton Sarees
A pure cotton weave is the most environment friendly and sustainable fashion product from any place. Just 16 kilometres from the city of Vijayawada in the state of Andhra Pradesh lies the small temple town of Mangalagiri, where you can actually see the process of handicraft weaving of the popular and vibrant Mangalagiri sarees. This age-old art of weaving the softest cotton, a perfect summer wear, has a history of more than five hundred years. The tight weave and the use of bright colours with contrast makes them stand out from the rest.
An impressive range of saris and fabric, crafted by skilled weavers. Woven from pure cotton, these sarees stand out with two distinctive characteristics – Nizam design borders with golden thread and plain body. The non-zari versions are equally pretty and elegant. Another very charming feature of the Mangalgiri cottons is that they can be dyed in variety of colours and can also be used as base for umpteen crafts. And last but not the least, while you are in the state of Andhra Pradesh, you must not miss the spicy cuisine, temples, and some of the most popular black sand beaches.
8. Unique works of North east
Have you heard about the Assamese, Mishing, Bodo, Naga, Mizo textiles, as well as the eri silk, mulberry silk, dupion silkas and muga ghicha? Well this is just a small glimpse; the list is endless. North-eastern states of India are a treasure trove of heritage art and work. While they are known for their deep-rooted and intimate culture, they also have their own distinct, dynamic set of traditions, mythology, history and more. If you have an eye for something created artistically by human hands, the tribal art and craft of the whole of North East India will leave you overwhelmed. With time, some changes have also come like Lepcha weaves that used nettle yarn originally are now made with cotton.
The motifs and designs used in these textiles are unlike the rest of India. They are largely inspired by the rituals and the tribal cultures of the locals. Different ethnic groups use different materials and some even use animal skin and hair. Manipur swears by its embroidery and every motif, colour and weave has a meaning. At the same time the Angami Naga shawls are eye-catchy for their animal motifs.
And while you are exploring the states of North East of India, do look for the fringed Endi cloth with red and white stripes or the variety of waist bands (gamcha aka towels) that they boast of. Kuki ethnic group have a very interesting Jang Jenateun. The ladies of Kabui Naga ethnic group wear beautiful cotton skirts called Engewina. The Sangtam Naga warriors have their Rongsis, square shaped woven designs on cotton cloth. The fine Tripuri cotton is used to make many kinds of dresses. While the red, black and blue stripes make for diverse waist towels and dresses for different Naga ethnic groups, untwisted silk thread on the border of the phanek (a lungi or lower body wrap worn by women) makes for Manipuri style.
Time-honoured Handloom and Embroidery of India
The GI (Geographical Indication) tags have been one of the best steps to calibrate the uniqueness of some of the products of an area. The Indian fashion industry has also been trying to lure a whole new generation of consumers by championing the cause of Indian weaves. Now, the onus lies on us. We need to revive our passion for handlooms and embroidered clothes. It is important to have an eye for the genuine products, whenever and wherever we travel.
When Gandhiji revolutionised Khadi, handloom weaving emerged as one the core aspects of our self-reliance but sadly, the business proposition and the interests of the artisans have not found balance even today. The weavers are worst affected and still not able to support substantial livelihoods. The rising numbers of power looms, imitations with low-grade materials and absence of strong frameworks to safeguard the weaver’s interests, have been detrimental to our rich crafts. 7th August is indeed celebrated as National handloom day but one day is just not enough to safeguard this legacy. As consumers, its high time we join the force and make these products a part of our home and lifestyle. Let us become aware of our products and continue learning and sharing.