Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
Vibrant design vocabulary
There is a compelling magic about India's textile traditions which can be traced back 5000 years to Harappa and Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley. Indian design has its roots in the philosophical and social aspects of several years of traditional ways of living. The intermingling of the rituals and beliefs of the local people with those of the various traders, conquerors, missionaries and nomads who have criss-crossed over the subcontinent down the ages has produced an amalgam of rich textile influences.
Amr Vastr Koshi
Primitive man lived in total harmony with nature and therefore his surroundings played a vital role in influencing his artistic endeavours. He worshipped his staples - the elements and the animals around him - and it is from these that he drew inspiration converting them into sensuous motifs to ornament the walls of his dwellings, his weapons and his utensils. The aesthetic primitive abstraction of this early craftsman stemming out of his instinctive love for the beautiful produced a never-ending panorama of motifs which he used to beautify his everyday objects thus giving an identity to them.
Mud bas reliefs have long been used in India to decorate the walls of houses and dwellings and the finest examples of these stylised paintings are the Warli paintings of Maharashtra and the Madhubani paintings of Bihar which exemplify stories from the Mahabaratha. In many areas even today, Goddess Lakshmi is propitiated by painting simple one dimensional pictures on the walls. In spite of their simplicity, these motifs exude a strong vitality and provide intense visual stimulation. People also tattooed these simple motifs of animals and weapons on their shoulders and arms to ward off the evil eye and to protect them from the elements and other evil omens.
Amr Vastr Koshi
The creation of wall paintings and frescoes provided an inspiration for the weaver and printer to exhibit their talent for ornamentation on cloth. The archaeological finds in the Indus Valley and the evidence of madder dyed and resist printed cloth found in the ruins at Fostat, Egypt bear ample testimony to the highly developed artistic skill of India's early man. He first experimented by painting mythological figures from the epics onto temple cloth by using mordants, brushes and pens giving rise to the famous art of kalamkari. The frescoes at Ajantha and Ellora going back to the 6th century AD reveal garments with this style of printing and are evidence of the refined talent of the early printer. The frescoes also show garments with stripes, circles and checks as well as bandhani, conventional floral motifs and figured muslins. Slowly, printing blocks with the motifs in raised relief began to appear. The motifs used by Kalamkari artists varied depending on the clientele they were catering to. For the Hindus, the motifs were mainly mythological whereas for the Muslims, it was decidedly Persian in taste. A favourite motif for the Muslim consumer was the tree of life set in a niche on the western wall of the mosque. Birds were perched on the branches and animals were found resting in the shade of the benign tree. Towards the 16th century, with the advent of the Mughal rulers and their patronage of the arts, beautiful floral and animal mofits like the lion, elephant and horse began to emerge.
The block printers from Sanganer and Bagru combine diagonal lines with motifs like the lily, the rose, the mango and the flame and the printing done here is so deft that it is often hard to tell the right from the wrong side. The elaborate bandhani motifs of Rajasthan comprise several dots or circles produced by tying knots and resist dying.
A desert landscape
Animal, bird and flower motifs are predominantly used in Gujarat for weaving the patola. The silk weavers of Kanchipuram use an array of stylised animal and bird motifs like the elephant, peacock and swan interspersed with scroll and geometric shapes. The malli moghu, rudraksham and the thazhamboo are examples of motifs used by these weavers. The ikats of Orissa and the Telias of Andhra Pradesh are distinctive because of the geometrical motifs in the weave comprising wheels, squares, diamonds, dots and trellis which are sometimes enclosed in squares with bands around them. The world renowned Kashmiri shawls are woven with a fascinating combination of motifs like the chenar leaf, apple and cherry blossoms, rose, tulip, pear, nightingale and oriole. In contrast the shawls from Assam and Nagaland use bright colours and a profusion of geometric motifs along with animal, bird, fish and doll characters. In Uttar Pradesh, the weavers make a fascinating composite of flowers, foliage, animals, birds and hunting scenes to magically produce the rich gold and silk thread brocade.
When embroidery was first introduced to further embellish the wearing apparel, the motifs used were gopurams, raths, flowers, and animals based on temple architecture. Although most embroidery styles around India use similar motifs, the tribals further enhance their motifs by embellishing them with beads, shells, tassels, coins, and mirrors. The mirrors they believe have the power to deflect evil powers and hold them at bay.
While interpretation of motifs is rather speculative, there are some broad connotations attached to common motifs. Natural forms of the elements when used as motifs suggest the desire of the craftsman to put some meaningful reality into his work. The bird, which is a common motif is supposed to be a mediator between this world and the world of spirits. Birds of prey denote emblems of power and nobility and the cock, which announces the dawn of day is supposed to dispel darkness. The tree of life rises into the three spheres with its roots coming out of the underworld, its trunk rising through the terrestrial world and its branches reaching into the heavens. The tree also denotes the universal cycle of birth, maturity, death, and rebirth.
The ancient practice of worshipping the sun and fire as life-giving forces gave rise to a variety of motifs like the swastika, the moon and the stars. Motifs involving horned and antlered animals were supposed to magically infuse the spirit of the hunted creature into the hunter and protect him from the dangers of the hunt. Fertility symbols were important and the most popular of these is the pomegranate with its abundance of seeds. This was embroidered on marriage bed covers and on curtains around the bed. The conch shell and the tulip were associated with female fertility and abundance and so used to decorate domestic bags and clothing. Motifs of flowers in general heralded the arrival of spring and were used copiously on most weavings. Decorative embroidery done around the edges and openings of garments were a protection against harmful forces that might attack the body. Because of their deep rooted animistic beliefs, people of all faiths believed in the protective powers of the amulet which were made with different motifs and shapes. As tribal identities solidified, a particular motif like the arrow or horn was adopted as their emblem and incorporated into the weavings of tent covers, carpets and so on. Conquered smaller tribes were forced to display the victor's emblem as a sign of allegiance.
The vivid tapestry of Indian design and motif as we know it today is therefore a synthesis of the myths and imagery of various cultures, and the romance of this dynamic textile tradition is passed on from father to son, and from mother to daughter endlessly safeguarding the heritage that is definitely Indian.
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