Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
An embroidered way of life
Every encounter with the "sparkling and wondrously hued" embroidery of the Rabari tribes of Gujarat is unforgettable, taking one into a world of exploding colours and unique embroidery forms, each bold stitch, whorl, motif and shining mirror reflective of the rituals and folklore, festivals and fashions and indeed the very ethos and history of these naturally wandering people. My own initial encounter came in the shape of a distantly glimpsed oasis of swirling, merging colours in the harsh Kutch landscape, through which I, a less natural wanderer, was journeying. On closer inspection the oasis metamorphosed into a bevy of young Rabari maidens, incredibly dazzling in their embroidered costumes, the glinting sunlight creating pools of irridescent brilliance around the abhalas dancing on their ghagros and ludis.
A stop at their hut for water was literally like entering an Alladin's cave of embroidered treasures: multi-hued torans shimmering with the sparkle of mirrors, chaklas and wall-hangings transforming humble hut walls into rich embroidered tapestries in which parrots and peacocks cavorted, heaps of dowry bags celebrating the magical colours and nuances of Rabari embroidery, glittering supari bags, purses and much more. It was as if embroidery held these simple people in its embrace, spoke their language and gave them a voice, as indeed it does. It not only embellishes their textile and apparel, defines their functional ritual-decorative objects and invests them with special significance but also denotes wealth and prosperity. As Judy Frater, an expert in tribal weaves puts it, ". . . it can be read as a historical record of these largely illiterate people . . . ."
Embroidery is a vital, living and evolving expression of the craft and textile traditions of the Rabaris, a nomadic people who came to Gujarat via Sindh, Rajasthan, Baluchistan and even further beyond. While the origins of this primal embroidery are lost in the mists of time, a lingering similarity with ancient Baluch embroidery points to distant roots while the sanctity of the camel amongst the Rabaris and its embroidered depiction in chaklas and kothalos definitely points to Rajasthani connections. Rabari women have diligently embroidered textiles as an expression of creativity, aesthetics and identity as far back as the tribe's collective memory goes. While afternoons are embroidery time in all Rabari villages when women routinely embroider trousseaus, everyday apparel, dowry bags, etc., it is significant events like impending marriages, births and festivals which signal a flurry of activity. The women feverishly embroider and embellish the bride's ghagro (skirt), kanchali (blouse) and ludi (veil), the groom's kediyan or shirt, children's cradle cloths as well as dowry bags and auspicious torans. In the process of "painting (these pieces) with their needles", the women both preserve and perpetuate their lives, lifestyle and times, embroidering colourful vignettes of everyday life and rituals, auspicious birds and animals and emblems, myths and motifs as well as oral tales of the tribe told over centuries.
Traditional Rabari embroidery, done mostly on cotton and less so on silk, wool and mashru, follows its own paramparic design logic, and juxtaposition of colours and motifs. Using the basic embroidery colours of red, black, green, yellow, white and orange and executed in cotton or silk thread, Rabaris have a repertoire of stitches like herringbone, square chain, double button hole, pattern darning and running stitch. Mirrors, tassels, beads, sequins as well as quilting, tie and dye and applique are part of the vibrant embroidery traditions. Ghagros, ludis and kanchali are all embroidered with paramparic motifs and in the stitches mentioned, though within the Rabari concept and format the embroiderer can exercise a lot of individual creativity in placement of sequins, applique and stitches. Regional variations, mirroring the adoption of already existing embroidery skills by the Rabaris in their place of settlement can also be seen. Thus while a Sorathi Rabari ludi may have a lot of appliqued motifs, that of the Rajkot Rabaris may be a brilliant montage of mirrors, sequins, bandhani, tassels, fringes and embroidery. Ghagros too can be lightly bordered with mirror work and motifs, or as in the case of the more affluent Patan Rabari, it can be a tapestry of richly embroidered red, blue and yellow floral motifs, and resplendent with mirrors. Children's dresses too are richly embroidered while the Kutchi man's kediyan for festive occasions is delicately embellished with back stitches and seam joining. The backless kanchali, a couturier's delight, can be heavily embroidered with geometric motifs placed on the bust and at the shoulders, created in plain matallic brocade, or the huge mirrors can be placed on the sides, giving it a pure designer touch.
Temple motifs, women balancing pots on their heads (paniyari), mango leaves, coconuts, scorpions, camels, parrots, elephants and the tree of life are some of the beloved and auspicious motifs of Rabari embroidery. These play a vital part in creating the microcosm of Rabari life which the embroidery conveys, although the artist's individual predelictions, whims, economic status and so on play an equally vital role. Thus a kothalo may be a densely embroidered many-motifed and sequinned affair or an elegantly stark representation of minimally embellished quilting, and the toran can speak in practically every exuberant dialect of the Rabari embroidery language.
And so the deft, moving fingers of Rabari womenfolk embroider, and having embroidered, move on to create more intimate vignettes and frames of a culture and a way of life of which embroidery is a vibrant expression and celebration and its sole documented record.
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