"Desert Flowers" - a talk to the Embroiderers Guild - part 1.
Following a conversation in the gallery, Silk Road director Peter was invited to give a talk to the Sheffield Embroiderers Guild early December 2019.
We started buying embroidered textiles when we first when to India in 1978. At that time we had a large shop in Sheffield called Bringing It All Back Home and we still have the embroidery that often hung outside the shop, a piece made in the early 20th century to decorate a wedding courtyard in Gujarat.
The embroidery is on indigo dyed cloth - you often see indigo plants growing wild as a weed in Gujarat. The long satin stitches have worn away in parts but the shesha mirrors, held in place with a buttonhole type of chain stitch, are mostly intact.
Sheesha mirrors are made by blowing a glass sphere and coating the inside with molten zinc. When you break the glass into small pieces they have a slight curvature and often contain tiny air bubbles.
I like the reverse of this piece too, especially if the light is shining through the pale madder cloth. The reverse sides of embroideries are interesting as they often reveal the skill of the maker and their economy and discipline with the threads. In this case you can actually see a trace of the embroidery on the front side.
Several women in the audience had fond memories of Bringing It All Back Home - which rambled through many rooms and three floors like an old Silk Road Bazaar - and some remembered getting married wearing our embroidered Afghan Kuchi dresses.
Rajasthan and Gujarat are in the west of India, we looked at a map to get an idea of the location and the nearby state of Sindh, in Pakistan, and, to the north, Afghanistan.
Flying from the UK to Delhi you pass over a seemingly endless barren grey brown landscape that extends from Eastern Turkey through Iran, Afghanistan, Sindh and Rajasthan and you might find yourself wondering how people exist in such inhospitable land. It seems that the more barren the landscape the greater is the desire for colour and the women of all these regions use colourful embroidery to embellish clothes and furnishings.
Most of the embroidery in Rajasthan and Gujarat is made to be part of a bride's dowry. Traditionally a bride will go and live with the groom's family and the bride and her family will give embroidered textiles to the groom and his household. These may take the form of Torans and Chaklas and the quality of the embroidery will bestow merit on the bride's family.
Toran is an old Persian word meaning gateway and Torans - sometimes with an image of Ganesh - are often hung over the entrance to a house. Ganesh is the Hindu elephant god regarded as the remover of obstacles, an auspicious sign to hang over a doorway.
This is a modern Toran from our collection that could be hung above a bed or sofa.
The next piece is early - mid 20th century. The detail photo shows representations of peacocks and parrots, the classic birds of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
This long old frieze is about 4 metres long and completely decorated with scenes from Indian village life. Like the other textiles it is full of organic life: flowers, birds and people. The woman on the right holding a flower is wearing a gold nose ring typical of this region.
This lovely dowry piece has been enhanced with small cowrie shells which give it an elegance as do the alternating colours of the stitching round the mirrors. You can see the curvature of the sheesha glass on the larger mirrors in the middle.
The next item has also been decorated with small cowrie shells. It's a man's wedding shawl, or malir, from the Barmer district in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. Similar items can be found over the border in adjacent Sindh, in Pakistan. It would be given to the groom by the bride's family for his wedding day.
The cloth is printed in the Ajrak resist style with additional embroidery. Ajrak cloth is the oldest type of printed cloth in India, dating back to the Indus Valley civilisation of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. The embroidery in the corners, done by the bride, includes peacocks for fertility and small bright sheesha mirrors. Small decorative shells and coins symbolise wealth and give some weight to the fabric helping to keep in it place.
Staying with the theme of wedding shawls the talk moved on to Afghanistan and a different style of embroidery. But before we move on here's another photo of the vintage Toran above a beautiful bronze statue of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
There's no living trace today of Buddhism in Rajasthan or Gujarat but a few years ago we found the remains of an old Buddhist stupa and monastery buildings at Viratnagar which is just a few miles from the Delhi to Jaipur highway. You can read about that in our blog Buddhist Ruins in Rajasthan.
To be continued in the next blog.