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Vintage Textiles: Heritage on Decline

 

India has a rich heritage of textiles, which have become important sought-after collectibles all over the globe for their ornate designs, vivid colours and intricate techniques. However, despite the huge demand for these cultural fabrics, there are certain textiles that remain in the shadows, undiscovered and unappreciated by people. These textiles possess their own aesthetic charm as a product of exquisite processes, and are also historically relevant, but they have failed to capture the public eye, and now are on the verge of extinction.

PARSI EMBROIDERY

Also known as Grara, this embroidery features rich designs set in vivid colours offset on pastel shades and pale white, crafted on all four sides of the fabric. Each textile can take up to 9 months to make, and the tedious and intricate work makes the textile a very costly commodity. This aesthetically colourful and delicately embellished textile has its roots in Bronze Age Iran, from where it travelled to India, China and Europe. The Chinese influences in this Parsi tradition can be traced back to the Chinese pherias (craftpersons), who came to India in the 19th and 20th century and taught Parsi women their indigenous style of embroidery. Each textile highlights symbolic motifs inspired from various elements and locations: while the reverence to nature is evident from symbols of the cypress tree, chakla-chakli, trees and birds, the ode to the pheria tradition is conscipucous through depictions of Chinese court scenes, gardens and flowers like the peony and chrysanthemum. Traditionally the pride of Parsi households, Parsi embroidery has now lost its hold over India, even within the Parsi community, and has been rendered a rare collectible, owned and possessed by a select few.

TODA EMBROIDERY

Set in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu, this textile exudes a rich tribal aura and is deeply steeped in regional beliefs and practices. Embroidery is done using red and black thread on white fabric to create shawls, locally known as Poothkuli, drapes, dupattas, table cloths, skirts, etc. This distinctive style of embroidery, regionally called Pugur meaning flower, is produced by both men and women, who create designs inspired by the tattoos of their ancestors. Motifs include crosses, rosettes and bulls, possibly influenced by Anatolian symbols, and the colours, black, red and white, epitomize the underworld, earth and heaven, respectively. Toda textiles use reverse embroidery, with the underside of the fabric being used as the right side, and embroidery is so fine that it is often mistaken for weaving. While a matter of pride for the Todas, the embroidery has started losing its relevance in the face of urbanization and mechanization of cloth, and has further faced a setback because of the economic backwardness of the tribe.

PATOLA SAREES

Patola means ‘queen of silk’, and true to their name, the Patola silk sarees, hailing from Gujarat, are one of the finest handloom traditions, which flaunt delicate designs woven with clarity and precision. The tradition was brought in by the Salvi weavers under the Solanki Rajputs in Gujarat in the 12th century, and earned fame under the patronage of wealthy Gujarati merchants, eventually becoming an essential part of a woman’s closet. The sarees exhibit flaming colours embellished with geometric designs, portraying animals, flowers, human figures and birds, and some sarees even incorporate Kundan and Zardosi sequins. The Rajkot variety of the Patola is made using single ikkat, while the Patan style utilizes double ikkat, with weaving on both sides so the saree can be draped either way. Patola sarees are time-consuming and elaborate, and can take up to 4-6 months for completion, making them extremely valuable and expensive commodities, with prices soaring up to 7 lakhs. The intricate work discourages craftpersons from practicing this tradition, and currently, there are only four families keeping the Patola tradition alive, leaving the future of these sarees very uncertain.

CHAMBA RUMAAL

Chamba rumaals date back to the 2nd century, and are heavily inspired by the Pahari School of miniature art. These handkerchiefs are made on square or rectangular fabric, and the base art is made by miniature artists, while the embroidery is carried out by Himachali women. The illustration on either side is more or less the same, and the embroidery is done in a range of colours by a double stitch that is carried both ways alternately so that either side is filled up equally and symmetrically. Motifs are derived from traditional tales such as Mahabharata and Ramayana as well as texts such as the Bhagwad Puranas, and the textile features lives of the community members as well as scenes depicting Krishna with his gopis. The lack of popular patronage over the last few years has forced the Chambal rumaals into obscurity, making it very difficult for embroiders to survive. Several strides have been taken towards revival by the government, the locals and other artisans, and only time can narrate the future of this diminishing tradition.

ROGAN TEXTILE

The Rogan textile is a centuries old tradition carried down the years by the Khatri community in the Kachchh region of Gujarat. It features intricate designs painted in bright colours, created from a thick paste of safflower, linseed or castor oil. This paste is applied in small portions to the palm, and then taken from the hand with a stylus, which is twisted across the fabric to create motifs and designs. The thick paint gives an embossed effect to the fabric, which is then folded on the blank side to create a mirror image of the design. The motifs are highly stylized, mostly floral in their look, and heavily inspired by natural and Persian designs, with the ‘Tree of Life’ being the most prominent depiction. This tradition faced a severe setback when artisans started shifting to machine made textiles, which were more cost-effective, leaving Rogan forgotten for many years. Recently, local artisans of the Khatri community have started producing wall pieces for display using Rogan, and have started training girls from other communities in the art of making this textile in order to revive the tradition.

SATGAON TEXTILE

A product of the mingling of the Indian and Portuguese culture, the Satgaon textile refers to the ornate quilts that were sent from Satgaon, Bengal to Portugal under colonial rule. The textile used cotton, jute or silk fabric, the surface of which was entirely embroidered with golden monochrome silk, while the outlines and designs were created using chain stitch, back stitch or running stitch. The motifs and iconography range from hunters, warriors and mythical creatures to birds, animals, flora and other natural elements that are positioned in specific patterns to give a uniform look to the textile. While the inspiration of this textile can be attributed to Indian cultural elements like Hinduism and Buddhism along with folk art, it is easy to spot European influences in the style and design as well, and the beauty of the Satgaon lies in the harmonious amalgamation of both these imprints. The textile lost its hold in the subcontinent following the Second World War and the end of imperialism, and artisans started moving away from this trade; while the Satgaon might accentuate the cultural ethos of Indian heritage, it is now nearly extinct as a tradition, with negligible demand and appreciation.

SAUDAGIRI TEXTILE

 

The Saudagiri is a block printed textile from Gujarat, which was exported from India to Southeast Asia under colonial rule, and the design was so popular that it inspired clothing such as the pha nung in Thailand. The textile is traditionally used to make safas (turbans) and chunaris (shawls) using small blocks coated with natural dyes made of henna, pomegranate skin, alum, myrobalan and madder; sometimes chrome colours are applied on the borders to enhance the beauty. After the bleaching, the fabric was placed over a pot of hot water so that the steam could soften the cloth and allow the dye to seep in. The process was very intricate and long-drawn; 125 pieces could be created in about two months with the help of 80 workers. The tradition which had emerged in the 1850s, started dying out by the 1960s because of lack of demand, and today, the Saudagiri stands on the verge of extinction and requires serious steps for revival.

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