Our country is a treasure trove of embroidery. But what is the status of this craft and the artisans today? Read on…

The embroidery scene in the country is remarkable in its richness and variety. From the bold and beautiful crewel work of Kashmir to the fine convent embroidery of Tamil Nadu, the range is extraordinary. Much of it is centuries old and reflects various cultural influences.

The Phulkari from the Punjab that creates a Bagh or garden; the vibrant stitches that make the arid landscape of Kutch light up with colour; the delicate, lace like Chikankari of Uttar Pradesh wafting the Mughal influence; the ever trendy white, black and red of the tribal work of the Todas of Tamil Nadu; the exquisite stitches of the Chamba Rumal of Himachal Pradesh; the Shahenshahi richness of gold and silver on dark velvet from Agra; the economy and the beauty of the running stitches of Kantha of West Bengal; the chariots, elephants and geometric designs of the Kasuti of Karnataka, and the appliqué of Gujarat. All these lovely multi-coloured strands came together at the “Embroideries of India 2010” exhibition organised by the Crafts Council of India at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Chennai, recently.

But then what is the status of Indian embroidery today? How popular are the products made by these skilled artisans who make the imagination pass through the eye of the needle? How well are the artisans carrying forward authentic styles? Is there enough adaptation to modern needs and changing markets? How much has the situation of artisans improved in the last 20 years? Are organisations offering enough support? Some of the answers emerged at the exhibition where the traditions listed above came together to find appreciative women buyers.

Stunning wall hanging

At the entrance, the stunning Kantha embroidered wall hanging took one straight to the heart of a colourful jungle. Multi-hued birds and beasts either winged or swung their way through the tree dotted paradise.

The embroidery which arose from the thrift of women who sewed together old saris to make quilts, had been used to make a beautiful decorative wall piece by Monindra Lal Das of Tantipura near Santiniketan in West Bengal. The saris sold by his grandson Ashok Kumar Das showed innovation in design and colour.

“Kantha has a much better market than 20 years ago. Chennai buyers are discerning,” he said. “My dada does the designing while my bhabhi (sister-in-law) is in charge of the 55 girls who do the work.” They have a repertoire of 50 designs worked on locally produced tussar as well as Bangalore silk.

The Phulkari stall owner, Satinder Pal Singh from Patiala, was no less happy though the prices of his products did not evoke a matching joy in prospective buyers. “But then they must have been machine embroidered,” he said.

The average buyer finds it difficult to distinguish between the hand embroidered and the machine embroidered. The same goes for Kasuti. Traditionally, the Phulkari embroidered kameez material is a wedding gift from the mother to her daughter, said Singh. The products he markets are made by women below the poverty line.

“Our work is all hand embroidered,” said Vaisali Shah of Saanskrutie, an enterprise run by three generations of women in the same family. “Our products -- saris, kurtis, borders, bags, skirts, blouses and dupattas -- are sourced from skilled craftswomen in Ahmedabad and the villages of Gujarat. The demand has risen by 60 per cent in the past 15 years since we set up shop in Chennai. Gujarat embroidery is vibrant and so young people like it. But they want something smart and wearable. Designing and creativity are what distinguish our products,” she said.

The Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, a non-governmental organisation, is an initiative of the craftswomen of Kutch from 173 villages. It was founded soon after the Gujarat earthquake. A keen watch is maintained on quality and the bags, quilts, dolls and cushion covers enjoy a constant demand in the urban areas. KMVS has 12,000 members and the proceeds go towards their empowerment.

Breathing fresh life into Lambadi tribal embroidery was Porgai from Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu. Despite one not seeing too many customers around the stall, Tejeswani assured me that the sales of her Kasuti embroidery was good. Her unit in Ranibennur in Karnataka employs 50 women who take the work home.

The craftspersons of Agra are also happy to adhere to time-tested designs that originated during the time of the Mughals. “Foreigners especially love our hand bags, clutches and boxes. We have a good market for Christmas ornaments in London” said young Sameer of Mughal Zari Arts. “This craft has been pursued for four generations in our family and our entire extended family is in this business.” The products are designed by his father Hafizuddin. “Bags sell the best,” said Sameer pointing to the zari embroidered velvet clutches. His aunt Tabassum, a U.P. State awardee for zardozi embroidery, nodded in happy agreement.

Sadhna, a women's enterprise from Udaipur, Rajasthan, seemed to have adapted to changing needs in the country. Its embroidered kurtis are a big draw with urban women. Despite being quite highly priced, the stall selling cotton saris with appliqué work also sold well because it addressed a need in hot Chennai.

“Women love embroidery and it enjoys a rising popularity,” said Gita Ram of CCI. More power to the fingers that weave such spells and draw more into the enticing webs of tradition!

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