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Rich tapestry of embroidery

Traditional embroidery, interlinked with every dimension of living, has a universal thread running through it; one that stands for a passion for creative expression and continuity. SABITA RADHAKRISHNA looks at an international seminar held recently that brought together all concerned with the sustenance of this craft.

EMBROIDERY, a needle craft which has been passed on for generations, from mother to daughter, shows signs of decline today, beginning with the urban areas, where career women have no time for such "pedestrian" skills. The pastoral tribes, whose mainstay for the women has been embroidery, did not have the impetus to market their goods to generate a comfortable income. With craft non governmental organisations very much on the scene today, these needle skills have been focussed upon and many of the styles have been revived alongside with marketing strategies.

Marketing the goods, which has been the biggest hurdle craftspersons face, has been looked at by craft NGOs and a platform provided for exhibiting and selling the beautiful embroidered products, bearing in mind the contemporary needs of this generation.

To showcase the rich repertoire of embroidery, the Crafts Council of India in collaboration with the Crafts Council of Andhra Pradesh (CCAP) and the Asian Secretariat of the World Craft Councils planned an Asia-Pacific Embroidery Seminar which brought together craftspersons - "the needle painters", NGOs who have worked with these craft communities of women, and other experts in the field. Ably supported by the Delhi Crafts Council, and the CCAP which organised this event, the forum dealt with issues concerned with the sustenance of this craft, learning the skills of marketing, and design intervention, without taking away the inherent aesthetic sense.

For young fashion designers, the seminar at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Madhapur, gave them added dimension for their study of textiles and design, as 13 countries came together with samples of outstanding embroidery representative of their regions. The interactive discussions the speakers had with each other strengthened their resolve to bring this wondrous craft into focus, and to eliminate to some degree the problems faced by craftspersons.

Traditional embroidery is so interlinked with every dimension of living, and often an esoteric idiom, that it is nearly impossible to slot them into categories. Very often, the embroidery traditions in each region point to communities, and reveal caste identities, status and the village of its origin. With the absence of education especially for girls, the tradition is passed on from mother to daughter, and is largely a "dowry" tradition. There is a universal thread running through the entire fabric, a passion for creative expression, for beauty and for traditional continuity.

The week-long seminar was spread over eight sessions, to cover historical perspectives, regional expressions, pastoral and nomadic traditions, South East Asian embroideries - tradition and change, the influence of market places, and joint sessions with the embroidery workshop. The bazaar had stalls which sold saris, shawls, pouch bags and table linen, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, embroidered skirts from Pushkar, and Kasuti-on ikkal saris and much more. The CCAP is to be specially commended for its superb arrangements for the seminar, which was sponsored by the office of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Government of India, and supported by the Department of Women's Development, Child Welfare and Disabled Welfare, Government of Andhra Pradesh.

Jasleen Dhamija, who was to have given the keynote address, sent a video presentation - an introduction of embroidery skills. Jagdish Mittal, founder-member of INTACH and noted textile collector, in the session on "Historical Perspectives," described Indian embroidery through the ages, with masterpieces from his own collection. Carter Khalid Malik from the United States in her paper on "Suzani Embroidery through the ages" spoke about the embroidered cloth covers and wall hangings that were created through the Silk Route, Bukhara, Samarkhand, Sakrisabs, Tashkent and Fergana. Women entered this male preserve, and Suzani embroidery was part of a daughter's dowry, and prized pieces covered a span of 250 years. Satrupa Dutta and Ruby Pal Choudhury, representing the Crafts Council of West Bengal, projected visuals of "Satgaon Quilts: Indo-Portuguese embroidery." They described it as a reflection of the political turmoil of the times. Robyn Maxwell senior curator of Asian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, talked about "Traditional Island Embroidery: From slit shells to cross stitch", followed by John Gillow of the United Kingdom who highlighted the embroidery of Sind and detailed the different embroidered pieces for every occasion, for animals, for the bride, and an entire trousseau, mind boggling in its intricacy and innumerable forms. Couching, applique, and metal thread work, embellished with tiny mirrors and beads were part of the repertoire.

The session on "Regional Expressions" began with Dinara Chocunbaeva, who unravelled the intricacies of "Kyrgyz embroidered wall panels: Tush - Kiizes" a craft which spans centuries. Whole wall panels are decorated for the bridal couple, with ornamental plant motifs for their well-being. As president of the Central Asia Craft Support Association, she expressed her views on the religious consciousness of the traditional art and how the craft was thematically supported by different ethnic groups of the people of Central Asia.

Ruby Ghaznavi of Bangladesh, opened new vistas of thought in her paper "Tradition of Kantha and Embroidery trends". Kantha embroidery is one of the most renowned and valued forms of embroidery of the region. The enchanted wrap is an amazing piece of art made of old saris and dhotis, and embroidered with the thread drawn from the sari borders. The kantha is an invocation to the gods and spirits for the prosperity and protection of the family. Mr. Joss Graham of the U.K. showed the audience some of his collection of rare slides, bringing to life phulkari work, in his presentation "Phulkari and Bagh: Embroidered Gardens from the Punjab, 1850-1950".

On the theme of "Pastoral and Nomadic Traditions", Dr. Judy Frater, with 30 years of research in the Kutch behind her, described the non-static status of embroidery tradition in her paper "Rabari Embroidery: Chronicle of Tradition and Identity in a changing world". Rabari embroidery reflects an adaptation to the environment. According to Frater, "their colourful unique styles demonstrate how embroidery eloquently articulates Rabari culture and history". Through Kala Raksha, these embroidered pieces, guided through contemporary idioms, have found a ready market in India. The banjaras, another pastoral group, and their craft of needlework by the women in colourful expressions of applique and mirror work, was identified by the CCAP as a project to alleviate their socio-economic conditions. "Yellamma Thanda, a banjara village near Hyderabad was earmarked as the place from which the women were chosen for CCAP's training scheme," says Nivedita Krishna Rao of CCAP, as she read her paper, "Banjara Embroidery: origins, development and growth".

Sunita Shahaney, unravelling the complexities of "Kasuti: Karnataka Kashida" explained the craft which was practised by the women of Mysore in the 13th Century. Embroidery is done today on dark coloured Ilkal saris, as well as on cholis and skirts. Rich in symbolic motifs, the finest examples may be found in Bijapur and Dharwar, and take inspiration from temples, caves and shines, besides the flora and fauna.

Piljain Weidermann, pioneer of the revival of the tribal craft in the Nilgiris over the past few decades, and talking on behalf of the Toda women said there are no teachers for Toda embroidery. As a craft reborn, girls learn it from their mothers at five or six, master it by 10 and create new patterns by the time they are 15. Their social life is enmeshed with the traditional Toda embroidery, in a brilliance of red and black threads against white. Their traditional drapes, puthukulis are worn during ceremonial rituals. But who would pay Rs. 4,000 for this garment? So smaller items like dupattas, luncheon sets and table cloths are made to order. The embroidery is so fine that it is mistaken for a weave, and pricing becomes a problem. People abroad, as in the United States and Germany, appreciate this embroidery, and are willing to pay a price for it, but unfortunately, not those at home.

Heading the session "South Asian Embroideries: Tradition and Change", Professor Shenaz Ismail from Pakistan illustrated the Embroideries of Swat which enjoyed the cultural flowering of Gandhara depicted by ruins, rock paintings and archaeological finds. Both Buddhist and Hindu traditions considered Swat a centre of esoteric teachings, a place of magic spells and love potions, sorcerers and fairies. Dinh Thu Huong, textile designer, in her paper "Craft Link and its work to develop traditional embroidery of minority groups in Vietnam" stressed the need to adapt designs to suit the contemporary market if only to prolong the life of the craft. Her group Craft Link serves to do just this.

Lamenting the fact that modernity has changed the mode of dressing to the extent that the young will not even see the traditional embroidery of yesteryear, she said that with the old pieces being sold to tourists, the young will eventually cease to know how to embroider, if they are not trained in this skill.

Eric Ong, president of the society Atelier Sarawak, took the exposition further, to the "Beadwork in Sarawak" which played an important role in the cultural history of the peoples of Sarawak in Borneo. Beads were worn not only for ornamentation but as talismans and status symbols. Apart from glass beads, cowrie shells and buttons are used alongwith bear claws, leopard teeth, shell discs, mirrors and brass bells. Today with new colour fashions, beads have become part of evening wear accessories. Raja Fuziah binti Raja Tun Uda's paper "Traditional Gold Embroidery of Malaysia", was a historic perspective which spoke about young women from nobility of the 19th Century who were taught to stitch and embroider, with velvet and silk and the spangles to go with it. The Teketan craft has remained with present times. The Malaysian Government has launched a project to revive this craft and brought in a team of designers to create a range of products. Kun Surapee Rojanavongse, expounding the intricacies of "Embroidery in the Thai way of Life", spoke of royal patronage which has kept the arts and crafts of Thailand alive, with new training centres to perpetuate this art. Beetle wings and beetles were used for embroidery on robes and for diamonds and brooches for royalty. Professor Victoria Rivers, Department of Environmental Design, University of California, explained the "Layers of Meaning, Embellished Cloth for Body and Soul", linking it with surface ornamentation on textiles, conveying powerfully, relationships with ancestors, gods and spirits. Textiles and the mode of dressing often contain vital forces and magical powers that affect both the physical and spiritual realms. Linda Beeman of the U.S. projected her perception of "Philippine Embroidery with a focus on B'laan". This is a languishing embroidery, as the people have turned to making a living out of hemp plantations and cities.

The next session "The Influence of the Marketplaces" was introduced by Professor Joan Eicher, Regents Professor, University of Minnesota, who described "Kalabari Splendour: Indian gold embroidered velvets in Nigeria". The richness of the fabric declares the wealth of the wearer. It was Surat that produced and traded velvet fabrics embellished with gold, silver and jewel embroidery. India itself produced more beautifully embellished velvets than did Europe. Indian textiles are featured throughout the 10 days of funeral ceremonies to dress the room, beds, body and prominent family mourners.

Jenny Housego of the U.K. in her insights into "Kashmiri embroidery: Response to different markets", showcased the intricacies of needlecraft which go into the making of a Pashmina shawl woven from the finest of goat hair, and the Shahtoosh which is the undercoat of the endangered chiru, a tiny antelope. The embroidery is worked in silk yarn, after the design is block printed on the fabric. The shawl could take two or four years to complete, and is so exquisitely worked, that it is unbelievable that it is embroidery and not a weave. Cheap imitations flood the market, and "Kashmiri weaving and embroidery need to occupy the niche that it deserves".

Paula Manfredi of Italy unfastened the intricacies of the "Chikankari of Lucknow" which has been a market based industry. Contrary to the other kinds of embroidery, Chikankari is not worn by the makers, and design innovations have not come within the ambit of the needle craftpersons themselves. Sativa Sutan Aswar talking about the Indonesian embroidery in her paper on "The Tradition of Minangkabau Embroidery" revealed the ethnicity of the craft and that the Minankabau is distinctively different from other Indonesian embroidery in the sense that it is adapted from Chinese embroidery. The designs are based on the philosophy of life, and religion says Aswar, and the embroidery is so fine, that it looks like brush painting rather than threads that create a story.

Initiating the session on "Embroidery and Development", Viji Srinivasan's sensitive paper "Whose Hands?" brought to light some of the vital issues faced by women, based on her work with needlecraft communities. The woman behind Aditi, Srinivasan has encouraged women to express their thoughts and fantasies through the beautiful sujni quilts that they embroider, and it is their inventiveness and designs which have contributed to the beauty of these quilts. Divya Prasad of Chennai expounded the intricacies of ari embroidery which has travelled from the cobblers of the Kutch-Saurashtra region of Gujarat to the southern town of Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. At one time, this needlecraft embellished the Real Madras Handkerchief called RMHK. In her paper, "Handkerchief to Haute Couture," Prasad mentioned this embroidery as being favoured by the cream of today's Indian designers like Ritu Kumar and Rohit Bal, besides a host of others.

Mr. Indrasen Vencatachellum of Mauritius, chief of Craft and Design at UNESCO, chaired the wrap-up session on "Embroidery Traditions and Contemporary Expressions", supported by an active panel which comprised Mr. Eric Ong of Malaysia, Ms. Dinara Chouchunbaeva of Kyrgyztan and Ms. Shehnaz Ismail of Pakistan who shared their perspectives.

The seminar concluded with the presentation of the UNESCO Craft Awards 2001 for the Asia-Pacific region. Mr. Vencatachellum said that crafts should be considered a part of a national cultural heritage, and the honour due to the craftsperson should be accorded.

Fifty-one entries from 12 countries were judged for the prize on the basis of technical proficiency, and creativity in the context of tradition and design innovation. The first prize of $2,500 each was accorded to Basheer Ahmed Jaan of India for his embroidered shawl, and to Kim Tae Ja of Korea for her embroidered panelled screen.

The second prize of $1,500 each was won by Jasiben Meriya of India for her Kutchi wall panel, and the Banjara wall panel embroidered by eight craftspersons from India. The third prize was also shared, $1,000 each, by Sufia Begum of Bangladesh for her kantha bedcover, and Hatice Muskaya of Turkey for her hand towel. These six entries were sent to UNESCO in Paris as part of a permanent exhibition.

Honouring Ms. Vijaya Rajan, President of the World Crafts Council, Asia Pacific Region with a UNESCO medal of the Order of Mahatma Gandhi, Mr. Vencatachellum hoped that the creative craftperson should be honoured as an individual in his own right, considering that India had earned $1.2 billion from handicrafts exports alone.

The embroidery workshop, which was a parallel event, had 30 odd participants from India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Vietnam. The voices of the creators of thread magic in the workshop and bazaar held at Hyderabad, were relevant apart from the academic illustrative talks by experts in the field of embroidery, and by those NGOs who have worked tirelessly with the various forms of needlecraft.

Most of the women embroiderers to whom we talked to, had different perspectives of their skills as compared to their mothers and grandmothers. Almost all of them had ambitions for their children, and realised that their education was important, together with the continuation of traditional skills, which need to be passed on from generation to generation. They were happy that their own work was appreciated and that marketing expertise was taught to them. Some of the women were ambitious enough to educate themselves, and therefore improved their lifestyles, despite the little exposure that they had.

Most of the embroidered cloths reflected a social idiom, and was part of the dowry in the form of clothes, bags, and other forms of ornamentation, which were previously just taken for granted, without the appreciation that these deserved. However, the voices were not without their frustrations. Despite escalating export figures, one unearthed stories of exploitation, and deprivation of dignity. Their dreams which were yet to materialise, and their sensitivities about the whole exercise, came across strongly, as the interviews revealed.

At the end of the programme I asked myself if our goals had been sighted, or had we merely sparked off a beginning, in the course of lively interaction with craft activists and the makers of craft? Serious questions which came about in the course of the seminar were - Do these skilled people need to continue their traditions? Do they have to replicate the traditional colour and imagery to sustain traditional embroidery? Do we have the right to intervene where design development is concerned or are we willing to accept the new icons of design? What has ensued is that older women have turned to crochet work, which is faster to complete and less of a strain. Traditional motifs are receding into the past, and sadly these women cannot recall the significance of these motifs. To quote Dr. Jyotindra Jain, "is ethnicity so frozen in the past, or is it a transforming reality with a contemporary face? If this fact is accepted, we can consider craft as part of an evolution and we will emerge from the close circle of bias". We need to look into the lessons learnt from the seminar, and however well it may be organised it is imperative that a follow up on all issues discussed is implemented, without which it becomes yet another wasted exercise which would be a pity, considering the time, energy and effort spent, not to mention the expenses.

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