Sui Dhaaga: From Chikankari to Phulkari, a look into India's embroidery styles
Embroidery, practised all across India from the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu to Kashmir, is one of India’s traditional and under-appreciated professions
By Swasti Pachauri
Sui Dhaaga, the latest comedy-drama movie from the Yash Raj Films banner, will release on 28 September, bringing one of India’s traditional and yet under-appreciated professions under focus. The film stars Anushka Sharma, an embroiderer, and Varun Dhawan, a tailor, who will fight against all odds. The central message of the film is to promote and encourage the use of indigenous textiles, weaves, crafts, and to sensitise people to the rarely-heard stories from the Indian textile industry.
In fact, the primary shooting of the film has been done in Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh, which is known for its eponymous weave and the famous Chanderi saris. In tandem with promoting the underlying message in the film, the Sui Dhaaga team undertook a very interesting promo around National Handloom Day this year, wherein the production team sent across a stencil of the movie’s logo to artisans across the country, so that each of them could put their own spin on it and create a piece. This included beautifully embroidered samples of Kashidakari from Kashmir to Toda from Tamil Nadu, introducing many of us to the popular and unique thread traditions of India.
Here are some of the styles explored in the promo, and some others which are practised by artisans across India — a mere glimpse into India's rich heritage of embroidered arts.
Gotapatti work, Rajasthan
Gotapatti is quintessential to Rajasthani ghagras, odhnis, dupattas and fabrics. Using golden lace and thread, Gotappati is a kind of metallic embroidery which is done through the technique of appliqué that was started in Rajasthan. Initially, real gold and silver threads were used for garments of royal families. However, over the decades, copper threads coated with other materials have been used to make it more economical and accessible to people. In the arid landscape of Rajasthan, brightly coloured clothes are embellished with Gotapatti work.
Kashida or Kashidakari is an intricate, colourful embroidery style that uses brightly coloured threads. Intensive needlework, floral imprints, and motifs inspired by the nature of the state define Kashida fabrics, shawls, saris, kurtis and textiles. Kashidakari is known to have emerged during the Mughal era in India and is said to have Persian origins. The technique employed is that of chain stitching, and two of the signature designs of this style are the Kashmiri tea pot and the design detailing around the neck.
Kantha, West Bengal
Traditionally, used for stitching quilts, Kantha embroidery is practised in Odisha and West Bengal. It is an important and essential profession for artisans — primarily female — of the region. Said to be around half-a-century-old, the Kantha stitch is very simple, and motifs are inspired by country life and nature. The idea was to reuse old clothes, stitch them together using this style of embroidery and then use them as blankets and covers, especially for children. There is even an interesting Shiva link to this style, as the word ‘kantha’ means throat and is supposedly a reference to Lord Shiva’s throat. Currently, Kantha silks saris are in high demand owing to the stunning and intricate needlework, which is why they’re also priced accordingly.
Embroidery on Muga silk, Assam
Originating in Sualkuchi, Assam, Muga silk has received the geographical indication (GI) tag from the state, which gives this ‘golden’ silk an official mark of recognition. Over the years, Muga silk textiles, saris and the traditional Mekhala Chador have incorporated different designs embroidered in red, green and other shades on the indigenous golden silks. Some of the popular designs seen on Muga are variants of birds, miniature tress and the popular Assamese hat, Japi — all of which are mostly geometrical in nature. Golden zari work adds a highlight to the signature red of the embroidery usually seen on Muga silk.
Pipili Appliqué, Odisha
Taking its name from the village of Pipili in Odisha, this appliqué work is quite unique to the region and is seen in decorative wall hangings, umbrellas, lampshades, and other artefacts. One can see examples of this kind of handiwork showcased en masse during the famous annual Jagannath Yatra celebrations in Puri. This is not surprising as the art apparently originated as a temple art in the region, and symbolism is an integral part of the traditional design. Traditionally, red, black, and green with white thread highlights have been the principal colours, along with extensive mirror work. However, over the years, more hues have been used to meet popular demand. Pipili handmade lanterns or ‘kandeels’ are popular across the world as Indian and regional souvenirs.
Named after the Banni grasslands in Kutch, Gujarat, ‘Banni’ work is a colourful amalgamation of mirror work or ‘shisha’ and colourful stitching, expressed in geometrical patterns. Circle, rhombus, square and symmetric floral designs are some popular Banni designs. Woven intricately in rich pink, purple, red, yellow and other vibrant hues, this embroidery encapsulates the essence of grassland ecosystems. Practised by several local communities, such as the Lohanas, Mutwas, and Jats, the styles and designs are unique to each.
Phool-patti ka Kaam, Uttar Pradesh
Yet another appliqué technique, it is said to have originated in Aligarh during the Mughal period and spread to other parts of north India. Phool-patti ka Kaam, as the name suggests, refers to embroidered patterns of floral designs carved on fabrics and textiles. This work focuses on embroidering flowers and leaves of different shapes and sizes, and used to create the regal garb of the wives of the nawabs. Now, of course, it is a popular hallmark of the region.
Practised widely in Punjab and some parts of Haryana, Phulkari is the art of weaving floral designs with the signature technique of darn stitching on the ‘wrong’ side of the cloth. It has the GI tag from Punjab, and many date its origin back to the love story of Heer and Ranjha by Waris Shah. The work can mainly be seen on dupattas, shawls, and saris. The most popular Phulkari product is the typical Phulkari odhni, or wrap. Colourful shiny silk threads are used to create interesting floral designs on the fabric. Of late, it is being increasingly used to make bags.
Named after the nomadic community of Gujarat, Rabari is a cultural case study of sorts. This exquisite embroidery from Kutch uses copious mirror work and colourful threads in rich yellows, purple, green, red, fuchsia, etc. It was initially intended to be stitched by a bride to be part of the wedding trousseau and dowry, however, over the decades, the work has attained much popularity and is now sought after in Indian crafts bazaars. It can also be found adorning leather bags and other souvenirs.
Chamba Rumal, Himachal Pradesh
Named after its region of origin in Himachal Pradesh, the Chamba Rumal is influenced by Pahari paintings and murals. Colourfully embroidered motifs, deities, and floral decorations on white and light shades are key to this art. So are figures of men and women doing mundane tasks as a representation of country life in the hills. Traditionally undertaken on ‘rumal’ or handkerchiefs, Chamba Rumal art is now also practised on fabrics, shawls, and saris.
Toda, Tamil Nadu
Traditionally known as ‘Pukhoor’, Toda embroidery from the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, is woven out of shades of black, red, white, blue, green in geometrical patterns and also enjoys the GI tag from the area. What is interesting about this style of embroidery is that the rough underside of the cloth is actually considered the ‘right’ side by the artisans, which makes the fabric reversible. Shawls adorned with Toda embroidery are called ‘Poothkuli’.
Chikankari, Uttar Pradesh
Chikankari, which originated in Lucknow, is one of the most popular forms of embroidery that also has the GI tag from Uttar Pradesh. Boasting a rich history of around 200 years, a classic Chikankari garment will have delicate white-thread embroidery done on cotton fabric in light pastel shades, on designs marked by block stencil and removable colours. Yet another art form with Persian origins around the 17th century, ‘Lucknavi Chikankari’ saris, suits, dupattas, summer wear are now popular across the country. Some attribute the origins to East Bengal around the third century as well. Most commonly embroidered motifs are floral motifs, paisleys, and a continuous depiction of flora on cotton and muslin. The jaali is also a signature design of Chikankari work.
The article is based on textiles research by www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Sahapedia offers encyclopedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts — to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.