The history of the Indian brocades so popular on runways now begins in sixteen-century Varanasi. Renowned for its gossamer-fine cotton muslins for over 2000 years, the Mughal emperors’ patronage resulted in a new expertise at weaving silk with gold and silver thread. The motifs were such as favoured by the Mughals-floral (especially the paisley), animal or geometric. Also born of Mughal patronage is Zardozi. This flourishing embroidery of zari (gold thread) and beads came first to Agra all the way from Central Asia, but the only city refined upon it and created more complex pattern for the courts.
Perhaps more venerable is the indigenous technique of Kalamkari (‘pen-work’, after the bamboo wand used for colouring in). The intricate patterns of these brightly coloured cottons are native to Andra Pradesh. Evolved by both dyeing and painting, deities, flora and fauna are drawn in outline, then filled with natural colours with the cotton swab of the kalam (pen).
Saris-Six yards of Magic
The beauty of Indian textiles is best exemplified in the most popular garment of the women-the sari, simply six yards of fabric to wrap oneself in. So treat yourself to exquisite bandhini (tie-dye) saris from Gujarat or Rajasthan or the striking Ikats (woven from tie-dyed threads) of Andhra and Orissa. Choose a silk that whispers ‘heritage’ from spangled Varanasi brocade, figured and storied Bengal baluchari, or stately Kanjeevaram and Mysore silks.
Tamil Nadu’s favourite success story-in saris-emulates Varanasi’s. Kanchipuram was a centre for both weaving and trading in cotton until as recently as the nineteenth century, when the wealth of the mulberry silk from neighbouring Karnataka turned its attentions to silk. Today its saris are renowned for their luster and boldly contrasted borders, the twisted-yarn silk is often embellished with motifs in zari.
A Gujarat Wonder
Distinct is the patola double Ikat fabric from Gujarat. Jewels, animals, dancers and flowers are interwoven with geometric frames in highly-prized saris taking a month each to complete. Exported to Indonesia, it is honoured there as the cloth of the royal court.
Some of the finest cotton handlooms come from Bengal, with its fine Dhakai muslins, braid-pallued dhonekhali, figure-worked bishnupuris and endless grades of tangail, not to mention the silk baluchari.
Contemporary Indian Garments
Uncertain whether these voluminous wraps will fit your contemporary wardrobe? Pick up the same weaves in scarves, linen or furnishings, even shirts and trousers. And don’t ignore the uniqueness of tussar and muga silks, cultivated only in the subcontinent. The humble jute, yesterday’s gunnybag, is today’s fashion fabric.Yet woven patterns are a mere third of the saga: there are prints and needlework too! Perhaps the most famed of prints are the batiks (a wax resist technique 2000 years old).
Block-rints abound across the country, stylized according to the local history of the crafts-Gujarat, in particular, excels.
Embroidery techniques outnumber the states themselves. Notable are the run-stitched kantha (named after its original use in recycling old lengths for a child’s layette), replete with rural scenes from Bengal; stylized Heer and Kutchi work from Gujarat; Rajastani mirrorwork; Lucknow chikan, with its delicate tone-on-tone shadow-stitching; Oriya pipli patchwork; exquisite Punjabi phulkari motifs. Look out for the heavy beaded patterns of the northern states, and particularly for handicrafts where the beads are the very fabric rather than an adornment.
Oddly, wool isn’t often associated with Indian fabrics, despite the popularity of pashmina. But your friends back home will surely appreciate the double-sided Kashmiri dorukha shawl, with needle-work so fine you can’t tell the right side from the wrong. At the other end of the country, get a Naga shawl-colour and pattern unique to the particular tribe-or a Mizo wrap.
Metalwork shines bright in inlaid and moulded brass, bronze and silver, and triumphs in bidriware where the patterns gleams through the darkened surface, or the lace-light filigree Orissa is famed for, or takes a duller avatar in the annular Bengali dhokras and etiolated figurines of Bastar. Tarakashi and koftagiri involve wires or fillets of a precious metal damascened on to baser foundations. This is also the method for the celebrated Tanjore plates. The ‘lost wax’ procedure underlies both dhokras and Southern Indian moulded-metal images.
A Persian import, Indians now excel at it: Carpet-weavers deserve special mention not only for the Persian pile weaving that characteristics Srinagar and Jaipur, but also for the felted and hooked rugs of Kashmir, embellished with chain-stitching and the simple braided or woven cotton durries used in every home.
Pots and Paper
The papier mache traditions of Kashmir and Bengal terracotta are adapted for everyday uses as well as ‘pure art’. Delhi, Khurja and Jaipur throw up the distinctive glazed blue pottery; Alwar is known for fragile Kagzi wares, while Kangra is noted for black pottery as well as a centuries-old tradition in miniatures. Unbaked clay models of deities are crucial to major festivels such as Dussehra, and both clay and wooden toys are common in India. Puppet-making traditions deserve special mention.
Religion and Craft
Indian crafts have always been close to the lives of the people. Murals and kolams (patterns on floors made with coloured rice powder) have served both religious and aesthetic functions in Bengali alpana, Bihar’s Madhubani paintings and Andhara floral rangolis for centuries.