Gujarat has been renowned for the quality of its hand embroidery.
The richness of design and variety of hand embroidery stitches used Gujarat is explained by one of the legends pertaining to Krishna. On his way to Dwarka, Krishna fought and killed a demon who had imprisoned a thousand women from various parts of India. The freed women followed him and became his devotees and companions. Through them different kinds of hand embroidery came to the area.
Karna, the famous warrior of the Mahabharata, also brought to the region the Kathis, a nomadic tribe of cattle breeders. These, during their wanderings, gathered new motifs and techniques of embroidery which were, naturally, added to the styles contributed by the gopis. The tales of pathos and heroism of their nomadic life and songs sung by their bards were depicted by them in their hand embroidery.
The main deities worshipped by them are Shiva and Ganesh and small squares, called sthapana, are embroidered with the figure of Ganesh and used for worship. The cobra, the monkey, the tiger and elephant are favourite embroidery motifs which are used along with geometrical compositions.
An extraordinary item of Gjujarat hand embroidery that has been taken note of by few authors is the pichhwais (temple hangings) that decorate so many temples. Painted pichhwais are well known and are found in museums as well as private collections but embroidered ones are rare even in museums since, once consecrated, the piece remained in the temple until worn out when it would normally be destroyed. Fortunately, a number of them are preserved in the Calico Textile Museum in Ahmadabad, the capital of Gujarat.
In Gujarat, Lord Krishna is worshipped in various manifestations. The temples dedicated to him in Western and Central India carry on a continuous service. At set times of the day worshippers go to the shrine for darshan. The idol is then revealed richly dressed and surrounded by hangings which depict the season, festival, time of day or special incidents from the life of the God.
The hangings were made at the order of the devotees for offering as gifts to the temple. Many of the hand embroidered ones seem to have been copied from the painted ones originating from Rajasthan. So skillfully is the embroidery done that, except for some puckering of the cloth, it can, at first sight, be mistaken for a painting. Trees, flowers, clouds, peacocks, birds, devotees, cowherds, celestial beings and the God Himself are all depicted with organized restraint. Not a stitch is redundant and the colors give depth and harmony to the composition. Others show the ground covered with floral motifs while cows line the borders on all four sides. Apart from the pichhwais there were covers for the steps of a shrine and pray-beads pouch in the shape of a head of a cow (gaumukhi). Krishna, Ganesha, Nandi and various other Hindu deities are depicted on these items.
Jain devotional embroidery forms one of the important branches of the art in Gujarat for religious use have to be in perfect condition. Any flaw—a crack in a statue, any fraying of material or loosening of the embroidery threads— make the article unfit for use and must immediately be discarded.
The items of hand embroidered works of Gujrat includes book covers for covering the rich collection of manuscripts preserved in famous monasteries and temples. Other items were canopies, articles of presentation to monks and nuns and wall hangings. These were embroidered in silk or silver and silver-gilt thread and bore typical characteristics of Jain painting—the protruding eye, the long pointed nose, the slight touch of a double chin.
One of the oldest pieces of embroidery found in India, dating from the 15th or 16th century, is of Jain origin and is now in the Calico Museum in Ahmadabad, Gujrat. It is a part of a cloth made for presentation to a Jain nun. It shows eight Vidyadevis (Goddesses of Knowledge) seated under canopies with their vahanas (vehicles) placed below them. In the spandrels are deep impressions into which discs of metal or jewels were originally attached. On each panel was an inscription of three lines of devanagari script worked in kusha grass. The inscriptions have almost completely disappeared, only a few letters being visible where prick marks of the needle remain. Red, indigo, turquoise blue, green and yellow silk are used along with strands the sacred kusha grass which is laid and couched with fine silk. The ground material is cotton unlike later objects which are mostly made of velvet or silk.
The motifs are sacred or floral. Book covers mostly show the Fourteen Auspicious Dreams which are dreamt by the mother of each Tirthankara as she lies in a state between sleeping and waking’. In the centre is the four-armed Goddess Mahalakshmi. Below her is the dream of the ocean, usually represented by a ship in full sail. The elephant, the bull, the lion, the vase, the lotus lake, the Rosary, the moon, the sun, the celestial mansion, the heap of jewels and flames are depicted in different ways.
Gujarat Embroidered Hangings used for placing behind a priest when he delivers a sermon show inscriptions; mystic diagrams of the universe; flowers and small flowering shrubs. Apart from the gold and silver thread used for Gujarat hand embroidery workd, both the Jain and Hindu work was embellished with pieces of metal, glass or even precious and semi-precious stones. The embroidery stitches used are chain stitch, skin stitch, satin stitch, straight stitch, laid work with couching in a variety of designs with touches of patchwork.
Chinai or Chninese Hand Embroidery in Gujarat
Trade links between the West coast of India and China had existed for a long time. The Parsees were especially active in this trade. Groups of Chinese craftsmen settled in different parts of India. In Surat district of Gujarat, Chinese embroiderers turned out work that was Chinese in conception and execution but was suited to their Indian clientele. Saris, cholis, children’s dresses were embroidered on silk with silk floss or tightly spun two-ply silk that was not normally used in India.
The designs consisted of cartouches enclosing birds and flowers linked together with panels of formal ornament. Flying cranes, cocks with tails spread and doves were other motifs used. The work was done in satin stitch, straight stitch, knot stitch, chain stitch and stem stitch in white, red, various shades of pink, green, blue and lilac.
The work is different enough from Indian embroidery to be recognizable at a glance. At one time it was highly priced and greatly valued by fashion conscious people.