Rajasthan, as its name signifies, was a conglomeration of princely states. They were of all shapes and sizes, wielding varying degrees of power and enjoying wealth and prestige according to their size and martial prowess. Whatever their wealth or size, however, one characteristic was shared by all. The rulers were invariably patrons of the arts.
The traditional Rajasthani Embroidery work was done on cotton, silk or velvet with a variety of fine stitches. The embroidery designs were floral, geometrical or mythological and, showed court scenes or devotees praying at a shrine in much the same way as these were depicted in painting. One bag embroidered in the 18th century shows a man squatting on the floor feeding birds. Others showed men and women engaged in various domestic and commercial pursuits.
Clothes, girdles, bags, tents, wall hangings, horse saddles, elephants’ trappings and a host of other articles were traditionally embroidered in Rajasthan with gold, silver and silk thread. The effect of needlework was further enhanced by incorporating precious stones and pearls into the design.
The pichhwai, so beautiful a feature of Gujarat embroidery, was also made in Rajasthan where the largest number of devotees of Shrinathji, a special manifestation of Lord Krishna, lives. Applique work used here to show the God surrounded by worshippers and cows. The border was made up of image of the God in various costumes and decked with different jewels.
Apart from this sophisticated work which was similar in almost all courts each region developed its own specialty. The common people of Rajasthan beautified their clothes and articles of everyday use with rajasthani embroidery that used simple embroidery stitches and motifs derived from nature and objects familiar to them in their day to day living. The tradition has continued. In Bikaner district or Rajasthan, women embroider their garments by counting threads and building up the pattern by following the warp and weft thus producing geometrical patterns. By using a double running stitch the pattern appears the same on both sides making the garment reversible. The work resembles the great Rajasthan favourite, the bandhani or the tie and dye method of decorating fabric with colour.
Chain stitch, done in contrasting colors, is used in Alwar to produce an effect of richness and beauty. Geometrical forms are used with flowing circular lines to produce a sense of movement in the design. Stark contrast is created by producing black and white motifs on a golden yellow background.
In Sikar and Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan, skirt borders are embroidered with a variety of birds, animals, trees, and flowers. There is a pleasing quality of naiveté in the work. The Rajasthani emrboidery stitches used are simple— herringbone for filling and stem stitch for outlining but a three-dimensional effect is created by using a thick thread in a variety of colors.
The ralli is a patchwork spread made in Jaiselmer district of Rajasthan. Small pieces of material are stitched together in a decorative pattern to form the top of the spread. As in other parts of the country, the padding is made up of layers of old material held together with running stitches. Jaiselmer and Jodhpur also excel in silk thread embroidery on leather which is done especially on shoes and waistcoats. The knuckle pad is another article made of leather which is decorated with scenes resembling miniature paintings. The work done in the cities is fine and in subdued colour and is sometimes highlighted with gold or silver thread. In rural areas the designs are bolder and made with bright colors and thicker thread. Horse and camel saddles are embroidered with an awl and are richly colourful.
The obvious inspirations for the folk embroidery of Rajasthan are toys. A whole expanse of material is covered with people, projecting arms at awkward angles. Elephants have large staring eyes, short legs and long trunk falling from a small head. Trees are shaped like candelabra with stems sticking out on either side and tapering to a point at the top. A horse stands on stick-thin legs; two sausage-like dogs with curling tails growl at each other while pencil slim human beings carry on various activities. The whole scene could have been lifted from a Paul Klee Canvas or, perhaps, embroideries like these could have been the inspiration for Klee’s work.