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The Fabric of India

Zubin Shroff A Muslim tie-dyed <em>longhi</em> for men that dates back more than 100 years.

Photo: Zubin Shroff

In an alley off the busy streets of Mumbai is the workroom of textile designer Bela Shanghvi. As president of the Craft Council of Maharashtra and consultant to the Indian government on development projects for weavers, she has traveled extensively throughout the country and has a sense of India’s rich textile tradition, which goes back more than 3,000 years.

"Each of India’s 28 states—and many of the villages within those states—has its own distinct designs, its own textile language," she says.

"Language?" I repeat.


An energetic woman, with cropped hair, Shanghvi moves quickly about the room, pulling fabrics off shelves and spreading them on a low table.

We look first at a beautiful pashmina woolen shawl from Kashmir with a blue-and-white paisley design all over. Shanghvi talks about how the delicate, intricate needlework of the scarf echoes the flowery speech and complexity of the Kashmiri people, who are sometimes considered "difficult to read." We look at fabrics from Gujarat, in western India, with bold, high-contrast red-and-black patterns that, Shanghvi says, are like the bold and passionate Gujaratis themselves. Gujaratis, she adds, either consciously or unconsciously create fabrics that stand out from their harsh landscape. In contrast, eastern India is lush and full of color, and, Shanghvi says, the women there favor simple white saris with a gold or red border.

A dazzling gold brocade from Benares appears. Delicate white-on-white embroidery speaks of the urban sophistication of Lucknow, near New Delhi. Soon Shanghvi’s table is piled high with fabrics in astounding colors and shades I cannot describe. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a leading expert on Indian crafts who writes about Indians’ love of color, pointed out that even white here has five tones—ivory, jasmine, August moon, an August cloud after rain, and conch shell. India feels, to me, like a collection of countries reflected in its textiles.

I have come to the subcontinent in December, at the beginning of the cooler months and the wedding season. In fabric shops everywhere I go, I find women engaged in the serious occupation of buying saris not just for the bride and her attendants but for all of the guests, who often number close to a thousand.

Since ancient times, textiles have been associated with important rituals and social occasions in India. Sacred sculptures are traditionally clothed, and strips of cloth are hung on trees and poles as offerings around Hindu shrines. Cloth is given when a baby is born and when a man reaches 60 and renews his marriage vows with his wife. Textiles became political when Gandhi’s call for hand-spun Indian cloth—and thus less reliance on British goods—turned into the rallying cry for independence in the 1940’s.

In fact, India’s history is so interwoven with textiles that it is hard to separate the two. Cotton and silk are in- digenous, and when weavers discovered how to make colorfast dyes, Indian fabrics were the envy of the world. One of Alexander the Great’s commanders, upon arrival in the subcontinent, marveled that Indian cloth "rivaled sunlight and resisted washing." The closely guarded secret of the dyes led the British to establish trading posts in Gujarat in 1613 and Madras (now Chennai) on the southeast coast in 1640. The Dutch and the French followed with their own ports nearby. Gujarat and the southeastern provinces of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh remain important textile centers to this day.

Gujarat’s arid climate and susceptibility to droughts and floods have always made agriculture here uncertain. During the summer monsoons, when the grasslands north of Bhuj become an inland sea and farming has to be abandoned, embroidery and beadwork flourish as means of making a living. Northern Gujarat, western Rajasthan, and neighboring Sind in Pakistan remain three of the world’s richest areas for folk embroidery. Bhuj and the old port city of Mandvi in Gujarat are also centers for bandhani, or tie-dye work. Bandhani shawls are part of the common dress of western Indian women.

Today I’m bumping along a dusty dirt road in the Rann of Kutch, north of Bhuj, in Mike Vaghela’s air-conditioned car. He owns the Garha Safari Lodge outside Bhuj and seems to know everyone, including the chief of the Muslim Mutwa village of Dhordo, just 20 miles from the Pakistani border. After tea and an exchange of pleasantries, I am introduced to the chief’s niece, Sofia Nani Mita, 25, who speaks a little English and is considered one of the most accomplished embroiderers here.

"Oh, no, no," says Mita at the effusive comments of her uncle. She defers to her grandmother, 82, whom she considers the better craftsman. She shows me a kanjari (blouse) her grandmother made, then a piece of embroidery she is working on. The stitches are remarkably small and complex, created with tiny needles in an open chain stitch, also characteristic of the Sind. The patterns are abstract and geometric and done in vibrant colors—red, green, blue, yellow, orange, pink, and black. They are similar to the embroidery of Afghanistan. (The Mutwa, goat and camel herders, migrated from there more than 350 years ago.) Both pieces are astonishing.

"Many of the women in the village are just doing work for the tourist trade," she says, "but I’m trying to do something—[she struggles for the right word here] different as well. You see?"


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