Adornment as art

It is the season of couture shows and luxurious embroideries but there is more to the act of running a threaded needle in and out of cloth


Madder cloud Kaftan with Sujani embroidery by Swati Kalsi.
Madder cloud Kaftan with Sujani embroidery by Swati Kalsi.

When I first landed in India, way back in 1990, I only wore black, with occasional grey and white. Influenced, by Japanese designers like Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, my austere, sculptural wardrobe was completely devoid of ornamentation. The only colour allowed, and it was obligatory, was intensely red lipstick.

But then by a series of events and coincidences I found myself staying in the home of Chandaben Shroff, the founder of the Shrujan embroidery collective. A never-ending deluge of intensely rich embroidery in wildly imaginative and unexpected colour combinations flowed through that household and turned my entire sense of aesthetics upside down. Colour? Decoration? Adornment? My de-addiction had begun.

At a time when the rest of the world has largely abandoned the handmade, India’s embroidery is breathtaking. It is incredible that the same Gujarati embroidery that caught the imagination of Marco Polo continues as a living craft in the 21st century. Whatever your personal style, be it the white on white understatement of Lucknowi Chikankari, the mirror-rich bohemian gypsy Banjara, or the slightly retro glam Persian Chinese fusion of Parsi, it is out there in the marketplace, direct from the artisan, or with new twists and interpretations from imaginative designers.

I never thought embroidered flowers would captivate me. Designer Aneeth Arora for instance somehow manages to turn the smallest diversions from convention into something quietly radical. She revels in the delicacy of detail. Small, evenly spaced running stitches highlight seams and hems on most of her garments. She takes references from here, there and everywhere. Little sprays of flowers, reminiscent of old samplers turn up in one collection alongside a jacket and dress adorned with riotously coloured flowers, part English summer garden, part steamy tropical jungle. For these she used stitches from the centuries-old European style of crewel embroidery, inimitably making them her own by combining them with tassels and clusters of small fluorescent beads. Next she turned her attention to the military, embellishing khaki silk with metallic zardozi.

Textural and free form, Swati Kalsi’s intuitive way of working couldn’t be more different. Each garment she produces is a unique, exquisite, abstract painting. Honing in on hand-stitched Bihari Sujani, she has lifted it out of naively representational descriptions of village life into a realm that is entirely abstract and unstructured. Surfaces emerge progressively on the fabric as a result of collaborative workshops with the craftswomen in which they change the intensity and length of stitches until indefinite shapes float loosely across the fabric.

I am not a purist. Sewing machines and computers were invented for good reason, and I see no problem using them if they don’t pointlessly try to replicate the hand made.

Forging a fine line between reverence and irreverence for the cultural icons that star on their designs, Play Clan’s digital Pop Art, graphic novel-like, Amar Chitrakatha comic books imprint couldn’t be more 21st century. The computer is the Play Clan design team of Himanshu and Dhruti Dogra’s most important tool but this doesn’t mean they don’t see the value in traditional techniques. They work with a small cluster of professional male embroiderers just outside of Delhi, commissioning them to make little embroidered artworks by stitching over computer-generated images. Behind the madcap fun of Rabari men and women drawn with diagrammatic flat planes and odhni domed like a space helmet, there is a hidden question mark as the Dogras contemplate the relationship between old and new technologies and the value (or not) of speed versus time, and individuality versus multiple reproduction.

Moving out of fashion and product design into the world of art galleries, neat little stitches can be completely liberated as embroidery leaps into surprising materials and dimensions. Looking at them, who would ever guess that embroidery was the starting point for Mumbai artist Parul Thacker’s monochromatic, ethereal, wall-mounted artworks. Once a textile designer, she experiments with traditional embroidery and weaving techniques for drawings and sculptures, sometimes complex webs of thread.

Having learnt to love embroidery, I find myself fascinated by its dual simplicity and complexity. The humble act of repeatedly inserting a threaded needle or awl in and out of cloth creates the most wildly diverse results that although grounded in tradition offer infinite potential for experimentation. Stitches are like little soldier ants, an indispensible part of something much bigger. Take one out and eventually everything will unravel.

Maggie Baxter, an Australian artist, writer and art consultant is the author of Unfolding: Contemporary Indian Textiles.

Fine Print runs viewpoints on luxury and design from different writers.

More From Livemint