“I hadn’t seen my wife before my wedding”, says Mukeshbhai. “But I was sent several samples of embroidery made by her. That told me so much about her.” We are at Kala Raksha in Sumrasar Sheikh village, which is 25 kilometres north of Bhuj in Gujarat.
Kala Raksha, an organization founded in 1993, seeks to preserve the traditional embroideries of Gujarat. A group of 20 skilled artisans, who were originally immigrants from the Sindh province of Pakistan, adept at soof and khaarek embroidery styles were patronized to keep their heritage alive. Soof and khaarek are just two of the forms of embroidery which Kala Raksha has helped revive.
Mukesh Bhanani who is the project coordinator at Kala Raksha takes us to his house which is adjacent to the centre. In the afternoon sun, seated in the courtyard, we see women sewing away with concentration. He explains to us the intricacies of soof and khaarek embroidery, which are traditionally done by the women of the Maru Meghwal community. Both these forms originated in the Thar Parker region of Sindh. During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, these families crossed the desert to migrate into India. As refugees they lived in Jura camp. Eventually they were given citizenship in the eighties.
The most amazing feature of Soof and Khaarek are that they are forms of ‘counted thread’ embroidery. This means that the motifs are never traced or drawn on the underlying fabric. The artisan counts the number of threads on the fabric and works out the design instinctively with her imagination. As is obvious, the base fabric needs a cloth which has a basket weave, where the warp and weave have to be of the same count. To do this work on silk is even tougher as it strains the eye to count the thin threads there.
Soof is based on the triangle, which is called ‘suf‘. The desired pattern is built up around a series of triangles and diamonds. Here the satin stitch is worked from the back of the cloth. It is painstaking work, as the artisan peers at the threads, counts the warps and wefts, and then executes the work on the reverse with her imagination! It requires an understanding of geometry, a knowledge of colours and a sharp eye to do all this.
Another story goes that the word ‘suf‘ comes from the word ‘saaf‘ which means neat and clean. Expertise here is defined by the detailing of the craft, by how neatly the symmetrical patterns are filled with tiny triangles and accents. The primary motifs are lath, soof and leher. Lath are the band like satin stitches while soof are the triangle motifs. Leher refers to the wave-like chevron design which is typically seen in this form of embroidery. An array of simple and complex geometric designs including flowers, leaves, trees, fruits, birds and animals are created with these basic motifs.
“A woman who is able to embroider in the delicate Soof style is certainly talented.” says Mukeshbhai. “And anyone who is adept at this will certainly have the quality of patience, and can easily blend into another household.” The colours, patterns and the neatness of her craft all give an insight into the kind of woman one is going to welcome into one’s home. “Remember, she is not only executing this stitching, but she is also designing it with her imagination as she works. “
From an early age, girls learn this craft from the women in their family. And they turn more proficient, they begin to embroider pieces which will form part of their wedding trousseau, which is called aanu. These pieces showcase the skill of the embroiderer and this talent is valued in the community. She will also embroider her own wedding dress and chunari, as well as gifts for her fiance. Some of these ceremonial accessories which will be worn on the wedding day by the groom include the batuvo which is like a purse, a vanjani which is a money belt, and a bokani (bo=two, kan=ears) which is a long scarf-like garment used to protect a man’s face and ears from the desert winds.
We enjoyed seeing the lady of the house show us exquisitely embroidered pieces from her own aanu. These included bed spreads, table cloths, batuvo, a colourful pot holder to fetch water from the well (which I placed on my own head!), and door hangings. Such a treasure trove of crafts(wo)manship which I hope the next generation will value.
Khaarek embroidery is characterized by short raised bands of satin stitching. It is a precise style which employs geometric motifs which are inspired by the date palm. Here, the artisan works out the structure of the geometric patterns with an outline of squares in a dark colour. Then the spaces are filled with bands of satin stitch that are worked along the warp and weft from the front. Expertise in khaarek is measured by how fully the dense embroidery is worked in, until the underlying fabric is no longer visible. Also, all the squares with the motif must be of the same size. In older times, cross stitch was also used in khaarek style. Besides the Maaru Meghwal community, this form is also carried out by women of the Sodha and Rajput communities.
Initially embroidery was considered a personal talent, and these products were never for sale. It is only after the intervention of organizations such as Kala Raksha that these women saw this craft as a means to eke out a living.
While earlier motifs were only geometric designs, newer motifs such as peacocks, camels, scorpions, elephants and even milkmaids have begun to make an appearance in the repertoire.
I see an old lady sitting at the door. Clearly she must have embroidered a lot in her youth. “Now I can’t do this work. My eye-sight isn’t good enough”, she says remorsefully. This is indeed painstaking work and there is only so little that one can do in one lifetime. It is essential that this heritage is preserved through the generations. And this will come only if we patronize their craft.
To plan tours to see the textile and craft heritage of Gujarat, you may contact my friend Deepa Subramanian at Shakti Holidays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: +919840236872