The embroidery of the Ahirs of Kutch has been revived and is now a flourishing source of earning for village craftswomen.
IT would not be far off the mark to say that in Kutch, Gujarat, embroidery and needlework are not just skills or art forms but a language that connects the diverse communities of India's largest district.
A new publication takes an in-depth look at one of the district's nine communities the Ahirs. The book, Embroidery of the Ahirs of Kutch, is published by Shrujan, a charitable trust that assists craftswomen in Kutch. It is the first in a planned series called Under the Embroidered Sky, which will ultimately have books dealing with the embroidery traditions of all nine communities. The book is an outcome of a long process that started after the famine of 1969, when Shrujan was formed as a means to help women earn a living from their embroidering skills. Over the past 40 years, embroidery has grown into a profitable livelihood involving more than 22,000 craftswomen in Kutch.
Shrujan's work has been so successful that Chandaben Shroff, its founder, won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2006 the first Indian winner. This was the actual impetus for the book. The prize money was used to start work on a project called Pride and Enterprise, which aimed to document, preserve and promote the embroidery of the Kutchi communities. A book and an instructional film were part of the outcome.
Among the Ahirs, a pastoral community, embroidery has such a long tradition that even Parmaben Balasara, who at 85 is the oldest aarekhani (freehand design outline) artist, cannot remember its origins. But she speaks with pride about her Ahir traditions. So much is said by embroidery that it becomes a language, a visual language of colour, threads and stitches that conveys marital status, age and clan.
Even the way the women dress has a history to it. Among the women of the many tribes of Kutch, only Ahir women do not wear a veil. The reason for this goes back a few centuries to two warring kings. The widow of the king who lost the war feared for the life of her son. She sent the child off to live with a trusted Ahir maid named Dhuna Makwani who had a son of the same age. Sadly, the Ahir couple were informed on, and the victorious king demanded they hand over the young prince.
Torn between obeying their new master and keeping their promise to the old one, the Ahir couple made the decision to hand over their own son. Presumed to be the young prince, he was killed, and to ensure that there was no trickery involved, the Ahir maid was called and made to walk over the corpse. She did this with a lowered head, thankful that a veil covered her face.
Suspicious courtiers ordered her to remove her veil, so that they could see whether there was sorrow on her face, and walk over the body yet again. She removed the veil, held her head high and walked over her son's body, showing no emotion. Since then Ahir women can easily be identified because they wear no veil. They renounced it in honour of Dhuna Makwani.
The unspoken messages of embroidery begin from birth. An Ahir child is named on the sixth day after its birth. After the ceremony the baby is put into a ghodiyu, a heavily embroidered cradle cloth. For the child it is the beginning of a long association with embroidery.
The child will be decked out in little embroidered caps with added embellishments of tassels, beads and strings. Babies wear heavily embroidered jackets for the first year, after which they are clothed in sleeveless jackets or long-sleeved tops with a pair of ballooning drawstring pants. By the age of 10, their shirts are of a solid colour and their loose pants are white with coloured embroidery.
Boys are phased out of heavily embroidered clothes when they are 15, and in a few years shift to complete white. They will only wear embroidery again when they marry. But they will always be surrounded by embroidery from the toran across their front doors to the swords that are sheathed in it, from the cloth that is hung in the inner rooms of their homes to the jhul, or shawl, that is placed across the backs of oxen. Even the horns of their animals are sheathed in embroidered cones.
A woman's entire personal history can be gauged from her clothing. An unmarried girl's skirt could be black with tie-dyed red dots, it could be printed or one solid colour. But a married woman's will be embroidered. Here again, if she is newly married it will be colourful and profusely embroidered. But once these skirts wear out, she shifts to more sedate ones. The complexity in dress is quite deep. While an unmarried girl's skirt is as described above, she is allowed to wear lavish ones if she is going to a fair or is attending a wedding. In such a case, it is the blouse that becomes the giver of messages. An unmarried girl's blouse will not have the bust panel that her married counterpart's has. More personal profiles can be gleaned from the colour of the head shawl, its border, the design on the bust panel or specific motifs.
As women get older, the lavishness of the embroidery decreases though colour remains an integral part of their clothes. Of course, when the occasion demands it, clothes with an abundance of needlework are seen in profusion. While widows wear no jewellery or embroidery, they are free to wear at least one coloured garment. Here too, a dress code lets others know more details about her without having to ask because the colour she wears will depend on her age and the subgroup of her community.
The Ahirs needed no excuse to adorn and embroider, and so a lack of embroidery also conveys a lot. For instance, it would be unusual for a young married girl not to have an embroidered skirt. But if she is dressed in an unadorned skirt, it could be that she has taken a vow to give up embellishments because she has suffered some personal loss.
The clothing of women has the most elaborate work and the brightest colours. There is no limit to the range of combinations. Indeed, individuality is highly encouraged by the Ahirs, and perhaps this is also one reason why the skill is so beloved by them all. To respect it as a tradition is one thing but to be able to contribute to it and see it grow is a completely different feeling, and it is this which has made Ahir embroidery what it is today. Parmaben, who is considered a master of aarekhani, is the creator of a swollen-bellied peacock, a design that emerged under her fingers on a day when she says she had a terrible headache. The well-rounded bird is now referred to as Parmaben no mor, or Parmaben's peacock.
Flowers, birds, animals and, sometimes, even people are among the many motifs employed in Ahir embroidery. The richness is further brought out by the stitches. Different stitches are employed for various stages of the embroidery. First, the aarekhani, or outline, is drawn. This used to be done using a thin stick dipped in natural pigments. Now charcoal, pencils or ballpoint pens are used as easily.
Then, the sankdi, or chain stitch, is done over the outline, after which the vaano, or herringbone stitch, is used as a filler, and the bakhiyo, or back stitch, or the daano, or single unit of the chain stitch, is the highlighter. Aablas, or mirrors, often hundreds of them, give the work the look that is so typically associated with embroidery from this part of the world.
Design variations are created using combination stitches of herringbone and buttonhole to create borders or fill in spaces around mirrors. The sedhphool, or oriental stitch, is a thick filler stitch used to create rings around mirrors. Its name changes to hameervallo when it is used in a checked board pattern.
An extremely complex stitch called the baavadiyo is done directly on the cloth without an outline. Its spiky appearance led to it being named after the thorn of the gando baval, or Prosopis juliflora, which abounds all over Kutch. The stitch, which is used in embroidery around the world, is also called the Maltese cross because of its shape. Thus, for the women of Kutch, it resembles a thorn of one of the trees common to their area, and for the women of Europe it resembles a Maltese cross. So versatile is this stitch that its basic structure can be adapted to create a variety of geometric forms, and this has resulted in a school of baavadiyo embroidery called baavadiyo bharat.
Ahir embroidery is high on visual impact spartan designs and pale colours are not a part of its make-up. Among the nine communities of the region, the Ahirs have the highest number of figurative motifs. Richness, boldness and abundance are all expressed with highly skilled stitching. Repetition is one way of achieving the abundance. For example, there are five main floral motifs, and they can all be used on one piece to create a stunning garden of embroidery.
Different subgroups of the Ahir community use distinctive motifs, once again adding to the visual language. Thus, a woman wearing the naariyal or keri motif will be easily identified as belonging to the Praanthaliyas since the coconut and mango motifs are exclusive to this group. Likewise, the Machhoya are fond of using the goto, a yellow and white floral pattern reminiscent of the marigold.
But the Ahirs are open to new inputs, and there is an ease with which they incorporate new elements. One now sees delightful touches in their designs such as rows of tiny coloured buttons or little metal discs or sequins and tinsel.
In fact, when television first made an appearance in the villages, women were curious about aerials. Its spiky shape perhaps reminded them of their beloved baavadiyo stitch, but more likely they were just responding to change. The aerial soon found its way into their designs. Similarly, the motifs of playing cards were also incorporated into their embroidery.
One of the changes over time is the cross-group use of motifs. For instance, the kaanudo, a depiction of Krishna, was exclusive to the Machhoyya sub-sect of Ahirs but is now seen among the Borichas and the Praanthaliyas. Adaptation as a key to survival is something that seems to come instinctively to the Ahirs and their embroidery. New motifs, new colours, new textiles and new products are all easily accepted. But the heartbeat, so to speak, the actual embroidery, remains the same.
Parmaben said, Things are bound to change and we should not be alarmed by them. We should not bemoan how good things were in the good old days. Many good things are happening even now. Our children are getting educated, our women are earning a living from embroidery. As long as our women are able to earn a living from embroidering it will survive. It will not be the same as it is today everything changes so will embroidery. But it will be there.