One of the essential components of the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of India is its amazingly distinct, very rustic yet flamboyant array of a wide variety of textiles and fabric arts scattered all across the country in various forms. The richness of the hues, brightness of its colors and the earthy appeal are unique and unparalleled. No other country in the world can boast of such a wide variety of techniques, all indigenous, practiced since ancient times, as an art, a way of life!

The Rigveda, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, considered as the most ancient of Indian texts and scriptures, all have an account of the finesse of Indian textiles. The ancient sculptures found in excavation at various sites all across the country are a living testimony to India’s rich and wide spread textile traditions. Paintings at the famous caves of Ajanta and Ellora depict figures in some kind of a decorated fabric. http://www.indian-heritage.org/painting/ajanta/dance4.jpgA dancer with accompanying musicians; Maha-Janaka Jataka, Cave 1 Ajanta and Ellora

The Harappan Civilization, which is considered to be the earliest of the known civilizations of the world, was practising spinning and weaving more than five millenniums ago. The advanced technical knowledge of textile craft can be traced back to some five thousand years ago (2600-1900 BCE).  This has been established with the discovery of several spindles and pieces of cotton cloth stuck to a silver vase, during excavations. The earliest examples of patterned fabrics have been traced back to 2500BC.

It is an established fact that textile printing and production of sophisticated textiles was a fairly extensive industry in India since pre-historic times. There are numerous references to weaving in the Vedic Literature. “Tan” is the verb for weaving, which means ‘to stretch’, while the term ‘tantu’ or ‘tantra’ is the warp of the yarn. Also abundant are the terms for designs and patterning such as ‘bhinanta’ which means loose warp at the edges, ‘dasa’ or tassels, ‘tusa’ meaning a woven border and ‘upadhyayapurvaya’ meaning embroidery or patch work.

Excavation at the Harappan sites have brought to light evidence of cotton fiber cultivation, advanced dyeing techniques, tools used for weaving and stitching needles as well as fragments of dyed cotton cloth. At an excavation site in Mohen-jo-daro, a stone bust of a supposed Priest-King with left shoulder draped in a robe with trefoil design (three over-lapping leaves) interspersed with small circles with the interiors filled in with red pigment has been found, which resembles an ‘ajrakh’ print of the region.

"The Priest-King", stone bust recovered at Mohen-Jo-Daro draped in a robe with trefoil design.

Northern India had major influences from the Persian and Mughal styles. Southern India had a bigger influence of the temple architecture and hence the predominant patterns were those of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The weavers were highly skilled producing intricate and delicate textiles, sometimes with the use of complicated looms. The art of dyeing the thread for weaving & the woven fabric was well developed and the colors used were fast and rich even in the very ancient times. Each piece of fabric was a unique masterpiece difficult to replicate. 

Some of the earliest surviving samples of block printed patterned and dyed cotton textiles, can be dated to the 9th Century BC. These fragments of traded cloth were excavated at a burial site in Egypt, the origins of which were traced to Gujarat by scholars in the field.  These fragments of cloth are proof of large scale export of Indian cotton textiles to Egypt from early mediaeval times. Some of the motifs were similar to those that were found in Western Indian manuscript illustrations, and others resembled the ‘ajrakh’ fabrics of Kachchh, Gujarat and Sind and the lattice work of the Islamic architecture of Gujarat.

Each Indian region has its own unique textile art –the designs, weaving patterns and techniques, colors and texture of the fabric give each region a character of its own. The specialty in each region developed based on its geographical location, climatic conditions, local availability of raw material and cultural influences, etc.

From the Jamevar weavers of Kashmir to the Kalamkari artists of Andhra, from the Bandhej and Kachchhi embroiders of Gujarat to the Muga weavers of Assam, from the Block Printers of Rajasthan to the Ikat weavers of Orissa, from the Brocades of Varanasi to the Kancheepurams of Tamil Nadu, throughout the length and breadth of the country one can find numerous textile traditions across a range of processes encompassing all styles of fabric decoration, right from weaving, printing to embroidering. The list is so long that it is very human to skip some of them from memory, but each style is so unique that a true textile lover will never forget any one of them. 

The Paithani weaves of Maharashtra, the Baluchari and Daccai weaves of Bengal, the Jamdani weaves of Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, the Chanderi and Maheshwari weaves of Madhya Pradesh, the Tanchois and Patolas of Gujrat, Venkatgiris and Pochampallis of Andhra, Kancheepurams of Tamil Nadu, the Karakal weaves of Kerela, the embroidered handkerchiefs fromChamba  and Woolen shawls of Kullu in Himachal Pradesh,  the Chikan embroidery of Lucknow ,the Kasuti from Karnataka, the Phulkari from Punjab, Kantha from Bengal- the list is endless!

Aparna Gwande



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