What if we told you that the fabulous embroidery of the Kutch in Gujarat is said to have originated with cobblers or mochis? Traditionally leather-workers by trade, the mochis in the Kutch became professional silk embroiderers in the court of Bhuj, embellishing artefacts and apparel of the royal families, nobility and aristocrats.
As author Shailaja D. Naik writes in her book Traditional Embroideries of India (1996), historical records suggest that the mochis here learnt the craft from a Muslim fakir, or ascetic, who came from Sind in the 16th-17th centuries. They were so skilled and their embroidery so sought-after that many items embroidered in this region were exported to England.
In those early times, the embroidery practised by the mochis of the Kutch was called Mochi-Bharat or Aari-Bharat, ‘aari’ being the hooked needle used in the craft. However, the Kutchi embroidery that wows us today – dominated by bright colours, a variety of motifs and different kinds of stitches – tell the stories of the community that practises it.
As the embroidery evolved, these communities became custodians of the craft, and include the Rabaris, Ahirs, Bhanushalis, Meghwals, Sodha Rajputs, Mochis, Jats or Mutwas. Many of them had migrated to the Kutch from neighbouring regions like Rajasthan and Sindh.
While the early style of embroidery reflected a Persian and Mughal influence, over the years, the craft was reinterpreted and to accommodate the clans’ own traditional skills and materials. Over time, distinct styles evolved, each one linked to a specific community.
Traditionally, women used to practise embroidery to decorate the clothes they wore on a daily basis and on festive occasions. The skill passed from one generation to another.
Embroidered textiles also became a part of the bridal trousseau. Beautifully embroidered pieces of attire became markers of dowry, rites of passage, group identity, marital status, rituals and more.
The motifs, in particular, are carefully chosen, many of them representing community life and nature. Flora and fauna, human figures, animals and birds are common depictions.
Rabari: Practised by the nomadic pastoralists called Rabaris, their embroidery represents the culture, myths and lives of the community. The women embroider outlines with chain stitch and bold mirror work. Decorative back-stitching called as ‘bakhiya’ is used to decorate the seams of women’s blouses and men’s jackets.
Neran: Literally translating to ‘eyebrow’, Neran embroidery appears as tiny, detailed stitches, like that of an eyebrow, practised by Meghwar women. This style uses small mirrors sparingly, while tiny buttonhole stitches are the main characteristic of the intricate motifs, which are usually geometric compositions.
Ahir: Legend has it that the Ahirs moved to Girnar in Gujarat from Mathura with Lord Krishna and later settled in the Kutch. They employ expressionistic images of birds and flowers in their embroidery. One of the most interesting aspects of this type of embroidery is the varied shapes of the mirrors – almond, circular, square and triangular.
Suf: This embroidery takes its name from a triangular pattern called called ‘suf’, which is counted on the warp and weft of the cloth, where the stitch is worked from the back. Interestingly, in this style, motifs are never drawn. Each artisan imagines her design, then counts it out – in reverse! It has been practised traditionally by the Meghwars.
Khaarek: This is a geometric style, where the artisans work out the structure of geometric patterns with an outline of black squares. The empty spaces are then filled with bands of satin stitching. Khaarek embroidery covers the entire fabric it is practised on.
There are many other fascinating styles such as the Jat style, which uses tiny mirrors; and the Lohana style, which comprises octagonal medallions composed of floral motifs.
For centuries, these communities have relied on their craft for their livelihood. However, Gujarat suffered many natural calamities such as droughts, floods and earthquakes, which have badly impacted the crafts sector here.
But there is hope, thanks to various NGOs and other organizations that have come together to support the artisans and revive their traditional crafts. In fact, many of the organisations working in Kutch today were set up during times of distress, to help the artisan communities find their feet.
And now, it is digital platforms like Peepul Tree that are popularizing these beautiful crafts. Peepul Tree works closely with The Kutch Craft Collective, a collaborative platform of five organisations from the Kutch – Shrujan, VRDI, Kalaraksha, Qasab and Khamir – to promote authentic crafts of the region. Collectively, they are working with more than 7,000 artisans across the Kutch.
Explore the stunning range of embroidered products from the Kutch on Peepul Tree.
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