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July 20, 2024

This Independence Day, we trace the origins of age-old Indian embroidery techniques

Aliya Ladhabhoy

This Independence Day, we celebrate India’s rich diversity of embroidered crafts, some of which date back to the 12th century. They have stood the testament of time and these handmade, labour-intensive crafts are an integral part of our heritage and textile legacy.
What is amazing is that despite living in a digital world, the finesse and elegance of handcrafted continues to be valued.
When it comes to embroidery, India’s vast repertoire of techniques and the skilled craftsmanship is unmatched in the world. Even the world’s top international luxury brands turn to India for all their surface ornamentation needs.
Today, the need to support #MadeinIndia handmade and handcrafted goods is even direr so that master craftsmen and artisans pull through the COVID-19 crisis and continue to practice their art for many more centuries.
We handpick five age-old embroidery techniques and their contemporary renditions by Indian designers.
This embroidery technique can be traced back to the courts of Mughal rulers in the 12th century. Aari refers to a hooked needle, which is also used by the cobbler community to stitch intricate patterns on leather footwear. The time-consuming embroidery technique is often accented with stones, sequins and golden and silver threads to give it a rich look.
This work by embroiderer and designer Asif Shaikh was part of his show Sacred Geometry, which was showcased at a New York design centre in 2018. For the collection, Shaikh used aari work to ornament his designs on handwoven silk-linen from West Bengal. The motifs were inspired by architectural elements of historical monuments in Ahmedabad.

In the world of fashion, one can’t mention Lucknow without talking about Chikankari in tow. The epicentre of the craft in India, the delicate white-on-white embroidery technique has its roots in Persia and was brought to India by the Mughals. Nur Jahan, the wife of emperor Jehangir is known to have patronised the craft. A variety of flat, embossed and jaali stitches come together to delicately decorate soft fabric (originally done on mul mul). Today, the craft is as popular for bridal wear as it is for everyday ensembles. 
Designer duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla played a role in reviving the craft in 1992 and took two years of research and training artisans to create their first chikankari collection. The craft continues to be a part of their design vocabulary and brides continue to peek the designers’ chikankari creations for their special day. Deepika Padukone, too, picked an Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla chikankari sari for her wedding with Ranveer Singh in 2018.

Read: These Bollywood divas look stunning in Chikankari ensembles
This is another embroidery technique that has Chinese origins, but the Persian influence and Indian craftsmanship has transformed it into a unique surface embroidery technique patronised by the Parsi community.
The technique is characterised by the realistic replications of flora and fauna and was traditionally done on Gajji silk. The technique was extremely popular during the 80s and has seen its share of highs and lows. There are a couple of designers such as Ashdeen Lilaowala, who are keeping the embroidery alive. Through his brand Ashdeen, he has been experimenting with the surface ornamentation, season after season, while keeping its roots intact.
gara embroidery Ashdeen
Gara sari by Ashdeen
Banjara or Lambani embroidery
The embroidery technique uses varied combinations of 14 needlework stitches, applique work and mirror work to create a richly coloured garment or accessory that is easily identifiable from afar.
Banjaras or Lambanis are a nomadic tribe who migrated from Rajasthan to different parts of the country; including Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
The addition of the mirrors is said to have been inspired by the use of mirrors in Iranian architecture and made its way to India in the 17th century.
While traditional dresses with the technique have a limited appeal, Banjara embroidered accessories are loved globally. The embroidery technique recently got a lot of international attention as Indian designer Ashish Gupta, who is based in London, embraced the craft for his Spring/Summer 2020 collection. The designer who is otherwise known for his sequinned creations, gave a contemporary edge to the folk craft through a collection of pants, shorts, jackets and dresses for men and women.


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ASHISH SS20 look 1 hand embroidery details

A post shared by Ashish Gupta (@ashish) on

While the origins of the craft are debated, the craft has been written about in the 17th century epic Punjabi folklore Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah. While it literally translates to flower work, long and short stitches are used to create horizontal, vertical and diagonal threadwork inspired by routine life and nature. It is characterised by its vivid colour combinations. 
Designer Manish Malhotra brought a designer spin to the age-old craft in his 2013 collection Threads of Emotion, who was later invited by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2017 to speak about the cultural significance of the textile and display his creations. In 2016, designer Kanika Goyal presented a more muted version of the embroidery on contemporary silhouettes.
Manish Malhotra phulkari embroidery
Threads of Emotion by Manish Malhotra
Read: Kareena Kapoor and 100 Indian fashion designers to front Baradari Project

Kannav Chaudhary


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