Style & Stories / Dowry Embroidery | India

Escaping the fierce heat of the afternoon sun, a gaggle of Rabari women gather under the deep eaves of a village house in Kachchh district, Gujarat. In a welcome respite from fetching water and a multitude of other domestic chores, Walaben and her kin are soon engrossed in their embroidery. Like several of the matriarchs, she is engaged in majuri kam, or ‘labour work’ embroidery made for a local NGO that includes small bags, wallets, phone covers and cushion covers embellished with dense interlacing stitches. The work has become an important source of income in a desert area with limited employment opportunities and – importantly – does not conflict with social conventions and domestic responsibilities. Using those same stitches, a group of teenage girls that includes Walaben’s daughter, Pali, settle nearby to work on their dowries, decorating their blouses, skirts, veil cloths and dowry bags with a distinctive visual language that identifies their caste, faith and social status.

Dowry embroidery starts in earnest when the date for marriage has been set, cementing the alliance between two families that is often agreed while the prospective bride and groom are still children. Although this is changing –  as readymade braids and strings of sequins replace hand embroidery – the custom of dowry is still present across all sectors of Indian society, and among rural communities, embroidery remains an important part of the property transfers of marriage. It is also an art form in which women find expression that is often overlooked as mere decoration.

Though dowry embroidery is associated with women, men have long been involved in commercial work. The reputation of men from the Mochi, or cobblers’ caste, as professional embroiderers was well-established by the 16th century. They worked in the imperial ateliers of the Mughals making exquisite embroideries for court dress and interiors; others were employed by the East India Company, producing trade embroideries for Europe, including ‘Cambay quilts’. Taking their name from the port town of Cambay (modern Khambat) on the coast of Gujarat, from where much of the early commerce between India and Europe was conducted, these fine, cotton bedspreads were – along with chintz and calico – all the rage in fashionable London.

After the decline of the Mughal Empire and Company trade, Mochi craftsmen found patrons in the regional courts of western India, notably in Kachchh and Kathiawar (now Saurashtra) as well as among the wealthy land-owning and merchant castes. A distinctive feature of Mochi embroidery is the use of chain stitch which was worked using a refined version of a cobbler’s awl known as an ari, as well as a needle. This, and their characteristic use of silk floss and a graduated, tonal palette influenced the dowry embroideries of the surrounding regions, leaving a legacy that is evident in the work of Rabaris and other rural communities.

The embroideries made by Walaben and Pali, while an expression of regional identity, are part of the subcontinent’s richly varied heritage of stitched embellishment.

Words by Eiluned Edwards

Eiluned Edwards trained as a textile designer and first visited India in 1991. Captivated by India’s material culture, she has spent the intervening years researching it, working with artisans, entrepreneurs and NGOs, and has published widely on South Asian textiles, dress and crafts.  

hands

The image: The hands belong to Deviben Rabari from Kharoi village in east Kachchh. She was embroidering a blouse (kanchali) for dowry. The fabric is tie-dyed mashru (satin with a silk warp and a cotton weft) which Eiluned brought for her from Ahmedabad; it was woven by Muslim weavers in Patan, north Gujarat and tie-dyed in Ahmedabad. Devi’s community (Dhebaria Rabari) no longer makes embroidery – the community council banned it in 1995 in an attempt to revise the system of marriage and spare poor families from the long-term debts incurred by fulfilling onerous dowry requirements. The other two subgroups of Rabaris in Kachchh – Kachhis and Vagadias – haven’t been quite as stringent but embroidery is on the wane generally as white goods, TV, mobiles become prevalent in dowries and dress has changed to embrace readymade embellishments such as braids and sequins. The rights of this image belong to Rabari Ashramshala Anjar – a residential school for the children of nomadic Rabaris in the town of Anjar, east Kachchh, Gujarat. By purchasing the image TOAST is happy to have donated to the school’s project to target the education of girls – who are traditionally at the back of the queue.

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