Embroidery and needlework is a craft that instantly works as an identifier for a particular region or nation, whether it is the chikankari of Lucknow, zari work of Banaras or the bright and geometric Cossack stitches of the Russian region. In India, we are blessed to have a multitude of regional influences on sarees that have often given their place of origin a distinct identity. With time and the coming in of industrialisation, most of these woven pieces of art are becoming harder to find. We list out some of the traditional Indian sarees that a bride should possess.
Literally translating into ‘working with flowers’, it is a form of embroidery which is done in simple and yet eye-catching motifs on shawls, dupattas or salwar-kameezes. Historians also believed that the art of Phulkari came from Iran, where it is known as ‘Gulkari’.
The most striking aspect of Phulkari embroidery and its distinguishing feature is the use of darn stitch with silken thread on the wrong side of the coarse cotton cloth. The skilful manipulation of this stitch embroiders many geometrical flower or garden-themed patterns. While mostly the craft is done on rust or red coloured fabric, black and blue are avoided in Western Punjab while white is not used in Eastern Punjab. Mostly done on odhnis (headscarves) for daily wear, for special and ceremonial occasions, garments that cover the entire body (known as bagh – or garden) are embroidered. The motifs done on a phulkari meant for a Punjabi wedding signify fertility and prosperity. While wheat stalks are common, more unusual motifs are parrots, peacocks and even traditional roundels – that signifies a constant inflow of money into the household.
Phulkari embroidery done on georgette, chiffon and crepe de chine make for unusual sarees for your trousseau. In Phulkari embroidery the stitches decorate the cloth, while in the Bagh technique, it covers the garment completely in such a way that the base cloth is completely covered. Elaborating on the many styles of Phulkari, actor and costume designer Dolly Ahluwalia Tiwari says, “The ‘Chope’ and ‘Suber’ were wedding Phulkari presented to a Punjabi bride by her maternal family during the marriage ceremony. The plain red/dark red khaddar shawl known as ‘Saloo’ was used for daily household wear. ‘Til Patra’ shawls have very little embroidery and are inferior quality Khaddar. ‘Nilak’ is worked on black or navy blue khadi.”
It is a tradition to gift phulkaris and baghs to brides at the time of marriage and it is also considered auspicious that the women of the household do the phulkari.
Loved for their simplicity, the cotton sarees of Dhaniakhali village in West Bengal are distinctive with stripes, checks and contrasting borders. This saree is woven out of a slightly thicker cotton yarn with double-threaded braided designs on the pallu. These are often considered auspicious pooja sarees for traditional festivals, marriages and other celebrations. Dhaniakhali or Dhonekhali sarees are woven in near opaque white surfaces with contrasting borders in vibrant colours such as red, black, orange or purple, emphasised by a serrated edge motif. It should be noted that the womenfolk of the village mostly weaves these sarees.
Ace designer Sabyasachi says, “The kind of effort that is put in is definitely not in comparison with the absurdly low prices for these sarees. Also, since the weave is stronger than Tangail also, these sarees are sturdier and great for using as a canvas for embellishment.”
Patola saris are made in the Patan region of Gujarat. Royalty and aristocracy once only wore these expensive silk sarees. The weave is a double ikat, usually made from silk and are renowned for their colourful diversity and geometrical style. Patola-weaving is a closely guarded family tradition. There are only three families left in Patan that weave these highly prized double ikat saris.
Patola was always coveted – a folk song sung by women for their travelling husbands in Gujarat: “O my dear! Do bring the precious Patola from Patan for me.” The same song in Gujarati: “Chhelaji re, mare hatu Patan thi Patola mongha lavjo.”
Epics like the Ramayan and Narsinha Puran refer to the use of Patola in marriage ceremonies as an auspicious garment. This traditional art received great patronage during the Chalukya period. It is said that traveller Ibn Batuta presented kings with Patolas to gain their friendship. These also found their way to Malaysia, Indonesia and other South-East Asian countries.
The weaver makes the special Patola loom and colouring from indigenous natural materials. The main patola designs are pan bhat – leaf design, ratan chok bhat – jewel square, popat kunjar bhat – parrot and elephant design, nari kunjar bhat – woman and elephant design, chhabadi bhat – basket design and vohra gali bhat – pattern preferred by Vohra Muslims. The designs, which may comprise floral or animal motifs, are first drawn on paper to achieve accuracy and accordingly warp and weft are tied into knots and then dyed into different colours. It involves complicated calculations, the base of the sari is totally stood on geometrical creations. The process of making the sari starts with dyeing the warp and the weft yarns according to the planned pattern of the final cloth. The weaving needs care in uniting a particular colour in the weft with that in the warp. The procedure is not only costly but also time-consuming. Only 5 to 6 inches a day can be woven to achieve a smooth and identical finish on both sides of the fabric. The magnificent coloured highly prized Patola saree takes nearly one to two years to complete and is preserved as an heirloom.
Velvet patola styles are also made in Surat.
These are woven exclusively in the Paithan region of Maharashtra. The gold-embroidered sarees have been mentioned in the Rig Veda and Greek records mention the prized fabric from the ancient trading centre of Pratishthan (Paithan).
A typical Paithani was a plain saree with a heavy zari border and an ornamental pallu. However, myriad motifs can be found adorning the sarees – stars, peacocks, coconuts, paisleys etc. The calming colour combinations of these exquisite sarees are sure to make the wearer the cynosure of attention and admiration.
Paithanis seem to be gaining their lost glory simply because they are so opulent and grand.
Kasuti is a traditional embroidery from Karnataka. Extremely intricate – there could be an average of 8000 stitches on a saree (the base sarees are usually Ilkal or Kanjeevaram).
The history of Kasuti dates back to the Chalukya period when royal wardrobes were embellished with these embroideries. The name Kasuti is derived from the words Kai (meaning hand) and Suti (meaning cotton), indicating an activity that is done using cotton and hands. The women courtiers in the Mysore Kingdom in the 17th century were expected to be adept in 64 arts, with Kasuti being one of them. Historians also believe that when the Lambani clan left their traditional home of Rajasthan and settled down in, they brought Kasuti with them. In the South, a typical black silk saree with Kasuti done in a red and white thread is a must in every bridal trousseau. This particular saree is called the Chandrakali.
Patterns such as a temple gopuram, chariot, peacock, conch and lamps are prevalent. The pattern to be embroidered is first marked with charcoal or pencil and then proper needles and thread are selected. The work is laborious and involves counting each thread on the cloth. Different varieties of stitches are employed to obtain the desired pattern. Some of the stitches employed are Ganti, Murgi, Neyge and Menthe. Ganti is a double running stitch used for marking vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, Murgi is a zig-zag stitch, Neyge is a running stitch and Menthe is a cross stitch resembling fenugreek seeds.
Text by Aarti Kapur Singh
Cover image by Supriya Aggarwal