Color & Light
December 12, 2008 - May 11, 2009
South Asia has long been famed for the beauty and diversity of its decoratively stitched cloth. Whether produced in male-dominated urban workshops or in the home by rural women and girls for personal and family use, embroidery served, and to a large extent still serves, multiple functions in daily and religious life. Embellished textiles are components of clothing; decorate tents, homes, palaces, mosques, and temples; cover animals; and serve other useful functions. They are required for many festivals and rituals, and are often essential for betrothal and marriage.
Historically, embroidered textiles have reflected the wealth and influence of rulers, courtiers, and favored courtesans. Among South Asia’s many peoples, they frequently identified family origins, personal status, and religious affiliation. With the increasing availability of imported and machine-made goods, urbanization, and changes in patterns of traditional life, some varieties of embroidery have all but disappeared. Others have survived, albeit in new forms, or have been revived in an effort to keep these handmade arts alive.
Click here to view items from the Color & Light Embroidery from India and Pakistan
Color & Light Embroidery from India and Pakistan is drawn entirely from the Textile Museum of Canada’s rich holdings of South Asian textiles and incorporates the following themes:
Court and Commerce
Many royal courts had some form of state-owned workshop to satisfy their need for luxury goods. These court workshops (kharkhana) employed master craftsmen in all media, including painters, weavers, and embroiderers. The Mughal court (1542-1857) established its own artistic signature that influenced many minor courts throughout the region. At the breakup of the Mughal Empire, artists and craftsmen fled to the regional courts where they further infused the local style with that of the Mughals. In contrast to the exclusive kharkhana, urban workshops produced professional quality embroidery for local, regional, and international markets.
Embellishing the Home
Throughout modern India and Pakistan embroidered textiles have been used to decorate living spaces; temporary or permanent, grand or humble. These colorful embroidered textiles combine traditional decorative motifs with religious imagery and domestic themes, reflecting the activities within the home and the practices within the local culture. Often displayed in conjunction with painted or stucco decoration, these objects bring beauty and color into mud-walled homes, while also serving utilitarian purposes.
Embroidery and Identity
For women in many of the communities of modern India and Pakistan, the styles and motifs of embroidered patterns are an essential indicator of group affiliation and personal identity. The embroidery style, choice of motifs, and color combinations not only announce the location, community, and religion of the maker, but they can also reveal the identity of the woman.
In all of the geographic areas represented in this exhibition, one mark of identity is universal: religious orientation. Through centuries of preference and custom, followers of Islam have confined their designs purely to geometry, bringing an unrivaled precision, sophistication, and complexity to their embroidery.
Pasture, Farm, and Village
Among semi-nomadic pastoralists like the Rabari community, and migratory laborers such as the Banjara, women lavishly decorate garments, bags, and animal trappings to create portable art suited to their peripatetic lifestyle. Settled subsistence farmers, landowners, and village dwellers also embroider, usually decorating household items such as bedding covers and wall hangings as well as clothing.
Each group has its own distinctive style, the result of geographic and cultural influences uniquely affecting a community. This is particularly evident in the “Embroidery Belt,” which contains the greatest variety of embroidery styles on the subcontinent, each requiring extraordinary skill and demonstrating a sophisticated repertoire of designs.
Ceremonies and Celebrations
Textiles are embellished with elaborate decorative needlework for weddings, festivals, and worship. In many communities, embroidered textiles are important for auspicious occasions and essential for marriages, which bind families and communities together.
Many of the most elaborate textiles in this exhibition were either dowry items or made for use at weddings. Young girls and their female relatives expend much time, expense, and effort in creating these textiles. Among the most common are clothing and headcovers for the bride; small purses, decorative shoe covers, and turban scarves for the groom; household textiles; bags of various shapes and sizes to transport and store dowry items; and trappings for the bulls pulling the dowry cart.