Motifs gracing Indian textiles are infused with meaning and beauty, and are developed in keeping with local culture and heritage.
Travelling across India one encounters a traditional reverence for the Maker and for mythology in myriad expressions. Works of art and craft are often meshed with beliefs and symbolism that give them a deeper meaning beyond their visual beauty. Drawing from this philosophy, a range of motifs also appear on textiles that thus hold in their folds a symbolism as their motifs are akin a pictorial vocabulary of belief and thought.
The Language of Motifs
Following centuries-old textile techniques such as hand-weaving, resist-dyeing, printing and embroidery (with several techniques and styles within each technique), artisans create beautiful textiles graced with motifs reflective of tradition, belief, the parameters of the fabric and hereditary skills. At times, the same motif is rendered differently in different parts of the country, reflective of local culture apart from textile techniques practised.
“The language of textile motifs evolves organically over generations and is very sensitive. Motifs evolve from various sources especially local ethos and landscape. For example, Kashmiris have a gentle and poetic style of expressing themselves. That is reflected in their textile language as the motifs are like gently flowing arabesques. Further, Kashmir has snow most of the year. Hence, you will see a predominance of autumn colours in their motifs. West Bengal has a lot of rain and lush vegetation. Their textile language has developed to a language of whites with red borders. If it had deep colours, it would be lost in the foliage-rich landscape. Similarly, in the arid Rann of Kutch the motifs are bright, colourful and have mirror work, which makes them stand out in the landscape”, says Mumbai-based designer Bela Shanghvi.
An Array of Motifs
From motifs depicting the epics to architecture, animals, birds, fish, flowers, fruits, stars, calligraphy, architectural elements and more there is a fantastic array that embellishes Indian textiles. From nature is the tree – a refuge for animals, a giver of fruit, flowers, fuel and shade, and an abode of spirits – celebrated in the tree of life motif. And from the bounty of trees have sprung several motifs such as flowers, sacred seeds such as those of the rudraksha, leaves such as the heart-shaped leaves of the sacred pipal tree under which Lord Buddha received enlightenment; and fruits, such as the mango and pomegranate symbolising fertility. A popular Indian motif is the ancient ambi or mango motif resembling the fruit and the badam or almond in Kashmir that evolved to become the paisley known worldwide. Of flowers, the lotus, a traditional symbol of purity for its pure bloom rising out of waters unsullied by its surroundings is particularly popular, while flowers such as lilies, tulips, irises and poppies were popular during the Mughal period.
Among animals, the elephant – regarded as a symbol of strength, intelligence, compassion – is often featured; other popular animal motifs are the tiger and deer. Motifs of the horse rider, camel rider and elephant rider are popular motifs in west India where they have different associations such as the horse being used by pastoral tribes who entered India as well as martial clans. In the north-eastern state of Nagaland are striking handwoven shawls with symbolic motifs; among these shawls is the Tsungkotepsu that has a central panel with motifs of mithuns (an ox-like animal), elephants, tigers and roosters that convey the strength and valour of the wearer.
Of birds, the peacock and parrot are most popular with the former a symbol of beauty, love, courtship and royalty being rendered in eye-catching colours. From the waters, the conch shell- an auspicious symbol as one can hear the sounds of creation from its whorls and its being blown at auspicious occasions – and the fish linked to Matsya, the fish-avatar of the deity Vishnu and its being a symbol of prolific pro-creativity are popular.
Forms of the celestial bodies – the sun, moon and stars – worked with metal thread bring home a bit of their shine. Motifs such as rows of triangles with serrated sides on South Indian silks referred to as ‘temple borders’ that echo the lines of the superstructure of temples have been inspired by temple architecture. From Islamic architecture has been sourced the jali or fretted screen, which forms a net-effect through the entire body of the sari. Sometimes a round motif, called coin motif is placed in each square formed by the jali.
Masterpieces of Textiles
Drawing from the repository of motifs, the nuances of techniques they work with and their own skill and creativity, artisans create exquisite textiles graced with motifs. By working around a bouquet of motifs and sometimes even a single motifs, creating it in different sizes, they create wonderful textiles such as a sari with borders, field and palla or end panel featuring motifs in different sizes, in a harmonious colour palette and composition.
One textile masterpiece is an antique Chandrakala sari in the collection of the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Pune. The Chandrakala is traditionally a nine-yard indigo blue-black silk sari with kasuti embroidery, a traditional craft of Karnataka. “Interestingly the word Chandrakala translates as ‘phases of the moon’ perhaps alluding the effect of the black sari dotted with motifs that appears like a night sky with stars shining”, says Sudhanva Ranade, Hon. Director of the Museum. And true to its name the embroidery on the museum’s Chandrakala sari creates the effect of a starry sky on the sari. Its field is filled with embroidered stars, and the end panel is densely embroidered with stars, the gopuram motif (it is a rendition of the entrance-gateway to a temple), and verses in honour of Lord Krishna in Devanagari script.
Contemporary Indian textile artisans and designers, thus, have a fantastic array of motifs to draw from to create exquisitely patterned textiles. Bela, who has been designing saris inspired by different traditional techniques for over thirty years, says traditional techniques and motifs are a great source of inspiration for artisans and designers. Yet, she emphasises the importance of maintaining the sanctity of motifs featured by each textile technique as she says the reason why particular motifs evolved in each tradition is because they are supported by the technology of that particular technique.
“The play of each textile is different and one has to be judicious when bringing in new motifs as it can alter the texture, drape and character of a textile. For instance, you cannot play around with motifs on a traditional Aashawal sari that is created using twill weave with jacquard on plain weave with extra weft which distinguishes it from other brocades. You cannot bring motifs of Benares brocades to Pathani weaving. The textile will lose its balance, you have neither textile expression, and the fabric is technically not right”, says Bela, who prefers to design motifs within the discipline of a technique. Yet, with sensitivity towards time-honoured traditions and the vocabulary of Indian textile motifs, artisans and designers can continue to create beautiful textile designs in an array of expressions thus keeping alive the vibrant, living heritage of Indian textiles.
Written by: Brinda Gill