Embroidery of India: The Symbols, Motifs, and Colors
Legends, myths, and symbols were created out of the man’s need of self-expression. It has always enriched his life and given him a sense of power at his ability to synthesize the known and the unknown.
These myths and symbols have been transmitted through oral traditions or artifacts created by the man himself. It was due to this need that the ideas were transmitted and an urge developed to ritualized action that could bring to the surface the ideas and thoughts which ultimately turned into crafts.
The expression of ideas and concepts through symbols, both in arts and science is represented by objects and signs.
The symbols take the form of an object, sign, token, numeral, alphabets, words or designs to convey the deeper meaning of the idea or concept which are sought to be expressed.
In religion, the symbolism has come to be synonyms with mysticism. It binds the people together as the symbolism has the capacity to express one’s ideas, aspirations, and ideals.
Even today the symbolism is present in folk art for domestic purposes and one can see a rich repertoire of man’s beliefs, fears, and aspirations.
The handicraft as a means of the self-expression of the creator is a source of strength for the individual and the society. He expresses his deepest of emotions and his unexpressed desires through his creative faculties. This is done through the use of symbols that are known and understood in the society or are significant to him.
Often the artist himself partially understands, what has been expressed by him. The deep significance of form and decorative devices can be seen in such artifacts.
History of Embroidery
Embroidery has been accepted as an art of oriental origin, though its source is not yet known. India claims to be the original home of embroidery. There is evidence in Vedic hymns that the needle has been in use in India for centuries.
An invocation in Taithriya Samhita says, “I invoke the Raka or Moon with a fine eulogy, as He can be easily called. May she who is auspicious hear our invocation and understand in her heart its meaning; may she sew her price with a needle that is unbreakable, may she bestow on us son that is worthy and possess immense wealth”.
A Rigveda hymn states, “With a never breaking needle, may she sew her work; give her a son most worthy and praiseworthy”.
The needle has also been found in the excavations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.
Embroidery in India
Among the handicrafts of India which have been acclaimed the world over is the embroidery. It has occupied an important place among Indian exports. With Kashmir as an exception, the stitching was done exclusively by the women. Until recent times this was one of the first arts taught to the young girls at home.
Among other Indian folklore and songs, the art of embroidery has also lived in the hearts of the people and has been handed down from generation to generation. Like other handicrafts, it is a manifestation of man’s yearnings for beauty, introducing grace and elegance into the monotony and drabness of everyday life. The charm has remained constant and explains the fascination for embroidery through the ages.
The Indian embroidery has been considered as richest in design and most varied in stitches, with a striking color combination and an elaborate range of motifs.
Expression of Women’s innate world
It is a feminine vocation, in so far it does not require physical strength, but an artistic skill and sensibility.
The embroidery has been a personal as well as a social preoccupation for women especially for women who live sheltered lives cut off from social activities outside their homes. Hence embroidery has been a suitable form of self-expression as well as diversion. It is an integral part of women’s life expressing her beliefs and underlining her close inter-relationship between the Indian folk women and her environment.
Colors in embroideryClick thumbnail to view full-size
Colors in Embroidery
According to Hindu tradition, where colors are divided into Tamasic or that which arouses passions and Satvik or that which purify the soul and remove all desires. The dark colors are used to convey negative ideas, while light colors denote the positive feelings. The colors mostly used in folk embroidery are red, yellow, green, white, blue and black.
Red is the dominant Tamasic color and its varying shades of saffron to maroon are most popularly used. It is the color of passion and fertility and is indispensable for the proper completion of day to day rituals. The figure of the Mother goddess due to its association with creative energy or Shakti is painted vibrant red. It is an auspicious color worn by brides all over India.
Yellow is the color that gives most light. The golden yellow suggests radiance, being the color of the sun. It is symbolic of supreme wisdom, enlightenment, and divinity and is commonly combined with red color.
Blue is a passive color in contrast to red and it causes introversion as it is a contractive color. The blue shade is regarded as a symbol of vastness, infinity, and depth. That is why lord Krishna and lord Shiva or the Nilkhantha are always depicted in blue color.
Green is the central color in the chromatic phenomenon and is created by the mingling of yellow and blue. It is the color of fruitfulness, contentment, tranquility and hope.
White is associated with pure light and mystic illumination, which comes from ecstasy and intuitive knowledge. The intensity of white color gives vibrant strength to other colors.
Black is used as a color of totemic rites and magical treatments. It is rarely used as a dominating color in embroidery and is used instead to define other colors.
Fine Needle WorkClick thumbnail to view full-size
Motifs in Embroidery
The popular motifs in Indian embroidery are the peacock, parrot, lotus, fish mango, astdala or octet, snake, flowers, trees, leaves etc.
The most important motif used in embroidery is the peacock. It is one of the most popular means of expression in literature, music, art, dance, culture, painting, clay ceramics, pottery, and brass ware. Cotton and silk fabric alike and folk art of every kind have shown special partiality for the peacock. It is considered as a state bird and the Hindus consider it as a pious bird. Lord Krishna and his Raasleelas or dances too are associated with the peacock.
The peacock plays an important role in the psyche of men and women in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. In every house of Punjabi village, one can see the peacock as a decorative motif on the walls in bright colors. The long feathers and curves neck represent the beauty of form and pride in its pastures. The peacock is the vehicle of lord Kartikeya, the god of war and the son of lord Shiva. It symbolizes the celestial regalia, divine forces, virtuous strength, and valor. The image of the peacock is also used in the Vedi or the marriage podium as a defensive charm against the evil eyes.
The feathers of the peacock are often used in Totemic treatments. In Phulkari or the embroidery on dresses, the peacock motif is shown as two triangles forming the body and the arrows at the back. These triangles represent the male and female. The peacock is used in different forms in mirror work embroidery of Kathiawar and Kutch in gold and silver work.
Among the domesticated birds in India, the parrot holds an unchallenged popularity in the houses. It is the favorite motif of the village artisans, potters, carpenters, coppersmiths, brass-smiths, and goldsmiths. It imitates human beings like no other animal or bird. The parrot is said to be the vehicle of Kamadeva or the god of sex or cupid in Hindu mythology. It symbolizes love passion and fertility. It is also used in the decoration of Vedi or marriage podium and at the entrances. It is a favorite motif in the mirror works of Gujarat and North India and the applique work of Orissa.
The lotus is the common symbol in the East, especially the Pahari regions. It represents the very core of Mandala or the ritualistic drawings. The eight petals of lotus which spring from the naval of Lord Vishnu, the protector, is symbolic of the universe growing out of the central sun
In Chamba Rumal or Handkerchief of Himachal Pradesh, the full blown lotus enclosing the central deity of Hindus is a common motif. The linked arms of Lord Krishna and the Gopis create the formation of full blown lotus in the Rasleela dance.
The fish motif is seen as the origin of life emanating from the sun. It is one of the 12 signs of Hindu Zodiac called Meena. In Hindu mythology, it is the vehicle of Varuna, the god of oceans. In Puranas the fish incarnation of Lord Vishnu predicted a deluge engulfing the entire universe from which He saved the sun god, and Vavista Manu, the progenitor of mankind from the universal cataclysm.
The fish is also a symbol of female fertility. It is a favorite motif in the Kantha of Bengal and is usually shown in water. The water is universally accepted as a source of life and is symbolic of purification and regeneration.
Mango as a motif is used in chikan work in the embroidery of Utter Pradesh, the gold and silver embroidery or Kantha of Bengal and the mirror work of Gujarat. It is also called Kalka motif. It is a symbol of women’s charm. In folk songs, the lovesick women find mention as she is found writing an epistle to her lover to return when the mangoes ripen in the rainy season in the month of July.
The astdala represents the symbol of lord Vishnu. It is used in alpanas by Bengali women, as well as it finds mention in their embroidery called Kantha. Its symbolism is close to that of lotus. It symbolizes the basic unity in the manifestation of life.
Astdala MotifClick thumbnail to view full-size
A remarkable thing about the art of embroidery is the fastidiousness of the worker to avoid wasteful ornamentation and therefore there is never a single unnecessary stitch. The embroidery never forgets the purpose that the design has to fulfill.
The entire composition displays the admirable skill in the arrangement of the form and color, producing beautiful combinations that are pleasing to the eye. The art of embroidery reflects the personal expression of the artist, whether it is the cultivated art or embroidered out of sheer instinct.
In today’s world where the man is distracted from nature, and where the artwork may not give an adequate sense of fulfillment, the decorative designs of handicrafts, traditional customs and embroidery have become an essential medium of expression.
© 2014 Sanjay Sharma