In the early 1990’s I began traveling regularly to Banaskantha, Gujarat to work with local artisans to develop garments and home textiles for the Self-Employed Women’s Organization (SEWA). Most were shepherds living in villages within 100 km, their husbands mostly farm laborers or herdsmen.
The area was a desolate, salty wasteland, prone to periodic droughts, extremely poor. Radhanpur was the next city. In one section, linked by winding lanes, were the small, dark houses of the Mochi community. Traditional shoemakers, once employed by kings, were now dangerously poor as fewer and fewer people ordered their beautifully embroidered leather judiesprefers industrially manufactured branded shoes or even plastic sandals.
The advent of the automobile also marked the end of their intricately embroidered leather upholstery for elephants, horses and camels.
To earn a living, the Mochis turned to making generic embroidered ornamental wall hangings and cushions – made of cloth rather than leather – for local traders and GURJARI, the Gujarat State Handicrafts Corporation. There were few other employment opportunities.
As is customary, the men cut and sew the articles and the women complete the embroidery in the traditional way aari –like a crochet hook or a shoemaker’s awl mounted on a wooden handle, in contrast to chain stitch embroidery, which is done in northern India with a straight needle and a large, floor-mounted frame.
Similar mochi communities existed in Bhuj and Mandvi in Kutch, and in Saurashtra and Sind. Indeed, many Mochi families trace their lineage and craft to Sindh ancestors who were brought to the Kutch court by Kutchi rulers in the 14th century and encouraged to teach their craft locally. Bhuj, as the seat of the Kutchi royal family, was the largest center of mochi embroidery, which has sadly now dwindled to a handful of families. A few fine old carved wooden houses, relics from better days and some fine tombs, temples and mosques dissolved the dusty poverty and clutter of the small town.
Working on fabrics was nothing new to the mochi community. Even in the past, the most skilled craftsmen made beautiful garments, accessories, canopies and wall panels in silk, satin and mashru for local nobility and even for more distant royal patrons.
The workmanship was exceptional aari used like a miniaturist’s brush; the embroidery, delicate configurations of leaves, flora and fauna – peacocks and parrots for fertility; elephants, lions and horses for power and wealth; decorative borders full of roses and lilies and flowering trees, rarely seen in these arid regions.
Green trees of life were a popular theme, as were Sri Nathji Pichwais hanging behind the deity in the temples. Exceptionally fine work was done on both leather and fabrics well into the 20th century, declining after independence and coinciding with the decline of the nawabs and maharajas who were their patrons.
It is these mochi embroideries, mainly from the early 19th century, that are the subject of The shoemaker’s stitchthe latest documentation of TAPI’s wonderful textile collection.
Shilpa Shah, co-founder of the TAPI Collection of Indian Textiles and Art, is also a co-author of this book. Her inspirational work collecting and documenting Indian textiles ties in with Gira Sarabhai and the Calico Museum in the 1950s and 60s. Her travels throughout India and her Master’s degree from Berkeley University bring her both academic and personal insight, passion and love.
Her co-author is Rosemary Crill, former Senior Curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, who has studied and written about Indian embroidery and textiles over the years. Their combined expertise and erudition make this book an intense read – both visually and in terms of content. For its part, Niyogi Books has done a wonderful job of photography, printing and design. The shoemaker’s stitch is a delight in everything but its considerable weight!
The book documents items from the collections of the Kutch, Dhangadhra and Jaipur royal families, the V&A and other western museums, as well as pieces from the TAPI collection itself. It is superbly illustrated: the rich, vibrant reds, greens and yellows and the The elaborate, intricately worked motifs of mochi embroidery, often boldly outlined in black, emphasize their difference from the more subtle, delicate Persian and Mughal-influenced chain stitches of northern India and Bengal.
Even pieces commissioned for the European market are distinctly different from the crewel work of Kashmir or the painted chintzes of the Coromandel coast. As Shah points out, mochi embroidery traveled to courts and temples across India and was therefore often misidentified as local work. To the trained eye, they are very different, both in imagery and in execution.
Looking at earlier craft and textile traditions, it’s easy to despair of their status today. However, not everything is bleak like the final chapter of The shoemaker’s stitch tell us.
There was a revival of aari bharat, and many designers and practitioners make wonderful contemporary pieces, although not always made by traditional mochi embroiderers. Asif Shaikh, Arun Virgamya, Adam Sangar and their extended families, Shrujjan Museum and Shobhit Mody are some that come to mind.
Beautiful tapestries have been made in collaboration with embroiderers Mochi, Ahir and Meghwal in Radhanpur, SEWA and Dastkar and have found a home in many national and international museums and venues, often combining the three local textile skills of patchwork, mirroring and aari bharat.
No longer the domain of male artisans, Mochi Bharat has given independence and merit to hundreds of women, adding another important dimension to the practice.
Laila Tyabji is a crafts activist and a founding member of the DASTKAR Society for Crafts & Craftspeople.