The beauty of India is that at every 100km you will find a craft, a form of embroidery or a textile unique to that place. The tragedy? Little has been done to preserve, or celebrate, them, whether it is Kashmir’s pinjrakari wood-carving craft, the fine Chamba rumal embroidery of Himachal Pradesh or the colourful khana fabric of north Karnataka’s Guledgudda.
One such craft, Gujarat’s mochi chain-stitch embroidery, has now been documented in a book, The Shoemaker’s Stitch: Mochi Embroideries Of Gujarat In The TAPI Collection, by Rosemary Crill, a master in Indian textiles and paintings and former senior curator for South Asia at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and Shilpa Shah, co-founder of the TAPI Collection of Indian Textiles and Art. TAPI is an acronym for Textiles & Art of the People of India.
Their study, they say in the preface, is a tribute to the unnamed masters of mochi-bharat, embroidery created by Mochis, a community of shoemakers, cobblers and saddlers who worked with prepared leather, in Kutch. “Belonging to the humble shoemaker community of Gujarat in western India, they were unrivalled professionals of chain-stitch embroidery, locally known as aari work, after the shoemaker’s tool (aar, the hooked tool) which the Mochis adapted so deftly to use on cloth rather than leather,” they write.
This chain-stitch embroidery from Kutch has been prized for centuries. With precision and deft artistry, the shoemakers would craft dense chain stitch in twisted silk thread. Embroidered palampores were sent to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, Mughal courts were decorated with colourful furnishings, and garments were made for the elite women of Gujarat, especially Kutch, well into the mid-20th century, notes the book.
Exactly when the community started embroidering on cloth is not known. Nor do we know how the embroidery originated. There is, though, a clear connection with Sindh, known for its embroidered leather sleeping mats, “at least since the 13th century when Marco Polo had admired them (the mats)”, notes the book. Some Mochis believe their ancestors came from Sindh (in present-day Pakistan) and settled in Gujarat’s Surendranagar district in the 14th century. Another version is that Kutchi embroiderers picked up the craft secretly, by spying on visiting Sindhi craftsmen in the 18th century.
The book refers to a passage from the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency of 1880: “There are about fifty families of Hindu embroiderers (it pegged their population at 1,237 at the time). About 250 years ago (i.e. circa 1630), a Musalman beggar, fakir, skilled in embroidery is said to have come from Sind, and taught his art to some families of the shoe-maker, mochi, caste, who, both in Bhuj and Mandvi, are famous for their skill. They work with silk, with a hooked needle like broad awl on silk cloth, mashru (silk and cotton mixed fabric), on broadcloth, net and canvas. With a silk thread in one hand, the artist works with the other, without any design sketched on the cloth or even placed before him, and with wonderful speed, fruits, flowers, animals and human figures (take shape)…. Fifteen of those families are well-to-do…. So highly is their skill valued that Kathiawar and other chiefs employ them and their work is in great demand all over India and is sent to Zanzibar.”
Today, Bhuj’s Mochi street is home only to four families from the community. The last mochi craftsperson celebrated for his skill—Hansraj Jethabhai—died in 1966. Two sons of the late mochi embroiderer Ramji Jethabhai are at present the only people skilled in the craft, notes the book. They are trying to train others.
The story of this unique craft is the story of every craft. The authors say “they are… seeking out a new generation of buyers—craft revivalists, tourists, souvenir-hunters and interior designers”. But at a time when international luxury houses are applauding our crafts, why aren’t we celebrating our own richness? For, as the book puts it, mochi embroidery, like so many crafts, is that delicate chain that ties our past with the present, defining our future.