It is a bird’s-eye view of Loktak Lake that catches the eye—two lotus pickers rowing their boats on the freshwater lake, against a striking blue background surrounded by greens and pinks. Only this is neither a picture, nor a painting. It is a landscape created on a piece of cloth, with a myriad knots and minuscule stitches, secured by a wooden hoop.
Architect and urban planner Diti Baruah, who is from Assam, is a self-taught aerial embroidery artist who creates hyper-realistic landscapes focused on the cultural heritage and natural beauty of the North-East. The Deepor Beel freshwater lake, Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Jatinga village in Assam, Meghalaya’s Dawki or Umngot river, and Ward’s Lake in Shillong, Nagaland’s Dzukou Valley and Arunachal Pradesh’s Siang river—these are just some of the places she has sewn to life. Her most well-received work is of Manipur’s Loktak Lake, she says.
“After travelling across the globe, I can safely say that the North-East has an abundance of scenic beauty. The world needs to know about these unseen, unheard of places,” says Baruah, who is now based in Bengaluru.
She works with French knots, a simple embroidery stitch that creates small three-dimensional bumps, giving her artwork a realistic feel. Aerial embroidery is a laborious craft. It can take as little as seven days or as long as two months to complete a work. But it’s the end result that matters, she says. “The scale of the view I am creating, and the balance between the different natural elements, is something I utilise from my architecture and city planning background,” Baruah says. Visualisation plays a key role in her projects.
It was the pandemic that saw her developing this creative side. For the alumna of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, was carrying out research work in the US when she had to return to India two years ago. Baruah used embroidery as a medium to cope with the sudden change, rediscovering her love for it as she scrolled through social media—it was a time when many had returned to long-abandoned hobbies; embroidery was one of them.
“The last time I stitched anything was 20 years ago for a school project but I was extremely confident about being able to ace it. I started spending more time doing embroidery art. It became meditative and I found a new identity as a self-taught artist,” says Baruah. She was sure of one thing: She wanted her work to celebrate the North-East. “People have a limited perception about the region. There are heritage sites which have great sociocultural significance. We cannot ignore such places or cultural identities just because they are not recognised by Unesco or Icomos (International Council on Monuments and Sites),” she says.
The rapid decline in green cover across the North-East concerns her. “Growing up in Guwahati, I remember how green the city used to be. It is no longer the same. I want to preserve these beautiful places through my embroidery so that it can serve as a reminder of how urban development can impact the environment.”
Today, her work has found a global audience, particularly in the US and Europe, through the e-commerce platform Etsy. She usually does not create more than two artworks each month, pricing them upwards of ₹7,000. “I always make sure to name each of my artworks so that even someone sitting in, say, Alaska gets to read the name of a heritage site in north-east India and learn that such a place exists,” she says. “That is my way of reaching out to the world.”
Kasturi Das is a Guwahati-based journalist.