I don’t think I ever wrote anything about this piece. It’s one of our India-acquisitions – a beaded toran (small window curtain or alcove decoration). Glasses for scale.
We bought it in the Koregaon Park neighborhood of Pune, in a curiosities/furniture/antiques shop called Sanskriti Lifestyle. The clerk there was only able to tell me that it was old – he had no other information to share. So I began to research.
The beadwork style is called “Moti Bharat“, and is practiced in both Gujarat and neighboring Rajasthan, but is a relatively recent practice, only dating back to the mid to late 1800s. I don’t know enough about how the execution of this style differs between those two provinces to identify the exact source. All I can say is that compared to many on-line examples from both areas, it’s a rather modest and understated little piece.
On “old” – it’s definitely not a recently made piece, but neither is it very aged. I suspect it was probably made before the 1970s, but probably not earlier than the 1940s, based on the colors and types of beads used (all glass rather than plastic, with a wider color set than pre-1940s pieces).
I believe this piece was beaded off-fabric, using a mesh technique. That’s the traditional method.
It may or may not have been displayed in this original un-backed format – the condition is quite good with no breaks or evidence of stress, which leads me to believe that it probably wasn’t. But I don’t think this piece is totally untouched.
I think that what I have might be a fragment of a larger toran.
Look at the red/orange beaded line that surrounds the center motifs. On the left, it’s a straight line, and the width of the white beading to its left is more or less constant. But on the right it’s wavy, it corners earlier and the white beaded area varies in width, and is oddly bunched in places by the blue/white/red border. If my hunch is correct, the border (which has a different periodicity than the field) might have been applied later, after the bulk of the piece was salvaged from an earlier work, and after its right side was more or less restored.
After the beading (including any theoretical restoration) was finished, this piece was affixed to the current red cotton cloth backing, by hand. I’ve looked closely at these myriad little attachment stitches, and they do NOT go through the beads themselves. Instead they loop around junctions in the beaded mesh, to attach the entire structure to the backing.
Again – there may have been an earlier presentation that involved the beads and the red backing, possibly with some sort of other edging because the seam allowance of the red bit shows evidence of earlier hand stitching.
And at a still later date (based on wear of the backing cloth), the edges of the beadwork were stitched down again, with long reinforcing stitches in heavier string, and the piece was edged around with the yellow bias binding. At this time the white ruffle on the bottom was added. The bias binding, hanging loops, and ruffle were all put on with machine stitching. There is evidence that the piece was hung for display in this configuration – rust stains on the inside of the top loops, plus one of the bottom loop that has been pulled from its attaching stitches.
As to what the motifs symbolize – all I can say is that trees and the little bulls are traditional. The top center motif might be a representation of a divine figure, I can’t say. All I can observe is that the composition although balanced and pleasing is very simple for pieces of this type. It was a decoration that brought joy to a modest household, albeit it one of the means to afford such things. It now hangs in my house, and continues to bring joy.
I invite my India friends to chime in with more details!
Aside from the weakness for yarn common to all knitters, I don’t often spoil myself buying things for my own use. But given just a nudge, I have given in and have treated myself to two things:
A Hardwicke Manor sit-on round frame (aka a fanny frame), and a tambour needle set (not shown in proportion to each other).
I’ve wanted to try the round sit-on frame for quite a while. I like using my flat frame on its holder. Doing so allows me to position one hand above and one hand below the work, and stitch more efficiently, without needing to conjure a third hand to hold the frame in place.
For smaller pieces in non-fragile threads and stitches, I do prefer to use the smaller hoop though. But using it does raise those same third-hand issues. I am eager to experiment with the sit-on, and hope that I don’t miss the agility of being able to rotate the hoop in hand for optimal stitching direction at the same time as I appreciate having both hands free to work.
A fixed position frame is one of the things that enables use of a tambour needle. Again, one hand uses the needle on one side of the work, the other is positioned on the opposite side, and feeds thread to the hook, using up my quotient of hands before holding the frame in a convenient position is achieved.
I looked for a tambour hook in India. One would think that given the staggering array of tambour-produced textiles there, finding one would be easy. Indian Ari hooks are (in theory) slightly longer and finer in diameter than hooks made for the Western market. Sadly, I never saw one myself. In my region there were few shops that offered needlework supplies, and the ones that I found catered to ladies of leisure rather than people doing embroidery to make a living. Clerks in those shops either didn’t understand what I wanted (although I was armed with the correct name and drawings); or they didn’t carry them because they were “working” rather than “leisure” tools.
What sort of things are embroidered using an Ari? The overwhelming majority of stitched textiles offered in traditional crafts markets. Not all – running stitch quilting, satin stitch, poorly done Shisha, and pattern darning were also present, but tamboured pieces that looked like chain stitch predominated, especially in the better quality works that interested me most. Here’s a smattering of what we brought back:
The cushion cover on the left that we had made into the chair seat is densely stitched in wool on a cotton backing. I believe it’s from Kashmir.
Also from Kashmir is the rug in the center. Yes – that’s 6’ x 9’ (1.8 x 2.7 meters), totally stitched in tamboured cotton, with no ground showing. I had it professionally cleaned when we returned from India because it had been in daily use there. I’m not sure where we will eventually put it, so it’s rolled up in safe storage right now.
The third thing is our Dodo Curtain – a large cotton panel covered in tamboured metal threads, with probably man made silk (rayon) accents and paillettes. It’s covered with roundels featuring this bird, giving it a very Medieval appearance. I have plans to back this cloth with linen, then hang it as a portiere curtain between my living and dining rooms. We got this piece in Agra, but its ultimate province of origin wasn’t noted.
The jacket is also Kashmiri. It’s fine Pashmina, entirely tambour-worked using the same fiber. Even the plackets and hems that look like trim are densely packed tambour chain. This is probably the most extravagant thing The Resident Male bought for me on our stay, and wearing it makes me feel like royalty.
A side trip into literature and symbolism for those who wish to hang around for such things:
Some folk have told me that my curious dodo hanging may show the Garuda Bird, the king of birds, champion of justice, and celestial mount of Lord Vishnu, but I am doubtful. The noble Garuda is usually shown in with wings outspread, robust and fearless, often with a human face and limbs.
These big-beaked, comfortably round, bald birds, if not dodos, may represent vultures.
There are several vultures in Hindu epics. One is the mount of the deva Shani, revered as a teacher and righteous judge, punishing evildoers and betrayers. But Shani’s mount is rarely pictured alone. Other famous vultures in the story cycles appear in the Ramayana – two brothers, Jatayu and Sampaati. They figure in several tales, including one that echoes aspects of the Icarus myth, with Jatayu flying so high he was seared by the sun, but rescued by his loyal and courageous brother Sampaati who used his own wings to shield Jatayu from the sun’s fury. Unlike Icarus, Jatayu survived, and is not a symbol of the folly born of overconfidence. Jatayu also plays a supporting role in the story of Sita’s abduction by the demon Ravana, flying to Rama with news of Ravana’s escape route.
One last possibility – dodos were giant flightless parrots. If these birds are parrots, we veer off from justice and bravery into the worlds of compassion and love.
Origin stories vary, but Sukadeva was a parrot, and pet of the gods, particularly befriended by Krishna, who showed mercy and compassion to it when Sukadeva fluttered away from his mistress Radha. I’m not clear on the relationship between that story and others, but Sulka the parrot is often painted in henna on the feet of brides, in recognition of his service as the sacred mount of Kamadva (also known as Mandan and Mara) the god of sensual love.
While not as lofty as Garuda, if my dodos are the vulture brothers, they are still exemplars of bravery and self-sacrifice. However, if the bird shown is Sulka, the connection with love might make my curtain more apt for the bedroom than the dining room.
Where have I been?
Since the last post, admittedly almost two months ago, we’ve been re-nesting here in Arlington. The Resident Male returned from India, having done the final closeout of our apartment there, shipped our goods home, and said his goodbyes to friends and co-workers. He and I ran away for a second week on Cape Cod. We re-enrolled Younger Daughter in high school. Elder Daughter and I embarked on job searches. Our household shipment from India arrived, and we started the Great Unpacking. I landed in a great job at CyPhy Works, and have embraced again the daily commute, this time with an added morning detour to the gym.
Now the school year has begun, and we’re almost back on normal routine. There are still pockets of disorder in our living and dining rooms that we are slowly addressing. Our India-bought rugs are back from being cleaned, and are now laid out in their new home. Our kitchen goods have been sorted, with some stowed against future need, and others (like the rolling pin and round cutting/rolling platform hand-made by Driver Rupesh’s father) installed for immediate use. And the chair is back, with the seat cushion redone.
You may remember the chair, with its shoddy seat of fraying satin over a cheese-like block of squishy foam, purchased from Just Antiques in Pune:
Arlington furniture specialists Upholstery on Broadway took the wool tambour embroidered cushion cover I bought in Pune for this purpose, edged it out in brown ultrasuede and crafted this look:
I’m very happy with the result. The curves of the stitched leaves echo the curves of the repurposed carved window treatment that makes up the chair’s back and sides. And it’s quite comfy, too.
What’s on tap now? Dealing with that remaining disorder, craftily kept just off camera in the shot above; settling into the new routine; finishing Swirly – the big lap blanket; and finishing up The Second Carolingian Modelbook. More on all of this in future posts. And I promise you won’t wait two months to hear from me again.
Now that we’ve been home for a few weeks, I can say that there are things I miss about India. One of them is our friend and driver Rupesh. We had lots of occasion to chat with him as we sat in traffic. He was our guide and intermediary to a new culture; his questions and his answers to our own questions made us think.
One conversation we had early on was about our “native place.” Most Indians have one – an ancestral village or neighborhood where their relatives still live, and to which they return. Having a native place is a vital link beyond kinship to its residents – it’s an attachment to the actual area and the land itself. People are intensely proud of their native places, and follow everything that affects those places with great interest, even if they themselves are living in a city, far away.
Rupesh spoke with great affection about his native place, describing the house he grew up in, the retirement house his parents were building there, village life,his family, and the crops grown in his family’s various small fields. Then he asked me about mine. Where was it? What was it like? What grew there?
I admit I was at a loss. Like many rootless urban Americans, we have no single place for the family to call home.
I suppose technically speaking, an avenue row house in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn New York would be my native place. We lived there until I was a teen, around the corner from one grandparents’ house and about 10 minutes away from the other.
The shot at right is as it looks now on Google Maps – not quite the same as I remember, but even digitally, one can’t turn back time. Rupesh would be disappointed to know that very little grew there, at least not by the time my family lived there. Truck garden farms and horse stables for the local race track had long since been paved over and subdivided into attached houses.
While I have deep memories of Brooklyn, walking to school and the neighborhood in which I lived, I have no particular attachment to it. I barely remember the people I went to school with, and have not been back there in a good 30 years.
Next we lived in Teaneck, New Jersey. That lasted from middle school through high school. Again, an inner suburb, not quite as dense as Brooklyn, but long divorced from being anything other than a bedroom community. I do have fond memories of several school friends, and am debating attending an upcoming high school reunion. For agriculture, I did once try to grow carrots in the back yard. I got leafy tops, but no roots. So both I and the vegetables have no special ties to that little plot, either. My mom no longer lives there, so there’s no compelling reason to return.
After that I went off to college, and a wild array of ever-changing dorm rooms. Nothing much settled down in the immediate post-college years, either. I bounced from one Boston area entry level apartment to another, sharing the places with roommates or roaches. Usually both.
I wouldn’t call any of these residences home, let alone my special native place.
Eventually I ended up in Washington D.C., jobs being more plentiful there than in Boston in the early 1980s. I will be forever grateful to the friends who let me couch surf in their tiny apartment for five months before I established myself and could afford to move to my own flat. Fernando and I married and he joined me in my war against vermin in this College Park, Maryland building.
Getting closer, but still no nostalgia. We moved to get away from the Roach Motel, and resettled in Washington, D.C. itself, in a small apartment village in Takoma Park. It was pleasant, although not air conditioned in the D.C. heat, and an easy walk to the subway, the dojo and many of our friends. The best part was the low rent, which allowed us to save up to buy our first non-apartment home.
We are now inching up on Rupesh’s concept of attachment. We worked hard on the house in Lanham, Maryland, and made very good friends with a neighbor, with whom we remain in touch to this day. Our elder daughter was born here. Through hard work, we tamed the muddy back yard and grew lots of flowers – cannas, mums, day lilies, Asian lilies, hollyhocks, marigolds, and others. I’d consider this to be our first real home.
Better jobs beckoned, and we returned to Massachusetts.
We did a lot of research and ended up buying our next home in Arlington – a tiny 1950s era ranch. Again, we did a lot of work on the house and grounds, finishing out the basement, making a garden in the back. I attempted cucumbers, garlic and herbs, with equivocal success. Younger daughter was born here, and we quickly grew out of the the place.
We liked Arlington, so we ended up staying here in town, but in a larger home – a 1912-vintage arts and crafts style stucco bungalow. We’ve been here for about 8 years now, and are still making improvements to it, slowly turning back 80 years of semi-neglect. We dabble in gardening, and have grown strawberries, climbing beans, and onions.
Now, with all of these places I’ve lived in over the years (and mind you, I’ve omitted quite a few short term spots), it’s no wonder I was cast into thought about the meaning of having a “native place.” Both Fernando’s and my parents no longer live in the houses in which we grew up. We have no links back to any of our old neighborhoods. Our siblings, friends, and distant family are similarly scattered all over the US (with a few overseas).
I had the impression that Rupesh felt slightly sorry for us and slightly confused by my answers, because we really had no geographic center of identity, attachment and affection. I am quite fond of our current home. Perhaps that may qualify as our native place now, but I prefer to think of this family as carrying our native place with us. My roots are shallow and easily transplanted. Although I love this house, if I had to go elsewhere, I would move. My identity is built more on my family’s ethical and moral legacy, what I have made myself into, what I have done, and what we as our own nuclear family have become.
So I guess my native place is my own dinner table. Wherever that may happen to be.
We are back home now after 18 months in India. Packing and prep for this migration explains the lack of timely posts. In many ways life there and here isquite similar. But in others, it is worlds apart. For example, it’s quiet here, outside of Boston. Reaallly quiet. That’s the first thing I noticed.
There are no beeping car horns sounded by drivers as they navigate by sonar or warn the cars around them of their presence. There is no constant drone of thousands of diesel engines, idling in slow traffic. There are no lowing urban cattle, clattering herds of goats, or the bells of camel harnesses. The junk man (who has a foghorn voice) isn’t calling out to say he’s collecting discards on his creaky push-cart. There is no fleet of buzzing autorickshaws or three-wheeled minitrucks with tiny lawnmower size engines, laboring to haul their passengers or cargo around. There is no swarm of putting two wheelers, flowing in and around the other traffic, filling all available space (sidewalks, lane markings, or opposing traffic patterns be damned.) There are no water-delivery tankers squealing their way up the street to keep the building supplied. The world’s oldest contingent of lovingly maintained ancient bicycles is not creaking its way past our home.
There are no security guards tweeting their own whistles to stop cars or open gates. There is no maid and mistress upstairs, arguing incessantly and unintelligibly in their daily routine. There is no symphony of venting pressure cooker whistles, as the entire building prepares its daily food in the cooler early morning hours. The pre-monsoon wind is not moaning through what gaps it can find in the our windows, rattling the glass or shrieking behind the flapping curtains.
There is no bagpipe-enabled marching band rehearsing in a nearby field, or no fitness assessment tests directed by loudspeaker in the same arena. There are no wedding venues with nightly fireworks blasting music and incendiaries until 11:00pm, nor DJs at open air dance clubs playing top-volume music at night; and no tipsy patrons wandering back to their cars, smashing bottles and singing after the clubs and venues close.
There is no construction – no hammering from two apartments up, nor jackhammers attacking crumbling walls on the next block. There are no gangs of pick-axe wielding laborers hauling baskets of earth around as they attempt rush road repairs before the rains come.
And there is no pack of pre-teen boys playing tag in the halls and elevators, nor feral dogs snarling and fighting over scraps dragged out of trash piles.
All I hear here in Arlington is birdsong, a few raindrops, the low hum of a car a couple of blocks away, and the tiny chirp of a passer-by’s cell phone.
On Saturday past, for something to do, we wandered out to visit several antique and decorative item shops nearby. We’ve been looking for smaller items to bring back home:
We’ve been looking for a second chair for our living room for a very long time.
We found this in Just Antiques, on North Main Road here in Pune. They specialize in pieces made from repurposed wood. This piece is aged teak. The back is a recycled piece of interior paneling or carved window screening. The origin of the legs and seat platform are less discernable.
When we get home we’ll lose the egregious purple foam cushion. I’m now on the lookout for a length of embroidery, a small weaving or lightweight rug that can be used to cover a sprung cushion. I think that a very thick knife-edge piece with a center button would look far better than the slab of purple cheese that’s there right now. Perhaps next week’s trip to Kerala and the beach will turn up something appropriate.
We also got a small shelf/coat rack at Ra in Kalyani Nagar. That is destined to go behind our front door, also in the living room. It’s a simple wood shelf, with antique cast iron side brackets sporting pierced ornamentation, and a wrought crossbar below the shelf to which is attached four large wrought coat hooks. We have no front or reception closet, and it will be nice to have a place to hang guests’ coats when they visit. I do not show pix today because it is securely wrapped for shipment, and I don’t want to undo its bubble-wrap cocoon.
Of course, you can’t be in Another World without exploring the retail options. India is a textile lover’s paradise, with all sorts of fabrics both hand and machine woven, ranging from the humble to the outrageous. I can’t buy it all. In fact, I can’t buy very much, especially compared to the vast volume I covet. But I am keeping my eye out for special items, with special purposes in mind.
First, I’ve written about Kasuti embroidery before. I’ve been on the lookout for an example, but so far, I’ve not seen anything. Not so much as scrap. Perhaps when we go to Kerala next month we’ll see some, but I suspect that given its intricate nature and simple presentation, it is not being made in quantity for sale any more, because other more showy work of less labor can sell for more.
But I did find this piece. It’s NOT hand-made. It’s machine embroidered sari, using traditional colors and patterns on an all-cotton ground. In terms of scale, the stitches are about twice as large as the museum pieces I saw here in Pune, and in Delhi. But it’s unmistakably part of the heritage, and the seller was very surprised that I recognized it as such.
I have also found some trim for my long-delayed library curtain project. The 1 inch wide red paisley at the bottom is actually hand-stitched. I’m not sure what to do with the blingy gold at the top, but it was so over the top and of such a typical Renaissance configuration, that I had to buy it. A use will present itself, I am sure. Aside: most borders and trims here in India are sold in single piece 9-meter lengths, the optimal length for application onto a standard sari.
Also at the same store as the red trim, I found some silk embroidery floss.
This stuff is quite fine, with the individual strands being significantly thinner than Soie d’Alger, my go-to silk for countwork. I got a bunch in assorted colors, each big bundle containing 10 skeins, and the skeins being 10 rupees apiece. That’s about 16 cents US at the current exchange rate. I will probably go back and get more, although the range of colors was rather attenuated.
What to make of this? Given the silk threads above, I’m thinking of something along the lines of this piece:
This is a 17th century sampler in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago (Museum #2008.627). It’s worked on a gauze ground in darning and double running stitch (among others). It’s not going to happen any time soon, but the materials are now in my hands and ready.
It occurs to me that before I can begin writing about our holiday week London trip, complete with meet-up with Elder Daughter, plus all sorts of interesting sights at various museums, historical places, and theater performances, I have to finish my posts about our November trip to Agra and Delhi. Apologies for the delay, I plead computer woes, spotty connectivity, and ennui (in no particular order).
Here’s the prize piece from our big India trip – a tamboured Pashmina jacket, made in Kashmir, but purchased in Agra.
It is one of the nicest, most finely worked tambour items I’ve handled. The colors in these shots are pretty true, but they glow a bit more in person. The golds, oranges, reds, and browns twinkle against the cobalt blue ground. The edging isn’t trim – it’s more densely packed tambour work, done on the same piece of cloth as the scrolling vines of the main body. The buttons are cloth, covered with more stitching. The thread is all Pashmina wool, too. No metallics or glitter. You can see the surface sheen from the fine, densely packed chain stitches in the button placket.
I will say that this was an indulgent gift from The Resident Male – the price made me giddy, even after he bargained it down from the stratosphere. But for work of this quality, the price was fair. I adore my luxury present, and am looking forward to wearing it in cooler climates.
I am still looking for other good examples of Indian needlework, more within my budget. Sadly, as with so many handcrafts, bad drives out good. Since most of the tourist market does not recognize or reward quality craftsmanship, artisans pursue greater revenue and higher volume over better artifacts.
Pieces that show skill and solid artisanry are few and far between, but I’ve seen endless piles of poorly stitched shisha (mirror) work cushions, sloppy satin stitch hangings that look like they were done in one evening, and beadwork that sheds its sequins after a light shake. I can’t fault the makers – they are pressed to provide income for their families. But I won’t buy those things, either. So the hunt continues…
I’m not done yet!
Here’s another piece we found on our Delhi/Agra trip. This came from a dealer in Agra, and not the fair trade market in Delhi.
This is a patchwork wall hanging. It’s sort of in Crazy Quilt style, although the piece is one huge block, roughly 4 feet x 2 feet. It’s made up of fragments of highly embellished antique textiles, much of it overdyed in black; plus some newer pieces to eke things out. The fragments are appliqued to totally cover a background, and that ground cloth is in turn backed by another heavier cotton cloth. There is minimal quilting between the layers to hold them together – mostly some tacking stitches along the rolled borders between the fragments.
Close up you can see the amount of beadwork, sequins, gold stitching and other encrustations:
The dealer had several like this. Believe it or not – this was the plainest. It was also the one in best condition. One problem with antique pieces is that often the cloth is not stable. Silk is friable, and crackles with age. All the more so when it has been overdyed. Threads securing hand-hammered sequins or rough edged metal beads can break easily. I looked long and hard at the five offerings, and picked the one in the best shape from a curator’s perspective.
The number of techniques in this piece is hard to estimate. There’s tambour in silk, cotton and metal threads; beadwork and sequins applied in myriad ways; satin stitch, laid couching of various types; buttonhole stitch; something very much like or nuée, with gold threads affixed with colored silks in patterns or to create shaded effects; appliqued lace; some very old mirror work (shisha); and heaven knows what else.
The way this piece is put together reminds me a lot of a cherished gift at home. Jackie of the late and lamented Wild & Woolly, gave me this knitting bag for services rendered when I helped her with a major home reorganization:
It’s also of Indian origin, assembled patchwork style from small pieces of sari borders and other embroidered snippets. In this case the backing fabric is cotton velour, instead of heavy flat-woven matte-finish cotton. I have a feeling that this bag is somehow related to the black hanging, if only distantly.
But as jaw-dropping as the black piece is, it’s not our ultimate acquisition (so far). You’ll have to wait until the next post to see that!
O.k. So technically, these aren’t embroideries. But they are still textiles.
Among the various indulgent purchases we made on our Agra-Delhi vacation was this Kashmiri rug, bought after much hard bargaining from a traditional Smiling Rug Merchant:
The bargaining is part of the theater. I don’t believe for a minute the merchant’s protestations that we were taking bread out of the mouths of his children (their graduation photos from US universities were behind his desk), but the play of price, offer, counter offer, reticence and commitment must be played out for any large purchase. It’s like high school dating, but for merchandise.
This piece is a runner, for use in the long hall outside our library. It’s an heirloom quality, all-wool warp hand knotted rug, with long, luxuriant fringes, and dyed with traditional vegetable colors. It’s hard to say how such muted reds and tumerics glow, but they do. We’ll probably leave it out for a couple of days to admire, then roll it back up in its muslin bag to await shipment home with the rest of the household goods, come June.
The next day we bought some woven pieces at Dilli Haat as gifts and souvenirs.
The small woven bags and coasters are cotton and straw. The four larger hobo-style soft tote bags are cotton with inset hand-woven bands. If my notes are correct, these are backstrap-loom produced pieces from Nagaland, near Assam.
[UPDATE] I’ve done some research on the small woven straw clutches. I didn’t write down the region of origin when I bought them, but I’ve now pegged them to the c0astal region of Orissa. They are made of sabai grass and cotton, and are part of an economic initiative that assists families in flood-ravaged areas reclaim economic self-sufficiency.
These smaller items we did not bargain for, other than putting together a group and asking for a price for the larger purchase, rather than toting up each item individually. All were quite reasonably priced, and sold as they were by the village or guild co-ops, we were happy to provide fair recompense directly to the crafting artisans themselves.
I’m not done yet. There are more pix of textiles to come. And if you want to see the larger sights of our trip, the husband has posted an excellent two-parter on our trip to the Taj Mahal.