In the early 1990s, I started visiting Banaskantha in Gujarat regularly, working with local artisans to create clothing and upholstery for the Self-Employed Women’s Organization (SEWA).
Most were pastoralists, living in villages within a 100 kilometer radius, with husbands who worked mainly in agriculture or as cattle herders.
The area was a desolate, salty wasteland that was subject to periodic droughts and was extremely poor.
The nearest town was Radhanpur. The dark little houses of the Mochi community were in one section, connected by winding alleys.
Traditional cobblers once employed by royalty, they were now dangerously poor as fewer and fewer people ordered their beautifully embroidered leather juthis, preferring industrially produced designer shoes or even plastic sandals.
The advent of the automobile also marked the demise of their elaborately embroidered leather ornaments for elephants, horses, and camels.
In order to make a living, the Mochis turned to manufacturing generic embroidered ornamental wall hangings and fabric cushions rather than leather for local traders and GURJARI, the Gujarat State Handicrafts Corporation. Few other employment opportunities existed.
Men cut and sewed the items, and women completed the embroidery, using the traditional aari, which resembles a cobbler’s hook or awl mounted on a wooden handle, as opposed to the chain stitch embroidery practiced in northern India, which uses a straight needle and works on a large frame fixed to the ground.
Similar Mochi communities existed in Bhuj and Mandvi in Kutch, as well as Saurashtra and Sind. In fact, many Mochi families traced their pedigree and craft to Sindh ancestors who were brought to the Kutch court by the 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 embroiderers, now sadly reduced to a handful of families. A few beautiful old carved wooden houses, relics of better days, and some fine tombs, temples and mosques relieved the dusty poverty and clutter of small towns.
Working on fabric was not new to the Mochi community. In the past, too, the most skilled craftsmen custom-made beautiful garments, accessories, canopies and wall panels in silk, satin and mashru for the local nobility, and even for more distant royal patrons.
The work was extraordinary, the aari used like a miniaturist’s brush; embroidery, delicate configurations of foliage, flora and fauna – peacocks and parrots for fertility; elephants, lions and horses for power and wealth; decorative borders overflowing with roses and lilies and flowering trees rarely seen in these dry climates.
Verdant trees of life were a popular theme, as was Sri Nathji pichwais who stood behind the deity in temples. Extraordinarily fine workmanship was done on both leather and fabric well into the 20th century, declining after independence, coinciding with the decline of the Nawabs and Maharajas who were their patrons.
It is these Mochi embroideries, mostly from the early 19th century, that are the subject of The Shoemaker’s Stitch, the latest documentation of TAPI’s marvelous textile collection.
Shilpa Shah, co-founder of the TAPI collection of Indian textiles and art, is also a co-author of this book. His inspiring work, collecting and documenting Indian textiles, followed Gira Sarabhai and the Calico Museum in the 1950s and 1960s. His travels throughout India and his master’s degree at the University of Berkeley gave him knowledge of both academic and personal, as well as passion and love.
Its co-author is Rosemary Crill, a former senior curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, who has studied and written about Indian embroidery and textiles over the years. Their combined expertise and scholarship make this book an intensely enjoyable read – both visually and in content. On the other hand, Niyogi Books did a wonderful job of photography, printing and design. The Shoemaker’s Stitch is a pleasure in everything but its considerable weight!
The book documents items from the collections of the Royal Family of Kutch, Dhangadhra and Jaipur, the V&A and other Western museums as well as pieces from the TAPI collection itself. It is superbly illustrated: the rich and vivid reds, greens and yellows and ornate and intricately worked designs of Mochi embroidery, often boldly outlined in black, emphasizing their difference from the more subtle and delicate chain stitch influenced by the Persians and Mughals from northern India and Bengal.
Even the pieces commissioned for the European market have a distinctive difference with the crewel work of Kashmir or the painted chintzes of the Coromandel coast. As Shah points out, Mochi embroideries found their way to courts and temples all over India and as a result were often misidentified as local work. To a trained eye, they’re very different, both in imagery and execution.
Looking at ancient craft and textile traditions, it is easy to fall into despair about their current status. However, all is not bleak, as the final chapter of The Shoemaker’s Stitch tells us.
Aari bharat has seen a revival, with many designers and practitioners creating wonderful contemporary pieces, but not always by traditional Mochi embroiderers. Some names that come to mind are Asif Shaikh, Arun Virgamya, Adam Sangar and their extended families, Shrujjan Museum and Shobhit Mody.