I am thrilled to open my mailbox and find a dinner party invitation from a certain Indian friend. She’s a fabulous cook and my mouth waters to think of her cumin-tinged roasted eggplant. But mostly, I’m eager to see what she’s wearing.
Invariably, she greets us in a richly hued sari so stunning that it leaves her dinner guests feeling utterly unimaginative. This time it’s embellished with embroidered swirls and tiny reflective mirrors, the kind of textile decoration associated with her native Rajasthan, a partially desert region bordering Pakistan.
Indian textiles count among the richest craft legacies on Earth, encompassing literally thousands of local styles and techniques. Textiles from Rajasthan represent an entire tradition with many sub-specialties, from wood-block prints to tie-dyed cottons and a litany of embroidery techniques long enough to fill a glossary of their own. Through the centuries these rich regional fabrics have constituted a valuable part of women’s wedding trousseaus and dowries, identified social status and class, and—through elaborate color symbolism—even conveyed details about the wearer like her hometown and if she is the mother of a boy.
Artisans in Rajasthan begin with cotton threads woven on traditional wooden horizontal looms. Many weavers still use vegetable dyes, including those concocted from turmeric, indigo, saffron, and pomegranate, infused into the fabric with the waters of local rivers. The result: the characteristic vibrant reds, blues, oranges, and yellows so closely associated with Rajasthan, colors that also imbue the region’s food and architecture.
Reflective materials hold pride of place in Rajasthani textiles. “Mirror work” involves securing tiny mirrors (shisha) or other shiny materials using embroidered nets to hold them in place along the trim or across the surface of a garment. Metal threads and wires may also be worked into the piece, creating entwined tendrils, birds, and paisley. Gold or silver squares or triangles are also sewn on in stylized patterns to form floral and geometric designs. A host of special “couching” stitches unique to Rajasthan create stunning, dense patterns of color across the surface. Embroidery on leather, a technique mentioned by Marco Polo in the 13th century, is also used for door-hangings and interior decoration.
For travelers, hand-embroidered textiles in Rajasthan are a fantastic value, considering their venerable tradition, not to mention the hours of labor involved in crafting them. Prices begin at 100 to 200 rupees (just a few U.S. dollars) for small items like placemats or purses. You may pay tens of thousands of rupees (several hundred U.S. dollars) for a complete ankle-length skirt and top ensemble called a lehnga or a chaniya choli, bedspreads, bridal wear, or custom designs. Several factors can influence the value of a piece. How closely woven are the threads? How intricate is the embroidery pattern? Is the design traditional or contemporary? Antique or new? Are precious metals like gold or silver used? Is the artisan known?
Before you hit the shops, it’s a good idea to visit one of the many excellent regional museums, like the Ruby Palace inside Udaipur’s City Palace complex, to examine authentic regional textiles first-hand. If you have limited time or want a “safe” buy, stick to the museum shops or official government-sponsored craft enterprises, such as the Rajasthan Government Handicraft Emporium in Udaipur or Jaipur. Here you’ll pay a fair (and nonnegotiable) price for a textile that’s already been screened for quality. (Beware of self-appointed “government emporia” with no real ties to Indian authorities.)
If you enjoy bargaining, try your luck at street shops like the ones lining Lake Palace Road in Udaipur, or those around the fort of Jaisalmer. Quality varies tremendously in these markets, so it pays to have done some homework at the museums and government-sponsored craft enterprises. Bargain directly with the merchant, steering clear of “helpful” local guides whose commission is built into the price. India is a country of festivals, and these cultural extravaganzas often provide great opportunities to buy and to meet artisans face-to-face. The ten-day Shilpgram Festival, held in December in the Shilpgram Craft Village, just west of Udaipur, is a particularly good place to spot quality embroidery.
For more intrepid travelers, villages in Rajasthan’s hinterland offer a chance to watch embroiderers in action. In Barmer, a desert village along an ancient camel trade route, you can watch women embroidering. Take advantage of these special opportunities to talk with and purchase directly from the embroiderer. The right choice will leave you with an indelible piece of the enduring textile heritage of India—not to mention fashionably prepared.
This piece originally appeared in my column, “The Genuine Article,” for National Geographic Traveler. Read more at National Geographic Traveler Online…
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