BANGALORE, India — Across India, there has always been a rich tradition of embroidery work, from the humble kantha of West Bengal to the opulent zardosi of Uttar Pradesh. In recent years, a new generation of contemporary artists has been experimenting with embroidery as an art form. But it wasn’t until the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 that many of these artists received a new kind of attention.
Since the pandemic started in India, the needle and thread have become a means of expression and creativity, with beautifully detailed works capturing the lives and worlds of the artist. In a culture that often dismisses embroidery as a ‘hobby’ or as ‘women’s work,’ these artists are creating a niche and even sustaining their livelihood through their art.
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Embroidery is a layered form of storytelling for Assamese artist Jahnavee Baruah, who has used the medium to discover her roots. “I grew up in Doodooma, Assam, surrounded by tea plantations and paddy fields for miles. The place had a big impact on my fascination for material. I would come back from school and rush outdoors to forage for material to build something out of. I probably picked it up from my grandmother, who was amazing with her hands. I would watch her as she made paper flowers, embroidered handkerchiefs and tatting laces. But I didn’t discover my love for textiles and embroidery until I went to art school,” notes Jahnavee, whose aunt taught her how to embroider during one of her visits back home.
The ancestral land and its people have become Jahnavee’s source of inspiration, and she enjoys documenting her findings through embroidery. “Embroidery feels like a language that my hands speak. I like to explore myths, folklore, or the knowledge embedded in daily living. I consider the land my teacher, and am leaning to quietly observe. I enjoy the slowness of the process, somehow like an ancestral knowledge passed down.”
Bangalore-based Anuradha Bhaumick also had the knowledge of embroidery passed down to her by her mother at the early age of five, when she had chickenpox. While she immediately got hooked to the medium, it was the idea of repair that stayed with her. “Growing up and living in a household that believed in the beauty of handmade objects and to emancipate anything that might be on its last legs really drew me towards fashion design and more importantly, embroidery. I grew up watching my mother in beautiful kantha sarees. My jackets were made of upcycled panels of sofa fabric. A curtain which got bleached out in the sun, the sofa upholstery which got tattered, plaid checks from my school uniform which I outgrew … my mother found a way to repurpose everything. Nothing ever went in the bin. Everything was repairable and could be turned into gold,” recalls Bhaumick. In 2020, she quit her corporate job to pursue embroidery full-time. “Since then, it has been my world. Or maybe it always has been.”
For Bangalore-based Renuka Rajiv, aka pithbull, their embroidery practice started off by making T-shirts for themselves and has now become a part of their repertoire. The explorations started with the simplest of stitches — the running stitch — and eventually moved to other techniques like appliqué and chain stitch, along with making the works larger to have more room to play.
Rajiv’s embroidered quilts are raw and evocative, full of bodies and figurative forms, with thread imitating what a pen could do. “Since childhood, I have always loved the materiality of fabric and its associated comrades. Thread is a form of line, and I like to draw. It slows down the line compared to using a pen. I like to work free-hand so that the quality of the line remains immediate. I use thread to keep a workflow going,” they share.
Another artist who experiments with embroidery is Santiniketan-based Gunjan Thapar, whose brand Echoes focuses on miniature embroidered collector items inspired by masterpieces from art history. Her journey started in 2019, while studying textiles alongside art history by embroidering her sketchbooks, stitching personal essays together in the form of illustrated books. “During the lockdown, I started to recreate masterpieces to understand the techniques of the artists who originally made them. It became a very calming process that taught me lots,” shares Gunjan.
As Gunjan started posting her miniature pieces online, people reached out to buy them, and she got a lot of commissions and custom orders. But the orders became too much, and she couldn’t make time for her own personal work. “Now, the plan is to focus on my own ideas. I’m presently working on a series featuring women/queer people, where I sketch and embroider them in moments of leisure and comfort. It offers me a lot of solace.”