Jamawar Embroidery – The Gift, or the Price of Sight + other observations about textiles in India; Gandhi, Swadeshi, Swaraj

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment



The two above images are examples of Jamawar embroidery. The image on the top was grabbed from the internet, the image below is a photo I snapped of a rare example of true Jamawar embroidery from the 17th c.!!! (before the invention of the jacquard loom) that the lovely Sanjar Sultan Dev shared with us when we stepped into his store, Weavers. He had actually just finished restoring a similar textile that he gifted to the Victoria and Albert museum. Sultan was incredibly gracious in treating us to a very informative perusal of his priceless collection of textiles—which were not on display. Sensing my excitement as he pulled out each textile, he continued to do so, delightedly sharing the history and processes behind each piece. Sultan never tried to sell us anything, he did want us to know why his amazing pashminas were priced the way they were (as opposed to the ‘pashminas’ —which are actually usually cotton— being sold elsewhere all over Delhi).

There is another little store—”Touch of Gold” on the main drag in Hauz Khas that has this incredibly beautiful embroidered stole in the window. It was mostly black with an incredible gold embroidered border, with a block of hot pink on either end. O and I finally stepped in to ask what the price was, emboldened by the fact that our landlord/ most gracious host here, Nalin Jha happened to be chatting with the store owner.

She matter of factly answered my question with “45,000 rupees” … that’s exactly $849.05. She explained that the border was rescued from a 19th century antique garment. It was, she explained Jamawar embroidery. Actually, after a bit of internet sleuthing I found out that it was actually “Zari” (gold) work (usually sprials and symmetrical arrangements of paisley and squiggles embroidered onto the borders of wool or pashmina twill) produced beginning in the mid 19th century and popular through about 1940. The word “jamawar” however, operates a bit like the word “pashmina” in that instead of referring to something specific, it is used as a means of moving a product. But I digress, the legend about jamawar (pronounced jahm-AH-Vahr) embroidery is that it was so finely detailed that the embroiderers would go blind. Actually, considering what only a short four years staring at a screen or book has done to my eyes it doesn’t sound that unlikely. Many of these garments take up to a decade to complete (like the one in the image above which actually took 4 women a decade to complete). Sultan explained, however that this wasn’t their main occupation, but was rather the result of a social gathering. This description sounds a great deal more pleasant than the one that conjures an image of a single woman obsessively embroidering alone for a decade. In either case, what you buy is literally a slice of life, and if one believes the previous description, someone’s sense was actually poured into the garment. But if you think about it, any object that you buy is a slice of someone’s life, or many lives. This object, however has a greater aura to it.


Textiles, it is almost needless to say hold and important place in both history and in everyday life here in India. Swadeshi स्वदेशी (self-sufficiency), Gandhi preached was the heart of Swaraj स्वराज (self-rule). Boycotting British textiles was one of the major tactics of the strategy of swadeshi. Gandhi clothed himself in India spun cotton, he made a minor spectacle of spinning his own cotton. The above image was taken for LIFE magazine by that famous documentarian of the Great Depression (and less famously of Partition), Margaret Bourke White. Strains of this thinking still permeate India—even the young hip entrepreneurial India. A friend of mine introduced me to the website of the clothing company Nor Black, Nor White, which attempts to continue Gandhi’s legacy of swadeshi. One of the difficult realities facing the very well intentioned thinkers behind Nor Black, Nor White is the fact that these articles of clothing can only be sold to a particular clientele (i.e. very rich Indians or tourists). The only place you can buy it in Delhi is a very high end boutique, OGAAN, just a couple of doors down from me in Hauz Khas village.  For one the garments that Nor Black, Nor White design do not appeal to an Indian middle class which still prefers (for special occasion garments) the brightly colored and traditionally cut silk sarees. Secondly, most Indians also cannot afford the cotton garments on account of the fact that Nor Black, Nor White pays the spinners over and above a living wage. Now, despite what it sounds like, this is not necessarily a critique of Nor Black, Nor White, I think they’re trying to do a very nice thing, it’s just that they are caught in a system that despite all good intentions they cannot escape. My friend told me as much, saying that they were frustrated with the impossibilities of their ‘model.’

That is not to say that cottage industries are not profitable in India—they are—and it seems to this casual observer that it is fast becoming a major site of foreign investment. When I was in line at Travisa, waiting in the freezing cold to file my application for an Indian visa, I met a young business student also about to leave for India. She said that she was going on a tour of textile factories to study ‘new’ cottage industry based ‘business models’. It seems that the textile industry is appealing—especially for young, charitably inclined, beauty appreciating business minds. That girl in line was only the first of several business students I met, just like her. It seems that cottage industries are combining machine and hand methods to increase productivity in Indian villages and towns, as well as sinking money into preserving ancient ways of making.

A combination of hand and machine (i.e. cyborg) production has already been heavily theorized by Arindam Dutta in Bureaucracy of Beauty— which is so brilliant I forgive Dutta’s byzantine writing style. But to return to the increased productivity—and to wrap up this unorganized reflection… I wonder what Gandhi would think about all of this, as one would assume that foreign investment means foreign market. Americans and Europeans, it seems have now fully re-developed their tastes for the hand-made and exotic on a degree not yet seen since the aesthetic movement in the U.S. and the post Crystal Palace clamor for all things Indian and Middle Eastern… a clamor that lasted a very very long time, mind you… observe here, here & here… but these are only some of the most popular ‘designers’ reintroducing India to America & the UK. All of them feature print blocking, as opposed to countless other processes here in India. I can only speculate that the reason for this (besides the beauty of them) is that it is a process fairly easily controlled and ‘automated’ from a distance. One can graphically design a block print pattern and have it come out consistently over and over again (though it will always maintain the ever so valuable touch of the human hand). Perhaps closer to the original spirit of swadeshi production is Yoshiko Wada’s movement for slow fabrics. In any case this emerging semi-automated) set up is clearly not about swadeshi self-sufficiency, but rather a global sentiment for things almost lost. But, one might argue that it IS saving traditions that are disappearing. Is preservation an important value in and of itself? Should young girls or boys be focusing on craft traditions rather than attending school? I can only imagine that if demand for cottage industry goods increases that this will increasingly be the case. I know it’s not all as simple as that, but I will have to continue to think about this one.


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You are currently reading Jamawar Embroidery – The Gift, or the Price of Sight + other observations about textiles in India; Gandhi, Swadeshi, Swaraj at spargel&fraise.


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