Embossed in Colour: Rogani Kaam of Nirona

Chaniyo (Skirt), Ahir, 20th century, Kachachh (Gujarat), Rogan work, stitched, Lt. 83 cm (including the waistband); Lt. 393 cm (hemline). Collection: Sushmit Sharma.
Chaniyo (Skirt), Ahir, 20th century, Kachachh (Gujarat), Rogan work, stitched, Lt. 83 cm (including the waistband); Lt. 393 cm (hemline). Collection: Sushmit Sharma.

The intricately embroidered textiles that often dazzle the eye are quickly etched in the vision when one thinks of the arid stretch of Western India. These textiles which form the bridal trousseau and also for decoration of the household during auspicious days can take at least a quarter of a woman’s lifetime with her family and beloved aunts lending a guiding and helping hand. In most cases, the materials required for creating these textiles such as floss silk threads, zari (metal threads), mirrors, silk and a specific dyed cotton or silk would be accumulated over the years from their savings, making them some of the priceless objects that they would carry in to their new home. Therefore, for the everyday use clothing and textiles a search for an equally fabulous alternative that is merciful to the pocket and also faster to create, gave rise to “Rogani kaam”. This is how the ubiquitous popats (parrots) and the paniharins (water-pot bearing women) found in the textiles of the Ahir community come alive in the colourful prints of rogan. The art of rogan, has been practiced for nearly three hundred years and today survives in the hands of only two Khatri families; Khatri Abdul Gaffar Doud and Khatri Siddik Hasan, both living in the same village of Nirona, in Kachchh. In Persian, the word ‘rogan’ means oil, and through this link it is believed the craft came from Iran to Kachchh in India.

Rogan work is a technique of surface embellishment like printing that can be rightfully placed under the umbrella of hand-painted textiles. It starts by boiling castor seed oil (grown locally in the Kachchh region) for several hours to form a fluid with high viscosity called rogan. Powdered pigments are then added to this thick residue to obtain various colours required for the design. This coloured sticky paste, rogan, is now applied with the help of a metal stylus called kalam to draw motifs on to the surface of a textile. There is no tracing or drawing involved, hence, the dexterity and imagination of the artisan plays a vital role in executing a perfect design, in a way that the brief and creative idea in the mind of the artisan, spontaneously translates into the motifs on the cloth. The design drawn on one surface is then folded and pressed carefully, to transfer the design to the other, almost like a mirror image. This helps in shortening the time required for production. Mostly preferred to be done free hand in the traditional way with the help of a kalam, rogan can also be done by using metal-faced blocks, to print a fabric.[i] The thick paste which would otherwise clog the wooden blocks is avoided by using metal-faced blocks which can be cleaned easily without eroding the carved surface of the blocks. Like many other crafts that involve dyeing and printing, the fumes formed during the preparation of the paste can be sometimes hazardous to the artisan’s health.[ii]

Ceremonial Wall Hanging, Ahir, 20th century, Kachchh (Gujarat), Rogan work, Lt. 165; Wd. 260 cm. Collection: Shri Madho Bhai and Arun Parmar (Kutch Arts).
Ceremonial Wall Hanging, Ahir, 20th century, Kachchh (Gujarat), Rogan work, Lt. 165; Wd. 260 cm. Collection: Shri Madho Bhai and Arun Parmar (Kutch Arts).

Earlier, it was used for creating textiles such as dharaniyo/ochar (wall hanging), toran (door valence), chaniyo (skirt length) and so on for various local cattle herding communities who commissioned them. These traditional articles were produced strictly in the format dictated by the respective communities. Unfortunately, for a researcher, very few examples are available for study and the reason behind the paucity or absence of rogan in various museums and private collection could be because of the inherent qualities of the work itself which makes it difficult to survive. The sticky nature of the print becomes extremely difficult to store and maintain especially when it is kept in the reserve with other pieces. There is always a fear or possibility of damaging the others during certain months if the temperature is not controlled. Today, a new motif, “Tree of Life” has become immensely popular[iii], almost making it the sole identity of the work. Tree of life in wall hangings and similar articles are making way to urban homes as fine art, bought through exhibitions around the world. This could be the next lease of life for this gracefully ageing art-form.

Ceremonial Wall Hanging (Detail), Ahir, 20th century, Kachchh (Gujarat), Rogan work, Lt. 165; Wd. 260 cm. Collection: Shri Madho Bhai and Arun Parmar (Kutch Arts).
Ceremonial Wall Hanging (Detail), Ahir, 20th century, Kachchh (Gujarat), Rogan work, Lt. 165; Wd. 260 cm. Collection: Shri Madho Bhai and Arun Parmar (Kutch Arts).

[i] John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard. Indian Textiles. (New Delhi: Om Books International, 2008), 91.

[ii] Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, eds., Crafts of India: Handmade in India. (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation, COHANDS, 2007), 413.

[iii] The popularity of this motif and the awareness of the craft started gaining momentum after Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, gifted a rogan wall-hanging to US President Barack Obama during his visit to USA back in 2014.

Other references:

Fozdar, Aditi Shukla, ed. A Glimpse into the Textile Traditions of Gujarat: From the collection at The House of MG. Ahmedabad: The House of MG, 2015.





Embossed in Colour: Rogani Kaam of Nirona

Reign of the Goddess: A Textile becomes her sacred abode

Mataji no chandarvo dedicated to Goddess Meladi, Block printed and painted on cloth, Lt. 127; Wd. 102 cm, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Purchased by Archana Shastri in Ahmedabad in 1978. Photograph by Renu Dhiman.
Mataji no chandarvo dedicated to Goddess Meladi, Block printed and painted on cloth, Lt. 127; Wd. 102 cm, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Purchased by Archana Shastri in Ahmedabad in 1978. Photograph by Renu Dhiman.

The Sabarmati River that runs through the bustling city of Ahmedabad, nourishes many textile traditions which are still practiced and adored. In the central most part of the city, resides the Vaghris, who paint and create a wonderful ritual cloth, called the Mataji no chandarvo or Mata ni pachhedi. As the name suggests, these ritual cloths with the imagery of the Goddess along with other related legends serve as a portable shrine; a backdrop and canopy (also popularly referred to as chandani) during the festivities of the nine auspicious nights called the navratri.  The Vaghri communities were nomadic in nature; hence a portable shrine was a practical solution to their lifestyle. In olden times, restrictions laid upon them on entering the temples by the upper castes also led to the creation of these sacred textiles. In a way, it was creating their own sanctuary for their beloved Goddesses. The rituals and sacrifices that were performed, invited the Goddess to dwell on the cloth which becomes divine by her presence, now cannot be touched or looked upon by a mortal.

Wooden blocks belonging to Satishbhai Chitara's family and workshop in Khanpur, Ahmedabad. Dated: July 2019.
Wooden blocks belonging to Satishbhai Chitara’s family and workshop in Khanpur, Ahmedabad. Dated: July 2019.

After following various steps of preparing the cloth, the images over the cloth were primarily block printed and then colours were filled by hand. The wooden blocks for these textiles were made in Pethapur, presently located in the Gandhinagar district, approximately 35 kilometers from Ahmedabad city. The block-makers of Pethapur are renowned far and wide for supplying intricately carved wooden blocks to printers in Ahmedabad and other parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The wood, referred to as sag (also sometimes called teak)[i] is procured from the local forest and stored in the house to be later chiseled into blocks of various sizes. The surface of the wood blocks is smoothen using sand paper and other leveling tools. Then, the design created in paper is transferred onto the prepared surface of the block, which is brought to life by the expert chiseling work of the craftsman. One of the celebrated master block-maker was Shilpguru Maneklal Gajjar from Pethapur who was also the last surviving specialist on the designs of the famous block printed saudagiri textiles exported to Thailand roughly between the years, 1850 to 1940. He maintained a meticulous record of the designs along with impressions of blocks, names of printers, traders’ logo and label, etc, that were handed over to him by his ancestors, which once in a while, he delightedly shared with textile enthusiasts visiting him. The saudagiri designs often comprised small geometric and floral patterns covering the entire surface of the field. The structure of the pattern is a rhombic grid which was elaborated with stylized leaf and floral forms, sometimes with flower in the centre of the rhombus or rhombic-shaped motifs placed in the grid.[ii] The designs and the patterns were dictated heavily by the current tastes and market demands in Thailand, as these textiles were solely for the purpose of trade with the kingdom. At times, the aesthetics in these textiles also slipped into the local textiles such as the chandarvo textiles, made for the Goddess. The textile below probably was used as a canopy for a small portable shrine dedicated to Goddess Bahuchara, with her vahana, the rooster forming the repeat motif along the undulating floral creeper in the border.

Chandani (Canopy), block print, 20th century, Lt. 226; Wd. 127 cm, probably Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Courtesy: Sushmit.
Chandani (Canopy), block print, 20th century, Lt. 226; Wd. 127 cm, probably Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Courtesy: Sushmit.

The cloth used for these textiles is mostly a cotton mill-made fabric. Although, various processes are professionally employed to prepare the cloth, the women of the household, often lent a helping hand of soaking the cloth in a tub filled with solution made of myrobalan (harda), water, soda and castor oil. This process helps in the fixing of the colours and the eventual dyeing of the cloth. The block print and the hand sketches are generally done by the male artists. The filling of the colours especially red, is done by the women of the household with the use of a brush.

The old shrine cloths made in Ahmedabad, followed a certain format and pattern in the layout. The central part was occupied by the Goddess for whom the cloth was commissioned and dedicated for. She can be also accompanied by other goddesses depicted in smaller scale occupying the registers on the side and below. The borders are done entirely by blocks. Sometimes two Goddesses can be depicted in the same cloth in the same scale positioned next to each other. Certain registers would have flower-garland bearing ladies (malins), musicians and other devotees venerating the Goddess. The black goat brought for sacrifice is also shown, being dragged by a man towards the divine mother. The sun and the moon are depicted on the corners above, sun having a moustache and the moon without a moustache. Popular gods such as Lord Ganesh, is depicted seated on a throne. Mythological characters from the epic Ramayana, such as Rama and Sita are also painted. The legend of the king who turns into a two headed deer and his seven daughters into fish on a pond is also shown frequently.

There are few main Goddesses for whom these shrine cloths are made. Ambika, who rides a lion or tiger, Bahuchara rides a rooster, Vihat prefers a black buffalo and Meladi is mounted on a black goat. Other Goddesses such as Khodiyar (her vahana is a crocodile), Momai (rides a dromedary), Vaduchi Ma, (depicted seated on a throne), Shikotar (sails on a boat) and Gel Mata (rides a composite animal called gajasinha similar to a chimera)[iii] are painted on commission or special request. Two other Goddesses worshipped for similar purpose and slowly becoming popular in the chandarvo textiles, are Hadkai who rides a mad, saliva dropping dog (worshipped for cure of rabies) and Shitala whose vahana is a donkey (worshipped for various poxes and skin aliments).

The above study of this tradition of textile is limited to only the ones made in the city of Ahmedabad. There are variations of the same, with more colourful ones made in Jambusar in Bharuch and Bhingrad in Saurashtra. Over the years, hybridization of this tradition has started production in wall hanging format, much smaller in size, for selling them in high end urban stores and fairs. They are extremely expensive compared to the earlier block printed repertoire due to the fact that they are entirely hand-drawn by the use of a kalam (pen made of a twig). The use of a kalam has also given much freedom in the layout of the theme and has infused a lyrical movement to the storyline whether it may be the swaying branches of the trees or be it the ferocity of the blood bath of the demons, the Goddess is slaying. New experiments are also not feared, in terms of using new striking colours that were earlier not available. These are all attempts to give the clientele fresh products which can be the next step in the continuation and survival of the craft. Product range also includes saris and dress materials with various figures painted on them.

Wall hanging dedicated to Bahuchara Mata, Hand-painted (2019), Lt. 37; Wd. 48 cm, Artist: Satishbhai Chitara, Ahmedabad.
Wall hanging dedicated to Bahuchara Mata, Hand-painted (2019), Lt. 37; Wd. 48 cm, Artist: Satishbhai Chitara, Ahmedabad.

The development of the riverfront area along the banks of the Sabarmati River has also put in new challenges to this tradition. Now to wash off the dyed textiles, they have to travel further down which increases the efforts and the cost of making these textiles. The original humble clientele who bought or commissioned these sacred cloths, solely for the purpose of worship, can no longer afford to buy them in their new rates. For them, screen printed options are produced in sharp lines and extremely bright colours. This is an evolution created by time and the efforts for survival. With all the challenges, the tradition of making these delightful shrine cloths will survive, in the hands of talented new generation of Vaghri artists. Probably like any other crafts today, in new avatars.


[i]  Katherine F. Hacker and Krista Jensen Turnbull, Courtyard, Bazaar, Temple: Traditions of Textile Expression in India, (Seattle: University of Washington, An exhibition organized by Costume and Textile Study Center, 12 June -25 July 1982), 51.

[ii]  Aditi Ranjan, “The Legend of Sabarmati’s Hand Block printed Textiles”, in Ahmedabad 600: Portraits of a City, eds, Suchitra Balasubramanyam and Sharmila Sagara, Marg Volume 63 No 2, December 2011, 112-113.

[iii] Eberhard Fischer, Jyotindra Jain and Haku Shah, Temple Tents for Goddesses in Gujarat, India. (New Delhi:  Niyogi Books, 2014), 155-191.

Other references:

Priya Devi, ed, The Master Weavers, Catalogue of Festival of India Exhibition, Britain: Royal College of Art, 1942.

Ranjan, Aditi and M.P. Ranjan, eds. Crafts of India: Handmade in India. New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporations, COHANDS, 2007.

Reign of the Goddess: A Textile becomes her sacred abode

The Circle of Divinity: The Ritual Saras of Bengal

Lakshmi-Narayan Sara, Lakshmi Sara and Mahisasurmardini Sara, West Bengal, painted terracotta, Dia. 29 cm, Purchased near Kalighat Temple, Calcutta (2019).
Lakshmi-Narayan Sara, Lakshmi Sara and Mahisasurmardini Sara, West Bengal, Painted terracotta, Dia. 29 cm, Purchased near Kalighat Temple, Calcutta (2019).

Few days after Durga puja, the street shops around the famous Kalighat temple in Calcutta are filled with beautifully painted shallow earthen dishes called saras. Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth is worshiped with these painted saras as idol, on a full moon night few days after Durga puja. These shallow earthen dishes are painted with the images of Goddess Lakshmi and other divinities on the obverse side (convex) to be sold to devotees who would install these images on the shrines of their respective homes.

The tradition of worshiping painted saras is basically from east Bengal, specifically in the areas of Dhaka, Faridpur and Barisal (now in Bangladesh). In the western side of undivided Bengal, for the purpose of worship, a pot (ghot), was used along with an earthen idol of Lakshmi. With the migration of artisans from the eastern side, the tradition of using painted saras during Lakshmi puja was adopted in the western side as well with major concentration in Nadia District as a centre of production and southern quarters of Calcutta. The market around Kalighat temple in southern Calcutta, where thousands of pilgrims who flock every day for worshiping the chief deity, Goddess Kali, buy these painted saras among many other articles on sale related to the temple.

These saras, also carry the images of other deities, worshipped during the auspicious days dedicated to them. For example, the Radha-Krishna sara, depicting the divine couple along with their attendants under a kadam tree, is prepared and sold for the occasion of jhulan purnima (around the birth celebration of lord Krishna).

Radha-Krishna Sara, West Bengal, Painted terracotta, Dia. 28 cm, Purchased near Kalighat Temple, Calcutta (2019).
Radha-Krishna Sara, West Bengal, Painted terracotta, Dia. 28 cm, Purchased near Kalighat Temple, Calcutta (2019).
The Circle of Divinity: The Ritual Saras of Bengal

The Spotted Skin: The Madurai Sungadi

Sungadi (Sari), wax resist dye, Lt. 5.5 metres, Weaver: Tmt. R. Jothimani, Purchased online from Co-optex, Photograph: Renu Dhiman

In the minds of the people, tie-dyed textiles popularly known as bandhani or bandhej is generally associated with the arid landscape of Western India, comprising the modern states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. The picture of a village belle fetching water in her pots, her head covered with a colourful bandhani odhani (head-cloth) fluttering in the strong desert breeze is often generated in one’s mind. It is difficult to associate a space beyond these areas, where tie-dyed textiles would exist. On the contrary, in the past, tie-dyed textiles were quite popular in the southern region of India with flourishing centres of production. There are paintings in the ‘company school’ tradition showing many communities from the southern states wearing tie-dyed fabrics.

The coastal belt of Southern India has a rich history of fine quality cotton textiles, which is quite often over-shadowed by the dazzling brocaded silks. The mastery of production of cotton textiles was a result of an influx of weavers from the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu that spans over hundreds of years. The local weaving groups of Tamil Nadu are the Kaikolars and Saliyars who primarily weave a coarse count cotton. The refinement of weaving fine count cotton textiles came with the migration of Kannada Devangas from Karnataka. In the sector of silk textiles, the weaving technology was enhanced only with the flowing in of weavers from Andhra Pradesh and majorly due to the exodus of Saurashtrians, known as Pattunulkars, meaning one who weaves silks.[i] Today, with the silk textiles becoming a more lucrative trade article, more and more cotton weaving groups are shifting towards silk weaving, although the mastery of silk weaving is still held strong by the Saurashtrian settlers.

In 1866, John Forbes Watson had painstakingly compiled an eighteen volume book, called, “The Textile Manufactures of India” which contains 700 invaluable samples from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. In the Volume V and IX, titled as, ‘Garment Pieces for Women’ and ‘Muslins, Silk and Other Piece Goods’ respectively, he has documented samples labeled as spotted and printed muslins.[ii] These samples are clearly of the tie-dyed repertoire and interestingly, they were produced in centres such as Cuddapah, Madras and Trichinopoly. Unfortunately, none of these centres today, produce tie-dyed textiles.

Today, the only centre in Tamil Nadu, which produces tie-dyed textiles, especially saris, is the temple city of Madurai. The Saurashtrian settlers based in Madurai have preserved this craft till date and continue producing a tie-dyed sari called the sungadi. The reason for their migration is not certain, but it is said that they were invited to settle in Madurai, by Tirumal Nayak, who ruled Madurai from 1623 to 1659.[iii]  Another version of the story narrates their exodus during the eleventh century to escape the onslaught of the invading armies from the north especially those belonging to Mahmud of Ghazni. They probably moved southwards and reached Madurai via Maharashtra and Vijayanagar. As mentioned earlier, along with the knowledge of weaving silk, they brought with them the alluring textile tradition of tie-dyed cloths to be worn as saris and turban to the Southern region.

Sungadi or sungudi, is the patterning of the cotton sari with ringed dots that are achieved by tie-dyed technique. The tie-resist (pulli katturadhu)[iv] is employed to pattern the field of the sari while the border and pallav (the terminal end of the sari) is dyed in a bolder contrasting colour using wooden clamps for resist, called katta katradhu[v]. The border in the traditional sungadis often has a narrow woven zari panel with either rudraksha or annapakshi (wish fulfilling bird/swan) motifs. It is said that the Saurashtrians of Madurai maintained a close contact with the bandhani craftsmen in Gujarat and only the already knotted saris were dyed in Madurai.[vi] With lack of expert knot-tiers, complicated and intricate patterns were achieved by wax resist technique with the help of wooden blocks to stamp the motif laced in wax on to the fabric. They were later boiled in the desired dye for the wax to melt and reveal the intended pattern. In Madurai, women generally ties the knots but today, to cut down cost and meet market demands faster, the use of wax resist as well as screen print options are widely employed.

Sungadi, the name probably derived from the tie-dyed chunadi, a head-cloth worn in Northern India, became a daily wear sari for many women in Tamil Nadu. It is preferred due to its fine cotton and appropriate texture for the hot and humid weather. Although one can still buy an authentic Madurai sungadi, the future is not very bright with lot of cheap imitations.

Sungadi (Sari), tie-dye resist print, gifted by her brother from his first salary to Geeta Athreya in the 1970s.
Sungadi (Sari), tie-dye resist print, gifted by her brother from his first salary to Geeta Athreya in the 1970s.


[i] Martand Singh and Rta Kapur Chishti, Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond. (New Delhi: Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., 2010), 245.

[ii]  In Volume V, sample no. 197 (Madras) and sample no. 198 (Cuddapah); In Volume IX, sample no. 344 (Trichinopoly), sample no. 345 (Trichinopoly), sample no.346 (Madras), sample no. 347 (Madras), sample no. 348 (Madras), sample no. 349 (Madras), sample no. 350 (Cuddapah), Courtesy: www.tmoi.org.uk

[iii] Veronica Murphy and Rosemary Crill, Tie-dyed Textiles of India: Tradition and Trade. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1991), 107.

[iv] Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, eds., Crafts of India: Handmade in India. (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation, COHANDS, 2007), 328

[v] Ibid

[vi] Veronica Murphy and Rosemary Crill, 109

Other references:

John Forbes Watson. The Textile Manufactures and the Costume of the People of India. Varanasi: Indological Book House, 1982.

Krishna Nanditha. Living Traditions of India: Arts and Crafts of Tamil Nadu. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1992.


The Spotted Skin: The Madurai Sungadi

Sculpted Sound: The hypnotic lutes of the Santals

Dhodro banam (Stringed instrument), c.1970, Wood, Carved. Collection: Sushmit Sharma.
Dhodro banam (Stringed instrument), Santal, c.1970, Eastern India, Wood, Carved. Collection: Sushmit Sharma. Photograph by: Renu Dhiman.

Santals are a group of people who occupy certain areas of Bihar mostly Jharkhand, also spilling over to the neighboring states of Odisha and West Bengal. They are primarily a farming community growing mostly rice. Music and dance are an integral part of their life and culture, connecting to fertility and harvest. Of all their musical instruments, the dhodro banam is one of the most spectacular creations, in terms of design which heavily aided by the art and skill of sculpting. Like all the origin theories and myths of the Santals, this instrument too has a peculiar myth of origin. The story goes in this way that long ago in a village, seven brothers had a sister, who was cooking a meal one day for her brothers. While engrossed in her cooking she accidentally cuts her finger, from where a drop of blood falls on to the food. The food was perceived as very delicious and it made them wonder if a drop of blood makes it so tasty, her flesh might be even more delicious. At the spur of moment, a unanimous decision was taken to eat her up. The youngest of the brothers could not eat his portion, as she was his beloved sister, and decided to bury his share into a white ant-hill. From this spot a beautiful Champa tree grows and its branches whistled melodious music as the wind blew. A yogi passing by could not resist listening to it and broke a branch which he later converted into a dhodro banam, a musical instrument in anthropomorphic form.

The surviving examples are carved out of a hard wood, although the myth mentions the Champa tree which is a rather softer medium. Dr. Verrier Elwin, a noted anthropologist, in his book, The Tribal Art of Middle India, records that a heavy wood, specifically Grewia tiliaefolia was used for these instruments and the surface was darkened with oil. Carved on all sides, the sound box was covered with lizard (Land monitor) skin. The string mostly singular was made from the intestines of a goat.[i] The instrument was played held vertically with the help of a stringed bow.

With the nature of the form, the Santals believe the instrument is a human being (or the long lost sister with a tragic fate), and that, it possessed the power to connect the world with other supernatural realms. Even the sound that the instrument resonates was believed to be a voice of a human being. These instruments were mostly in anthropomorphic form with pronounced head, neck and a torso. There are certain examples with limbs as well. The top of the head of the instrument is decorated with delightful themes such as dancing village belles, drummers, couple with a child, or animal forms, all ingeniously carved. One of the most iconic one, is in the National Museum, New Delhi, from the collection of Dr. Verrier Elwin, depicting an automobile being crossed by a gentleman in horseback.

This instrument according to Dr Verrier Elwin was often used by travelling ascetics and yogis. He also added that the instrument would be cremated along with them, but with presence of many old examples, in various collections of the world, there might have been exceptions.[ii] With changing times, the popularity of these instruments is vanishing. Although, few still survive who practice the art of making these fantastic instruments, trying to keep the tradition alive. But the glorious days of the dhodro banam are long gone.

With the rituals associated with these objects, abandoned or changing with time, most of them are becoming mute artefacts in showcases of museums or collectors. This change is inevitable and probably it is the journey of every object before reaching its last stage. An abstract idea designed to take a tangible form to fulfill a certain need or aspiration, after a certain point of time becomes an art object or relic. In spite of the irony linked to it, it still performs the function of delighting our eyes.

[i] Verrier Elwin, The Tribal Art of Middle India. (London: Oxford University Press: 1951), 134.

[ii] Johannes Beltz, Marie-Eve Celio-Scheurer et al, (eds), Cadence and Counterpoint: Documenting Santal Musical Traditions. (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2015), 46-47.

Other important reference:

The Lutes of the Santal by Bengt Fosshag, http://www.bengtfosshag.de/santal/

Sculpted Sound: The hypnotic lutes of the Santals

Bejeweled Sisters: Celebration of Gauri during Ganesh Chaturthi

Gauri heads
Jyeshta and Kanishta on the day of Gauri Avahan. Early 20th century. Metal. Collection: Sushmit.

A visit to any antique shop, one will certainly find within hoards of things laced in dust and age old patina, a metallic image (sometimes with reminiscence of paint) having a peculiar serpentine curled hair at the back. This serene image of a lady adorned profusely with jewellery, is of Goddess Gauri, very popular with art collectors.

Gauri, also known as Parvati is the mother of Lord Ganesh. In many cultures, the popular belief is that Gauri is the sister of Lord Ganesh, who comes in search of her brother during the time of Ganesh Chaturthi, the festival of Lord Ganesh. In Maharashtra, she comes in the form of two sisters, called Jyeshta and Kanishta during the festival.

Both the sisters, arrive on the third day of Ganesh Chaturthi, known as Gauri Avahan meaning the ‘arrival of the Goddess Gauri”. Married women of the household, would visit the markets to purchase the icons of Gauri. They are made in various materials such as clay, plaster of paris and metal, mainly brass. Many traditional families have their own Gauri heads, made of brass, which are passed on and worshiped from generations. These icons are brought to home ceremoniously with aarti (sanctification by holy fire) performed at the gate or doorsteps. The entire house is shown to the idols, where they are to stay during the visit to their beloved brother, Ganesh. Then, the icons are placed over a metal pot or an armature, decorating them with new saris, jewellery, flowers and garlands. Some households create these images with turmeric or a symbolic metal pot.

The fourth day is the day of Gauri puja, where the ladies of the household and neighbours gather to worship the divine guests, accompanied by songs, sweets/savories and games in the evening. Both the sisters are treated as daughters who are believed to be visiting their family bringing blessings and good fortune for the year to come.

The fifth day is Gauri visarjan, farewell of the goddesses. With rituals and pujas, the idols are dismantled and immersed in the water. The heirloom idols are kept away for the next year. The sari and the jewellery are distributed among the women of the household.

I am thankful to my friends, Mitali Despande and Tanay Pinglay for sharing their valuable knowledge on this wonderful tradition. A very happy Ganesh Chaturthi and Gauri Puja !

Bejeweled Sisters: Celebration of Gauri during Ganesh Chaturthi

Dance of the Devil: Magnificent Masks of Sri Lanka

Naga Raksha mask, Poly-chrome wood, Purchased in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The island nation of Sri Lanka has many surprises, of which the outlandish wooden masks really captivate one’s attention with their big bulging eyes and vibrant colours. On my visit to this beautiful country in the winter month of December, 2014, I was told the tradition of making masks only goes back to 1800s. It is believed that the mask making tradition probably was a result of the influence of similar traditions from the neighbouring Malabar Coast of India. It is possible that the mask dance tradition could have been present in Sri Lanka even before that, but only in the later years became more prominent part of the culture. The Sri Lankan craftsmen did give it a unique form with intricate details and strong colours, incorporating local folk style and characters making it truly Sri Lankan. These masks today have become an important part of the Sri Lankan culture, whether in the form of dance ritual both religious and secular or simply cultural invoking the ancestors and spirits of nature.

Kolam Maduwa performer in Kandy Art centre, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The masks are believed to have power to ward off evil spirits and also heal sickness. In broader terms, there are basically three categories of masks. First category is the Raksha Mask, which play an important part in the dance performances of the Kolam Maduwa, a traditional folk play tradition where the characters wear masks. According to the popular legend, Sri Lanka was ruled by an ancient race called as Rakshasas. One of the famous kings, was Ravana of the epic Ramayana. Rakshasas literally meaning devils gave form to twenty-four (24) devils of which only few have survived in the form of characters physically manifested in the masks. Few of the popular Raksha masks are Naga Raksha in the form of cobras (for protection), Garuda or Gurulu Mask, in the form of the mythical composite bird vahana of Lord Vishnu, Mayura Raksha in the form of a peacock (for peace, love and happiness) and Ginijal Raksha in the form of fire (for energy and harmony).

mask puppet
Puppet depicting a Kolam Maduwa character of Naga Raksha, Papier Mache, Purchased in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Second category is the Sanni Mask, used for curing specific illness. There are at present eighteen (18) sanni masks. The sanni masks are not very elaborate and are smaller in size. They are generally in the form of a face making grotesque expressions. One of the raksha masks, Maha Kola, comprises the entire pantheon of eighteen sanni devils in one mask tied together by intertwined serpents. This mask is also assigned the same task of cleansing the sick.

The third category is the Kolam Mask used in the kolam play performances. These masks generally depict the characters of the play, which are generally from the folk tales showing secular characters such as kings and queens with elaborate head gears. There are other characters as well, of which one of the beloved depiction is of the serene faced Naga Kanya, a serpent demi god.

The masks are made of soft wood so that it is not only easy to carve but also lighter for the wearer. Kaduru a local soft wood is generally used along with other softer woods such as balsa. Pigments in high quality masks are natural, extracted from tree oils and barks but with increasing demands to be sold as souvenir products to incoming tourists, synthetic paints are also used. The main mask making clusters are along the southwest coastline of Sri Lanka, where one can directly buy from the craftsman.

Masks for sale @ Government store Laksala, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The text is completely from the knowledge gathered from various sources during the trip, any inaccurate information may be pardoned.

Dance of the Devil: Magnificent Masks of Sri Lanka

Elephants under the Starry Sky: The Embroidered Mantle of the Chakhesangs

A contemporary 'Elephant-cloth', cotton, embroidered (Machine), Lt. 212; Wd. 100 cm, gifted by Sentimongla Aier Ngullie. Model: Priyanka Bharadwaj. Photograph by Renu Dhiman
A contemporary ‘Elephant-cloth’, cotton, embroidered (machine), Lt. 212; Wd. 100 cm, Gifted by Sentimongla Aier Ngullie. Model: Priyanka Bharadwaj, Photograph by Renu Dhiman.

With a myriad of fascinating shawls and wrappers that belong to different Naga groups, one of the most alluring mantles is adorned by the Chakhesangs.  Popularly referred to as the ‘Elephant cloth’ (a name obtained because of the prominent elephants in the central field), was the privilege of only the wealthy members of the group. The vividly embroidered animals and birds that dominate this grayish-black textile immediately stand out from the rest of the textiles from this region, posing hundreds of questions about its origin and inspiration.

Weaving textiles is only done by women throughout the extensive Naga community, mostly using a back-strap or loin loom. It is considered a taboo to even touch the weaving implements by men. The only exception to this is the tüsngkotepsü, the warrior shawl of the Aos, where the central white band is painted by men. Both cotton and wild nettle are spun into yarns for various textiles and dyed with natural vegetable dyes. Although, bazaar dyes became popular from the 1920’s[i] because they offered several colour choices and in brighter shades. Embroidery is very rare in this region and earlier reference to embroidery by scholars on the subject, was basically describing the motifs achieved by supplementary wefts and not actual needle-work. Today, in various government run emporiums, there are examples of tüsngkotepsü, the Ao mantle, with the central band having embroidery either by hand or machine which is a recent innovation. Therefore, the embroidery in the ‘elephant cloth’ is a surprising exception and considered by many as not an indigenous technique of the region. Scholar, Marion Wettstein, writes that she was reported during her research that the earliest examples of this mantle were received as gifts from the Meitei rulers of Manipur.[ii] This explains the presence of embroidered elephants and horses, the royal animals of the Meitei rulers. The mantle was later adopted by the Chakhesangs and on its entirety together with the technique is now claimed indigenous to the group.[iii]

The Chakhesangs, formerly known as Eastern Angami, is an amalgamation of three groups, Chokri, Kheza and Sangtam, represented respectively in the three syllables ‘cha-khe-sang’. The group occupies a large geographical area not only in present day Nagaland but also neighbouring Manipur, which makes many other tribes and villages fall under the umbrella of Chakhesang. Therefore, due to the complex and multi-cultural nature of the group, there are several names for the same mantle. Hapidasa, chi-pi-kwhu/chipikwü, shaphi lanphi or khape kade sa are various names for the same mantle. The Maos, another Naga group also wears a variation of the mantle.

The back-strap loom allows only a limited width, due to which three or two lengths have to be joint together to achieve the desired size.  Over the surface, embroidery is done employing a flat stitch or Romanian stitch using red, green, yellow and white cotton or wool/acrylic threads. The embroidered motifs depicts horses for speed, elephants for strength, bison or buffalo for bravery, peacocks for beauty and constellations for the height of the sky.[iv] The production of this mantle has a deep connection with the tradition of ‘Feast of Merit’. In order establish oneself in the society, a member had to arrange three feasts at different stages for the benefit of the entire village. On the successful completion of each feast, the benefactor was accorded with ranks and honour, including the right to wear certain designated textile and adornment. The ‘elephant cloth’ is one such textile. Among the Chakhesangs, the privilege of wearing a shawl with chipikwü designs was awarded to only those who had given these three Feasts of Merit.[v] The mantle had to be embroidered during the course of the feast, wherein few women would join in to complete the task before dusk. Motifs accumulated with successive feasts and the offerings made in them.

'Elephant cloth' or Hapidasa, 20th century, Cotton; embroidered, Nagaland, Lt. 180; Wd. 117 cm. Collection: Sushmit. Photograph editing: Deepak Singh Negi.
‘Elephant cloth’ or Hapidasa, 20th century, Nagaland, Cotton; embroidered, Lt. 180; Wd. 117 cm. Collection: Sushmit. Photo edit by Deepak Singh Negi.


[i] Julian Jacobs, The Nagas: Hill Peoples of Northeast India, Society, Culture and the Colonial Encounter. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990), 44.

[ii] Marion Wettstein, Naga Textiles: Design, Technique, Meaning and Effect of a Local Craft Tradition in Northeast India. (Vienna: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2014), 106.

[iii] Aglaja Stirn and Peter van Ham, The Hidden World of the Naga: Living Traditions in the Northeast India and Burma. (New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2003), 159.

[iv] Akha Kaihrii Mao, “Meaning and Significance of the Traditional Moa-Naga Shawls,” in Objects: Identities: Meaning, Insider Perspectives from North East India, eds, Dharitri Narzary Chakravartty and Surajit Sarkar, (New Delhi: Ambedkar University, 2015), 68-72.

[v] Lotika Varadarajan, “Fabric and Tradition: Textiles of the Northeast”, Marg, A Magazine of the Arts, Volume 62, Number I, September 2010.


Other references:

Peter van Ham and Jamie Saul, Expedition Naga: Diaries from the Hills in Northeast India, 1921-1937, 2002-2006, New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2008.


Elephants under the Starry Sky: The Embroidered Mantle of the Chakhesangs

Earthen Vows: Terracotta Sculptures of Central India

Votive Elephant. Terracotta. Dhamna village, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy: Sushmit.

Elephants such as the one above, adorned in elaborate trappings detailed with numerous bells were traditionally offered to goddesses in their respective forest realms for a prosperous harvest. According to Jane Perryman, these elephants were a speciality of Masora village (now in Bastar, Chhattisgarh) created by a single family. Several tribal groups who inhabit in and around the area would commission these images solely for ritual purpose. Over the years, with initiative of an NGO, the skills required for making such detailed terracotta was imparted to a few more. The production that resulted out of this was then marketed in big cities and craft fairs to an urban clientele who bought them for decorative use. Now, the same images fetched more money in these new found markets which seemed impossible for the humble tribal customers.  Therefore, there was a reduction in demand for large pieces (could go up to a height of four feet) which were earlier quite often commissioned by the locals.[1] This also explains the production of such elephants today in Dhamna village, far away from its initial place of origin.  The artisan made it because it was beautiful and easy to attract customers without any knowledge of its purpose. Nevertheless, the craft survived but without its original context or patrons, which was also partly due to separation of Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh.

The Hatere or Harere kumbhars in a small village called Dhamna in Chhatarpur District of Madhya Pradesh create a huge repertoire of terracotta products ranging from pots and utensils of daily nature to votive objects of high artistic value for local religious festivals. The potters here use a small terracotta plate instead of a wheel. Sometimes for bigger sizes, a spoked wheel is used. Today, most of it is done by an electrically powered wheel.

Animals such as horses and elephants have always stood for prosperity and played an important role as votive images. Striking sculptures of tigers were offered to goddesses Dhate Sara Mata and Mauli Mata to prevent illness and female monkeys, bendri, were created for family bliss.  Earthen oxen offered to Bhora Dev promised a good harvest.[2] During the Boliki festival which falls on the date of Makara Shankranti (14th January) each year, clay horses are created by the Hatere kumbhars and sold in the local fairs in Khajuraho. These horses are associated with Lord Shiva and are bought by villagers for rituals to gain blessing for their male child. Vows are taken and the earthen horse is packed with other food offerings on a box, to be opened finally on Vasant Panchami. The food from the box is then distributed among the boys and the idol of the horse is immersed in the village pond.[3] For a girl child, a small terracotta bowl called maliya is used for the same. Elephants associated with Goddess Lakshmi symbolising abundance and prosperity, are made for Diwali festivities as well. They are sold not only in markets but also traded door to door of rich landed households in exchange for grains and money. These elephants are depicted in rich detailed trappings and embellished with diyas (lamps) and pots.

Sharada mata
Sharda Mata. Terracotta. Dhamna Village, Chhatarpur village, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy and collection: Janaki Turaga.

Other captivating artefacts of religious nature created by these potters comprise a stylised image of Sharda Mata or Goddess Sharda. Sharda Mata is the principal mother goddess of the town of Maihar. In fact the name, ‘Maihar’ comes from ‘Ma ki har’ meaning mother’s necklace. It is believed that Shiva while carrying the body of Sati around the world, her necklace dropped at this place and a temple germinated at the spot. Another popular piece is the composite mythical being, Kamdhenu or Surabhi. This divine wish-fulfilling bovine goddess is partly made by hand and party using a mould. Traditionally, images of Kamdhenu would be offered at the local Shiva temples during the Shivratri celebrations.

Kamdhenu or Surabhi. Terracotta. Dhamna Village, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy: Sushmit.

With the advent of new cheaper mass produced plastic and aluminium vessels and also changing lifestyles, the demand of terracotta products in the traditional markets declined over the years although not completely gone. This demand however diminishing, sustained the livelihood of traditional potters but never been enough to flourish. Hence, few of them who still continue their profession, evolved their product range with new subjects and themes. They would sell these in big cities in craft fairs to be used as decorative pieces, fetching them a fair amount of money, which otherwise is impossible in traditional markets.  Now, various animals which inhabit the vast forested lands of the region such as tigers and porcupines occupy the table of their stalls.  Alongside, village belles engaged in various daily activities such as grinding grains, tending to their child, playing chaupar (board-dice game) or fetching water are also frozen in terracotta.  According to artisan, Devideen Prajapati, these themes are inspired from things around and reflect the traditions of Bundelkhand, Bundelkhand parampara, which he emphasised with pride.


[1] Jane Perryman. Traditional Pottery of India. (Great Britain: A & C Black Publishers Ltd.), 130.

[2] Ibid, 134-135.

[3] Stephen P. Huyler. Gifts of Earth: Terracottas and Clay Sculptures of India. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1996), 91-92.


Earthen Vows: Terracotta Sculptures of Central India

Pahari Embroidery: The bold cholis of Himachal Pradesh

Choli, Early 20th century, Probably Mandi (Himachal Pradesh). Courtesy: Sushmit.
Choli, Early 20th century, Probably Mandi (Himachal Pradesh). Courtesy: Sushmit.

For a long time the embroidered Pahari cholis did not get the same amount of recognition as their counterparts, the painterly rumals or coverlets. But these cholis with their distinctive characteristics could not be pushed into obscurity. Their vigour and spontaneity as well as their mysterious role in a mismatched land are slowly being appreciated and taken as one of the major styles of embroidery in India.

These bodices or blouses called choli maintain a set pattern of construction. The front is shaped generally with a deep V neckline. The sleeves are kept short with gussets for ease and a rectangular apron like segment, called petia, is joined at the waist. All the cholis are backless and are tied with the help of cords, doris.  They are generally made of a dyed, indigo or madder red, coarse cotton (khaddar like) fabric, although few of fine mill made cotton also exist in bright scarlet. The shade of the dye could vary from deep terracotta to subtle buff or deep navy to softer cobalt. The surface is embroidered with bold motifs in floss silk threads depicting various flora and fauna, like elaborate ‘pan-buta’, cypress trees, elephants, peacocks and doves. Various stitches are employed such as surface darning, herringbone, chain stitches as well as button-hole stitch for insetting small mirrors. There are also examples showing embroidery executed in the phulkari and bagh repertoire, with multi-coloured geometric motifs over a bright red background. Small mirrors are also used at places as embellishments.

With the temperature of the hills inclined towards the shorter stretches of mercury, one would immediately wonder their functionality. According to Subhashini Aryan, cholis always formed a part of the attire in Himachal Pradesh, but the backless versions are not indigenous to the hills. They were adopted from the Rajput migrants from Rajasthan and Gujarat to the foothills of the Shivaliks. After years of observation, she also establishes the point that embroidery is more popular in the foothills than the upper reaches of the hills in Himachal Pradesh, where woolens are worn throughout the year.[1] In the miniature paintings, the cholis worn underneath the gossamer peshwaz seen on the royal ladies and their attendants are of a different kind. Even the costumes of the divine protagonist, Radha, are similar, probably due to the common inspiration point, which is, the royal court and harem of the period. As opposed to the rich silk and satin blouses of the royal court, these humble coarse cotton cholis, were hardly seen in the paintings. From the very few, one miniature painting from the Alice Boner collection currently housed in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, showing Raja Shamsher Sen of Mandi with male companions in woman’s attire (Acc.no. RVI 1295)[2], one of the companions is seen wearing a similar choli embroidered with floral design and birds. Raja Shamsher Sen, who was often discredited for having company of people from the marginalized sections of the society, is evident from this painting with two mysterious cross-dressing men.[3]  In another painting from Mandi, from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck collection housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, showing Krishna with a cluster of gopis (Acc.no. M.77.19.23)[4], similarly constructed choli with a petia is seen on each gopi. Although, here the cholis appear to be made of woven material rather than embellished with embroidery. At this point, it will not be incorrect to conclude that, these cholis probably belonged to a more folk demographic.

Apart from the cholis, there are also a host of other products made with the similar embroidery style, such as chaupar (dice-board game), caps, gaumukhis (rosary covers) and qamarbands (waistbands).


[1] Subhashini Aryan. Folk Embroidery of Western Himalaya. (New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 2010), 34-35.

[2] Rosemary Crill and Kapil Jariwala. The Indian Portrait, 1560-1860. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.,2010), 138-139.

[3] Ibid

[4] B. N. Goswamy and Eberhard Fischer. Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. (New Delhi: Nyogi Books, 2009), 204-205.



Aryan, Subhashini. Himachal Embroidery. New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 1976.

                              . Folk Embroidery of Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 2010.

                              . Unknown Masterpieces of Indian Folk and Tribal Art: From the Personal Collection of K.C. Aryan. Gurgaon: K.C. Aryan’s Home of Folk Art, 2005.

Bhattacharyya, A.K. Chamba Rumal. Calcutta: Indian Museum, 1968.

Goswamy, B.N. Indian Costumes in the Collection of the Calico Museum of Textiles. Ahmedabad: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1993.

Grewal, Neelam and Amarjit Grewal. The Needle Lore: Traditional Embroideries of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. New Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1988.

Handa. O.C. Textiles, Costumes and Ornaments of the Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company, 1998.

Pahari Embroidery: The bold cholis of Himachal Pradesh