Do you think that the paisley has our copyright stamp? How about henna? The sitar is the proud ambassador of our musical heritage, right? Many symbols that we automatically assume as indigenous have surprising origins. Over centuries, we have borrowed, received and adopted elements from all over the globe and made them our own. That is the beauty of our complex and hybrid heritage. This Republic Day, let us acknowledge the gifts that the world has given us. To be truly Indian, we have to celebrate and treasure our multicultural identity.
There are many theories about the origins of weaving and the earliest looms, since ancient fabric fragments were discovered in several parts of the world and the dating systems cannot determine their exact times. Crude weaving frames allowed the creation of textiles that were of shorter lengths and smaller widths. It is only after Englishman John Kay invented the flying shuttle that the modern handloom industry took shape, leading to the power loom. The French are credited to the invention of jacquard weave punch cards. Both these components greatly helped the productivity of Indian weavers as they were able to craft longer yardages with larger spans, at a faster pace. Commercial production of brocades, jacquards and tapestries became easier with the use of punch cards. Indian textile graduated to becoming an industry with the use of these updates.
The sweet sounds of the plucked string instrument have been an integral part of Hindustani classical compositions for centuries. Pandit Ravi Shankar almost singlehandedly put the sitar on the world music map since the 1950s. But the device is actually the exotic offspring of parents from two separate cultures, conceived in India during the Mughal rule. The Persian setar – the word literally means three strings – travelled to the courts of this country and met the veena – star of the Carnatic – to have a blessed union under royal patronage. The fusion of the two during the 16th century created the early versions of the sitar, which evolved into its present form in the 18th century. A sitar can have 18 to 21 strings, of which seven are played strings and the remainder are sympathetic strings. It is a complex contraption, with multiple frets and pegs for tuning while playing. Mastering the art of the sitar is a difficult task.
The twisted droplet that has become India’s ambassador motif to the world, actually originated in Persia. But the word ‘paisley’ is derived from its namesake Scottish town, where textiles with the design were produced during the colonial times. The stylised teardrop is said to have been derived from the convergence of a floral spray and a cypress tree – a Zoroastrian symbol of life and eternity. It was brought to India by Persian refugees during the Arab invasion of Iran, and gained popularity in the country, under Mughal patronage. The paisley was adopted in a variety of Indian crafts: it became the mainstay of the Jamavar shawl, was reinterpreted in Kalamkari, and was accepted into several families of regional weaves. Many weavers connected the shape with that of the country’s beloved fruit, the mango, and it also became known as the ambi (mango). In the 17th century, the motif travelled to Europe and French manufacturers started producing textiles featuring the paisley; thereafter it became globally recognised.
The beloved floral embroidery of the Parsi community is considered to be a family heirloom, passed down generations and preserved like fine jewellery. Intricate stitches, dense threadwork and fine shading combine to form a pattern that almost looks painted; the exquisite needlepoint technique is also excruciatingly time consuming, and therefore, gaara is a very expensive art form. Trade with China introduced Parsi merchants to Chinese silks, and they brought back textiles from these regions for their womenfolk. Among these were Chinese needlepoint embroideries which framed the four sides of a yardage; these were treasured and coveted due to their quality and detail. Lore surrounding the craft spoke of the forbidden knot, which was so minute that it caused the maker to go blind! Over centuries, the motifs got inspired by Indian, Persian and even European elements, and the saris were also produced outside China. While a lot of the current gaara versions are more production friendly, only a few have retained the original finesse owing to the time and price factors.
The darker the colour on the bride’s hands, the stronger the marriage: such is the belief regarding the intricate patterns of the mehendi – our emblem of holy matrimony. But the origin of henna is a bit further away from home. In the eastern Mediterranean region, many figurines of young women – dating back to the late Bronze Age – were found with markings resembling henna, which was believed to symbolise fertility. Ancient Egyptians were known to have painted the nails of mummies before burying them; the empress Cleopatra used the staining method to ornament her skin. The word henna is derived from the Arabic hinna. How it reached India and since when it was used as a means of adornment here are unclear, but its cultural significance in this country goes deep. It is not just a bridal tradition; it is also an important part of many festivities across religions. Apart from India, this temporary tattoo form is prevalent in the Middle East and Africa. Each region has its distinct motifs.
Source: Shafeena Premji