Crafting India’s legacy: GI handicrafts from North India
ndia, a land steeped in history, culture, and artistic heritage, is a tapestry of vivid colors, intricate designs, and exceptional craftsmanship. Its rich cultural mosaic has woven a tapestry of artistic brilliance over millennia. Among its many cultural treasures, Indian handicrafts stand as testament to the nation's enduring commitment to creative expression.
From the labyrinthine lanes of its ancient cities to the tranquil villages located in its vast countryside, India has nurtured a diverse range of arts and crafts. Each craft form bears witness to a rich legacy passed down through generations. These crafts encapsulate not just the mastery of technique, but also the stories, traditions, and lifestyles of India’s people.
Over centuries, India’s craftspeople have honed their skills, turning raw materials into intricate works of art. These crafts include the resplendent silk sarees of Bhagalpur, the exquisite woodcarvings of Saharanpur, and the vibrant pottery of Rajasthan, to name just a few. These crafts are more than just objects; they are living embodiments of India’s history and culture.
The Indian government, recognizing the cultural and economic significance of some craft forms, has introduced the concept of Geographic Indication (GI) tags. GI tags are a certification of the unique origin and quality of a product, emphasizing the specific geographical region responsible for its production. These tags are essential to safeguard traditional knowledge, prevent counterfeiting, and promote the economic interests of the artisans and regions.
– ariyalur.nic.in (Govt. of Tamil Nadu)
According to ariyalur.nic.in, the Geographical Indication registration vests the following benefits:
- Legal protection to the products
- Prevents unauthorized use of GI tag products by others
- It helps consumers to get quality products of desired traits, with an assurance of authenticity
- Promotes the economic prosperity of producers of GI tag goods by enhancing their demand in national and international markets
Moreover, it boosts the marketability of these traditional products, allowing artisans to access larger markets and fetch better prices. As a result, local economies thrive, and the craft form gains recognition worldwide.
The GI tags bestowed upon various Indian handicrafts have added a new dimension to their significance. These crafts are no longer just beautiful creations; they are cultural ambassadors representing India’s artistic splendor. Through this blog series, we will embark on a zonal journey to explore the incredible world of GI-tagged handicrafts across India’s diverse regions. Together, we will uncover the intricate details that make each craft form unique and the impact of the GI tag on preserving and promoting India’s rich cultural heritage.
History: Bhagalpur, often called the ‘Silk City of India,’ has a rich history of silk production dating back to ancient times. This craft has been practiced for centuries, with records suggesting its presence during the Mauryan Empire.
Traditional usage: Known for its natural sheen and quality, this variety of silk was traditionally used to create stunning sarees, shawls, and scarves, often adorned with intricate patterns and motifs. These garments were highly sought-after for special occasions and weddings.
Contemporary usage: It continues to be popular for traditional Indian attire such as sarees and kurta sets. However, contemporary designers have also embraced this silk for fusion wear, evening gowns, and accessories.
Crafting process: Bhagalpur silk is primarily produced using the Tussar silk variety. The process involves silk cultivation, reeling, and spinning. Traditional handlooms are used for weaving, and skilled artisans employ various weaving techniques to create intricate designs.
Raw materials: The primary raw material is Tussar silk, sourced from the larvae of silk moths. Natural dyes are often used to create vibrant colors.
History: The origin of the traditional art of crafting Sujani quilts dates back to the 18th century. The Sujani technique finds its roots in two ancient beliefs. In one ritualistic tradition, it was a representation of the deity “Chitiriya Ma,” also known as the “Lady of the Tatters.” This symbolized the idea of harmoniously bringing together disparate elements into a cohesive whole. The second purpose, was to create a gentle coverlet, akin to a mother’s warm embrace, to swaddle the newborn child.
Traditional usage: Sujini embroidery was used to create decorative bedspreads, quilts, and wall hangings. These intricate pieces were often gifted during weddings and other auspicious occasions. The quilts were crafted from assorted pieces of fabric, often sourced from used saris and dhotis. These fabrics, in varying colors, were skillfully stitched together using a basic running stitch. Additionally, the quilts were adorned with motifs that conveyed the mother’s aspirations for her newborn child, typically created using a dark-colored chain stitch.
Contemporary usage: Sujini embroidery has found its place in contemporary fashion and home decor. It is now used to create stunning cushion covers, table runners, and clothing items, adding a touch of Bihar’s traditional art to modern settings.
Crafting process: The process involves layering three or four patches of cloth atop one another, securing them through quilting using threads also drawn from these discarded textiles and then stitching elaborate designs on the top layer. The embroidery uses vibrant threadwork to depict themes from nature, mythology, and daily life.
Raw materials: The craft mainly requires fabric, needles, and vibrant threads in a variety of colors.
History: Traditionally, Madhubani paintings, also known as Mithila painting, were crafted by women from diverse communities residing in the Mithila region of the Indian subcontinent. These paintings adorned the walls of homes in the Mithila region of Bihar.
Traditional usage: Madhubani paintings were used to decorate the walls of homes, especially during festivals and special occasions. They often depicted scenes from Hindu mythology, nature, and daily life. The paintings adorned the freshly plastered walls and floors of mud huts back in the day.
Contemporary usage: Madhubani paintings have gained international recognition as a unique form of folk art. They are now used not only as wall art but also on canvas, textiles, and even pottery, making them highly sought after by art enthusiasts and collectors.
Crafting process: Madhubani paintings use natural pigments and brushes made from twigs and matchsticks. The artists draw intricate patterns and designs, often starting from the center and working outward.
Raw materials: The raw materials include natural pigments obtained from plants, flowers, and minerals, along with fabric or canvas.
History: Khatwa is a lesser-known craft from Bihar, focusing on quilts and textiles with intricate applique designs. Its history is deeply rooted in the local textile traditions of the region.
Traditional usage: Khatwa quilts were traditionally used to keep warm during the cold winter months. They were made using pieces of old clothing and sarees, creating a unique and colorful patchwork.
Contemporary usage: Present-day Khatwa artwork portrays the everyday lives and rural environments of artisans. It also incorporates depictions of pertinent social issues, such as women’s rights and AIDS, often woven into a narrative. Besides sarees and blouses, Khatwa textiles now extend to sustainable household items like cushion covers and wall hangings.
Crafting process: The embroidery uses silk threads, employing running stitches and chain stitches. Before being used for applique, the waste cloth may undergo natural dyeing. Although a variety of colors are used, Khatwa today predominantly leans towards earthy and subdued tones in its palette.
Raw materials: The primary raw materials are fabric scraps collected from old clothing and sarees, along with thread and needles.
History: Before India’s national independence, rural areas had limited access to modern industrialized clothing. The Kulivi people reside in the temperate Himalayan region, rich in resources like sheep, oxen, and various furred animals. Before the arrival of contemporary craftsmen, the primary attire consisted of Patti weaving to combat the region’s severe cold. With the arrival of a craftsmen from Himachal Pradesh, the Kullu Shawl gained prominence. The introduction of artistic patterns and floral designs transformed it into a significant garment for Himalayan residents.
Traditional usage: Kullu shawls were traditionally used as garments by the locals, especially during harsh winters. They often featured geometric patterns and vibrant colors.
Contemporary usage: Kullu shawls are now sought after not only for their warmth but also for their aesthetic appeal. They are popular as fashion accessories and statement pieces.
Crafting process: Kullu shawls are woven using traditional wooden handlooms. Skilled weavers create intricate patterns using a combination of natural and synthetic yarn.
Raw materials: The primary raw materials include wool or a wool blend, which is sourced from local sheep.
History: Kinnauri shawls, like Kullu shawls, have a long history rooted in the region’s culture and traditions.
Traditional usage: Kinnauri shawls were traditionally used by the people of the Kinnaur district as garments and as a symbol of their cultural identity. These shawls featured bold patterns and earthy colors.
Contemporary usage: Kinnauri shawls are now cherished for their traditional beauty and craftsmanship. They are used as fashion accessories, shawls, and decorative items.
Crafting process: Kinnauri shawls are woven on traditional handlooms using local wool. The intricate patterns are achieved through careful weaving techniques.
Raw materials: The primary raw material is wool, often sourced from local sheep.
History: The earliest recorded version of this rumal (handkerchief) dates back to the 16th century and was crafted by Bebe Nanaki, the sister of Guru Nanak. This historic piece is now preserved at the Gurudwara in Hoshiarpur. The Chamba rumal, is an embroidered handicraft that enjoyed the support and patronage of the former rulers of the Chamba kingdom. These exquisite handkerchiefs were once considered a royal art form.
Traditional usage: Chamba rumals were used as ceremonial handkerchiefs during religious rituals and royal events. They were also gifted as tokens of appreciation. Starting in the 17th century, women from the former princely state of Chamba, which is now part of Himachal Pradesh, including members of the royal family, engaged in the art of embroidering rumals. This practice was often part of marriage gifts or dowries given to their daughters.
Contemporary usage: Today, Chamba rumals are prized as works of art. They are often framed and displayed as wall hangings, showcasing their intricate embroidery and vibrant colors, and are also used as valuable gifting items.
Crafting process: Referred to as a “needle wonder,” the Chamba rumal is currently crafted in square and rectangular shapes. It employs a double satin stitch for embroidery, simultaneously working on both sides of the fabric using a forward and backward technique to ensure uniformity of design. Following the embroidery, the fabric is bordered with approximately 2 to 4 inches of stitching on all sides.
Raw materials: Materials employed include muslin, malmal, khaddar (a coarse fabric), fine charcoal or brushes, and silk threads devoid of knots.
History: Fibers of wool, discovered in corroded copper artifacts dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization at Harappa, are remarkably fine, resembling Pashmina and Shahtoosh. This material gained renown through its usage in Kashmir shawls. During the Mughal era, it served as a symbol of rank and nobility. In 1526, Babur founded the Mughal Empire in India and initiated the practice of bestowing “robes of honor,” usually crafted from expensive fabrics, upon individuals in the royal court.
Traditional usage: Pashmina blankets were prized additions to the dowries of wealthy women in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. In the 19th century, Kashmiri shawls became symbols of luxury primarily associated with women. They were cherished heirlooms, worn by young brides and at coming-of-age ceremonies. These shawls also represented inheritable wealth for women when the land inheritance was restricted by English law.
In France, pashmina shawls gained fashion prominence thanks to Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais. They provided warmth and adorned white French gowns with their teardrop buta patterns and delicate floral motifs.
Contemporary usage: Pashmina is now celebrated worldwide for its luxurious feel and warmth. It is used in high-end fashion, including scarves, shawls, and wraps.
Crafting process: The wool is collected, spun, and woven into delicate shawls using traditional handlooms.
Raw materials: The primary raw material is the fine wool of the Changthangi goat.
History: The introduction of walnut woodcarving in Kashmir is attributed to Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom during the rule of Zainul Abdideen in the 15th century. This craft was actively encouraged by the king to enhance the region’s economy.
Traditional usage: Kashmir walnut wood carvings were traditionally used to create exquisite furniture, including tables, chairs, and cabinets. These pieces often featured intricate floral and geometric patterns.
Contemporary usage: Kashmir walnut wood carving is highly sought after for its artistic value. It is used in creating decorative items, jewelry boxes, and intricate wall panels.
Crafting process: Walnut wood carvings are meticulously produced by skilled artisans using specialized carving tools. The designs are often inspired by nature and traditional motifs.
Raw materials: The primary raw material is walnut wood, known for its rich color and fine grain.
History: The origin of Phulkari embroidery has various theories. One belief suggests it dates back to the 7th century CE, once prevalent in different parts of India but surviving primarily in Punjab. Another theory connects it to Iran’s Gulkari, meaning floral work, though the styles are distinct. References to Phulkari can be found in ancient texts and Punjabi literature, with the earliest mention in the 18th-century rendition of Heer Ranjha, describing the embroidered wedding trousseau of the female protagonist, Heer.
Traditional usage: Traditionally, Baghs and Phulkaris, intricately embroidered textiles, held great cultural significance in Punjab. These items, often gifted by the bride’s father, uncles, and mother-in-law, were meticulously crafted over many years. Typically, women would begin embroidering these textiles when grandsons were born, intending to present them to their future brides. This would also start as soon as a girl was born, with mothers and grandmothers creating Baghs and Phulkaris to be given during marriages. Families would offer dowries ranging from 11 to 101 of these textiles, and they were cherished heirlooms passed down through generations.
Contemporary usage: Phulkari continues to be celebrated for its beauty and cultural significance. It is now used in a variety of fashion items, including sarees, suits, and accessories.
Crafting process: Phulkari involves intricate hand embroidery using vibrant silk threads on a cotton base. The embroidery often follows traditional geometric or floral patterns.
Raw materials: The primary raw materials include cotton fabric and silk threads in a range of colors.
History: The exact origins of Bagru’s block printing practices lack authentic records, leading to varying opinions on its inception. However, it is believed that this art form was introduced approximately 450 years ago when a community known as Chhipas, meaning “people who stamp or print,” migrated from Sawai Madhopur (Alwar) to Bagru and settled there. To this day, their community collaborates in an area called Chhippa Mohalla, situated by the Sanjaria riverside.
Traditional usage: Bagru prints were traditionally used for creating colorful textiles, including sarees, bedspreads, and tablecloths. They featured intricate block-printed patterns.
Contemporary usage: Bagru prints have found a global audience in the world of fashion and home decor. They are used in clothing, home textiles, and accessories.
Crafting process: Bagru hand block printing involves carving intricate designs onto wooden blocks, which are then used to print patterns onto fabric using natural dyes.
Raw materials: The primary raw materials are natural fabrics such as cotton and silk, wooden blocks, and natural dyes.
History: The art of Rajasthani puppetry, also known as Kathputli, traces its roots back to a millennium when the Bhat community first embraced this craft. With the patronage of numerous royal families in the state, it swiftly evolved into a prominent art form of the region.
Traditional usage: Kathputlis were traditionally used as storytelling tools, often depicting scenes from folklore, mythology, and history.
Contemporary usage: Kathputlis are now appreciated as artistic collectibles and decorative items, reflecting Rajasthan’s rich artistic traditions.
Crafting process: Kathputlis are crafted using wood, cloth, and strings. Skilled artisans hand-paint the faces and attire of the puppets.
Raw materials: The primary raw materials include wood, cloth, and paint.
History: The use of blue glaze on pottery originated with Mongol artisans who combined Chinese glazing technology and Persian decorative arts. This technique was introduced to India during the early Turkic conquests in the 14th century. Initially used for adorning Central Asian mosques, tombs, and palaces, it gained popularity in India with the arrival of the Mughals, gradually extending its reach beyond architecture to Indian pottery. The technique then spread to Delhi and, by the 17th century, reached Jaipur.
Traditional usage: Blue pottery was traditionally used to create decorative tiles, plates, bowls, and vases, often featuring floral and geometric designs.
Contemporary usage: Blue pottery has found contemporary relevance in home decor, including tiles, tableware, and artistic pieces.
Crafting process: Firing blue pottery at low temperatures makes it a delicate process, requiring practice, patience, and expertise. What sets blue pottery apart from traditional pottery is the absence of clay. Instead, it is crafted from materials like quartz stone powder, powdered glass, borax, gum, and Fuller’s Earth (Multani mitti). These components are mixed with water to form a dough, rolled into a thin ‘Chapatti’ (pancake), and placed in plaster of Paris (POP) molds filled with pebbles and ash. After drying for 1-2 days, the pottery is cleaned, shaped, and polished with sandpaper for a smooth surface. Motifs are painted on, a final glaze coat is applied, and the product is ready for firing.
Raw materials: The primary raw materials include quartz stone powder, powdered glass, borax, gum, Multani mitti (Fuller’s Earth).
History: The process was invented by Nathu Ji Soni in 1767, and the craft’s closely guarded secrets have been passed down through generations within the family, who are known as the ‘Raj-Sonis’. Numerous members of this family have received accolades and recognition from UNESCO, as well as national and state governments.
Usage: This stunning craft is primarily used to make beautiful jewelry and artworks that can be used for gifting and home decor.
Crafting process: Thewa is an ancient craft that involves the fusion of 23K gold with vibrant glass. A unique treatment process is applied to the glass to create a dazzling effect, accentuating the intricate gold craftsmanship. Skilled artisans meticulously handcraft each Thewa piece over the course of a month.
History: Embroidery resembling Chikan work has been noted in India as far back as the 3rd century BC, as mentioned by Megasthenes. However, these early embroideries lacked color or significant embellishments. Chikankari likely originated from the white-on-white embroidery of Shiraz and was introduced to India by Persian nobles at the Mughal court. Another tale tells of a traveler teaching Chikan embroidery to a peasant in exchange for water. Noor Jahan, the Mughal empress and wife of Jahangir, is also credited with bringing Chikankari to India.
Traditional usage: Chikankari was traditionally used to create exquisite garments, especially for women. These garments featured delicate hand-embroidered patterns.
Contemporary usage: Today, this artistry is applied to a variety of fabrics including cotton, wool, chiffon, crepe, organdie chiffon, and silk, using a range of colorful threads. It is now celebrated in fashion globally. It is used in a variety of clothing, including sarees, suits, and dresses.
Crafting process: Chikankari involves intricate hand embroidery using white thread on lightweight fabrics like muslin, chiffon, etc.
Raw materials: The primary raw materials include lightweight fabrics and cotton threads.
History: Saharanpur woodcraft has a history dating back to 400 years. Saharanpur has a rich tradition of woodwork, involving over four hundred thousand people who rely on daily wages. The majority, about ninety percent, of these artisans are Muslims, and they draw inspiration from Kashmiri designs for their patterns. These skilled craftsmen, known as ‘karigars,’ excel in intricate lattice work, and their expertise has been handed down through generations.
Traditional usage: Saharanpur woodcraft was traditionally used to create intricate furniture, including tables, chairs, and cabinets, often featuring elaborate carvings.
Contemporary usage: This craft is highly regarded for its artistic value and is used in both traditional and contemporary furniture design, tabletop decor, and storage items.
Crafting process: Saharanpur woodcraft involves skilled artisans carving intricate designs on wood using traditional tools. The process consists of the following steps: Slicing, Carving, Inlaying, Polishing, and Assembling.
Raw materials: The primary raw material is wood, often sheesham or rosewood.
History: The age-old repoussé craft, believed to predate the Banarasi Silk handloom industry, has thrived in the historic city of Varanasi since Vedic times.
Traditional usage: Skilled artisans in the traditional craft used to employ the repoussé technique to create faces of gods and goddesses, ornate gold and silver attire, customary jewelry, intricate temple doors, wall embellishments, and distinctive gold and silver vessels.
Contemporary usage: The legacy of traditional usage is still maintained along with an addition of making exquisite decor items.
Crafting process: This craft technique employs a pliable metal that can be adorned or molded by hammering from the reverse side, creating a raised design on the front. This method, known as embossing (Khal – Ubhaar Ka Kaam) or ‘chasing,’ is not only cost-effective but also maximizes the use of the metal’s plasticity. The secrets of this ancient craft have been handed down through generations within the Kasera community. It is entirely handcrafted using traditional tools.
Raw materials: Primary materials include metal sheets (gold, silver, copper, brass, and white metal) from 18 to 26-gauge thickness.
As we conclude our exploration of the crafts from North India, we have uncovered a tapestry of artistry and tradition. Each craft tells a unique story of its origin, historical significance, traditional usage, and contemporary relevance. From the intricate embroidery of Lucknow Chikan to the opulent Bagh prints, and the vibrant pottery of Rajasthan to the luxurious Pashmina shawls of Kashmir, North India’s handicrafts with GI tags showcase the diversity and richness of Indian heritage.
Stay tuned for our upcoming blogs, where we will continue our journey to explore the handicrafts of East, West, South, and Central India, each with its unique tales of craftsmanship and artistic marvels.
~ Written by Shambhavi