The forgotten story of an embroidery by Indian shoemakers

The beauty of India is that every 100 km you will find a unique craft, form of embroidery or textile in this place. The tragedy? Little has been done to preserve or celebrate them, whether in Kashmir pinjrakari the craftsmanship of woodcarving, the fine Chamba rumal embroidery of Himachal Pradesh or the colors Khana Guledgudda cloth from North Karnataka.

One such craft, Gujarat mochi chainstitch embroidery, has now been documented in a book, The Shoemaker’s Stitch: Mochi Embroideries Of Gujarat In The TAPI Collection, by Rosemary Crill, master of Indian textiles and paintings and ancient Senior Curator for South Asia. at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and Shilpa Shah, co-founder of the TAPI Collection of Indian Textiles and Art. TAPI is the acronym for Textiles & Art of the People of India.

A seated Kutch priest with a ‘mochi’ embroidered stool cover in front.
(Courtesy of AA Wazir and Salim Wazir)

Their study, they say in the preface, is a tribute to the anonymous masters of mochi-bharat, embroidery created by the Mochis, a community of cobblers, cobblers and saddlers who worked prepared leather, in Kutch. “Belonging to the humble community of cobblers in Gujarat in western India, they were unrivaled professionals in chainstitch embroidery, known locally as aari work, after the cobbler’s tool (aarthe hook tool) that the Mochis so skillfully adapted for use on fabric rather than leather,” they write.

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This chain stitch embroidery from Kutch has been prized for centuries. With precision and artistry, shoemakers made dense chain stitches of twisted silk thread. Embroidered palampores were sent to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, Mughal courtyards were decorated with colorful furniture, and clothing was made for the elite women of Gujarat, especially Kutch, until the mid-20th century , notes the book.

A silk satin 'ghagra' with chain stitch crochet (late 19th century/early 20th century).

A silk satin ‘ghagra’ with chain stitch crochet (late 19th century/early 20th century).
(Courtesy of Niyogi Books)

It is not known exactly when the community began to embroider on cloth. We also don’t know how embroidery was born. There is, however, a clear connection to Sindh, known for its embroidered leather sleeping mats, “at least since the 13th century, when Marco Polo had admired them (the mats),” the book notes. Some Mochi believe their ancestors came from Sind (in present-day Pakistan) and settled in the Surendranagar district of Gujarat in the 14th century. Another version is that Kutchi embroiderers took over the craft in secret, spying on visiting Sindhi artisans in the 18th century.

The book refers to a passage from Gazetteer of the presidency of Bombay in 1880: “There are about fifty families of Hindu embroiderers (she estimated their population at 1,237 at the time). About 250 years ago (that is to say around 1630), a Muslim beggar, fakir, skilled in embroidery would have come from Sind, and taught his art to some families of shoemakers, mochi, caste, who, at the both in Bhuj and Mandvi, are famous for their skill. They work the silk, with a curved needle like a wide awl on a silk fabric, mash potatoes (mixed silk and cotton fabric), on fine cloth, net and canvas. With a silk thread in one hand, the artist works with the other, without any design sketched on the canvas or even placed in front of him, and with marvelous rapidity, fruits, flowers, animals and human figures ( take shape)…. Fifteen of these families are well off…. Their skills are so highly valued that Kathiawar and other chiefs employ them and their work is in great demand throughout India and is sent to Zanzibar.

By Niyogi Books

Today, Bhuj’s Mochi Street is home to just four families in the community. The last celebrated mochi craftsman, Hansraj Jethabhai, died in 1966. Two sons of the late mochi embroiderer Ramji Jethabhai are currently the only qualified people in the craft, the book notes. They try to train others.

The story of this unique craft is the story of every craft. The authors say “they are… looking for a new generation of buyers – renaissance artisans, tourists, souvenir hunters and interior designers”. But at a time when international luxury houses applaud our professions, why don’t we celebrate our own wealth? Because, as the book says, mochi embroidery, like so many other crafts, is that delicate chain that connects our past to the present, defining our future.

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