A regular shenanigan for me is vehemently opening my closet, staring at the unending pile of clothes lying comfortably inside, and exclaiming to myself, “I have nothing to wear!”. My monthly pilgrimage then consists of visiting every nook and cranny in Delhi for ideas to sizzle up my wardrobe. As tedious as it may seem, the ritual has introduced me to lanes unknown, and beauty undiscovered, such as the Aari.
On one such expedition, I came across another source of chain stitch, much like many others who have come a long way through the path of history. Known traditionally as ‘Aari embroidery’, it has proven to be a timeless skill over time. The art of embroidery has been a poignant part of Indian ethnicity since time immemorial. Hailed as a doorway to emotion, as well as a pioneer of fashion, the varied techniques of embroidery have left a major impact on Indian and western cultures alike.
The art of Aari embroidery was given birth to by the cobbler or ‘mochi’ communities of ancient Uttar Pradesh and Kutch. The Aari needles were initially used to work on leather, for creating shoes and soles like everyday cobblers did. However, the increasing downfall of the mocha trade drove them to adopt the textile trade as a means of earning their livelihood. That is when the Aari needle met the base of coarse cloth, and embroidery was born.
Although modern records hold little information about the usage of the Aari needle in Uttar Pradesh, it was widely exploited by the royals in Gujarat. The Mughals, famous for embracing new techniques and styles of art in every form, played a vital role in popularizing aari embroidery as well. The push from the Mughal era led to Gujarat becoming a part of Central Asia’s trade route to the Far East.
The gradual scent of the skill resulted in it spreading to 18th century Europe, where it was readily adopted. It was given the name ‘Tambour’, in reference to the introduction of a frame alongside the embroidered clothes. The exotic stitch quickly became a favourite pastime for the European women, making it a hugely popular art across countries and traditions.
The process of creating aari-embroidered patterns is a tedious one. A pen-like needle, representing the shape of a crochet-needle and traditionally called the ‘muthia’, is used to embroider along with beads. Essentially a piece of hand-embroidery, the ‘Tambour’ from Europe introduced the process that is used in modern times. The fabric to be embroidered was held taut between two round fitted hoops; the base of which resembled a drum, and provided support as well as fastened the process at length.
The mix of modern and ethnic influences stimulated floral and traditional motifs to emerge during the period. In the present day scenario, advanced stitching methods have taken over along with more artisans being involved in its development. Most often, Zari, Cotton or Silk threads are used in embroidery. The focus today can be mostly be spotted on Kurtas and Indian wear for women. The designs have not evolved much over time, which is what makes the embroidery retain its original charm and grace.