Stitches in Time - The Changing Status of Embroidery amongst the Rabaris of Kutch

(First Published: The World of Embroidery; Volume 49 No 5; 1998)

Dress provides us with one of our most eloquent symbolic languages. This is particularly true of rural India, where each garment is an indicator of caste identity. The choice of fabric and combination of stitches and motifs conveys detailed information of an individual's sub-group, age economic and marital status. Perhaps some of the most powerful communicators in this realm of visual vocabulary are the Rabaris of Kutch (part of Gujarat, in north-west India), whose dress is distinguished by elaborate use of mirror work and a dense bas-relief of embroidered designs.

The Rabaris are by caste occupation camel-breeders. Some 100,000-200,000 of them now live in Kutch, the desert tract in the extreme west of Gujarat. Historically, Rabaris enjoyed relatively, high social status due to their close links with the ruling Rajputs. Now, increasingly regarded as anachronistic and backward, their status is low. Largely non-literate, their nomadic way of life has precluded them from attending school. In terms of occupation, they have been left stranded by the march of progress. As India modernizes and change unfolds in all areas of Rabari culture, this has had a noticeable impact on their dress and embroidered textiles.

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