First Published: Ars Textrina, Vol 33, 2000
The Rabari are pastoral nomads who inhabit the desert tract of Kachchh district in the extreme west of Gujarat, where India borders Pakistan. They are renowned throughout northwest India for their textiles and dress, which are distinguished by elaborate bas-reliefs of dense hand embroidery.
Since Independence in 1947, there has been widespread socio-economic change in India, the impact of which has resulted in dramatic alterations to the rural way of life and, among Rabaris, to an emerging pattern of sedentarisation. These changes have generated ongoing discourse in the Rabari community about the nature of individual and group identity, and the continuing negotiations, in this respect, have been expressed most notably through the medium of textiles and dress.
For the most part, Rabaris are not what might be termed ‘primary’ producers of textiles. They neither spin nor weave nor make felt but Rabari women are recognised for their consummate skill as embroiderers, and embroidery as a particular expression of the material culture of the Rabari of Kachchh is highly regarded. Largely produced for a woman’s trousseau, it has been transformed from an item of dowry and a ‘labour of love’, to a saleable product and a form of labour-work, mostly through the agency of outsiders. Rabaris have radically reappraised its function, previously an integral part of caste dress, in the last five years, and strategies to rationalise the financial burden of dowry and to realise the commercial potential of embroidery are being implemented. These measures have evolved for a number of reasons: changing perceptions of embroidery within and outside the community; the need to find alternatives to pastoralism as a way of making a living; and the desire to retain the management of their own material culture. As the community re-defines itself, evidence of the ongoing discourse is embodied in the sartorial identity of its members.
The Rabari are one of the largest pastoral castes in north-west India (Anthropological Survey of India: in press). Their geographical range is primarily the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, although scattered groups have settled in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. A few dhangs (migratory groups) are also to be found as far a field as Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in south India (Choksi and Dyer 1996: 12). All caste members are governed by a rigorous sartorial code but within that the dress of each regional subgroup is distinct. That of the Rabari of Kachchh is distinguished by the all-black clothing of the women and the white clothing of the men. But perhaps its most distinctive feature is the use of embroidery. The textiles and dress of the Rabari of Kachchh are embellished with elaborate bas-reliefs of dense hand embroidery which is customarily produced for dowry and marriage. For them, embroidered textiles have played an essential role in the configuration of caste identity. In the course of this article, I will examine briefly how this works. Analysis will also be made of the ways in which Rabari textiles and dress reflect social change and how this impacts upon their identity in the post-colonial era.
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