MOTIFS SPEAK: A VOCABULARY OF INDIAN TEXTILE MOTIFS
Image: a variety of floral motifs embroidered with miniature chain stitch. Image Courtesy Asif Shaikh.
Allow an artisan in India to open a folded textile he or she has created and you just may see an exquisite sacred composition, a sweep of waves, a galaxy of stars, a lattice-like network, a garden of flowers, an exotic tropical forest, a stretch of flowering plants or a medley of motifs.
For centuries, textile artisans in India have created a spectrum of beautiful textiles graced with motifs rendered using different textile techniques and on different fabrics. Inspired by legends, beliefs, nature, life around them and their own creativity, these motifs span a spectrum of expression from religious to auspicious, decorative and creative.
Many motifs have a pan-Indian presence, while being expressed in different forms or details, and some are specific to region or place, community, textile or even the wearer. And into the twenty-first century, artisans and designers, inspired by the rich palette of traditional Indian textile motifs, create beautiful textiles and thus keep the treasured vocabulary of motifs alive and evolving.
Image: hand block printed design of a field of small flowering plants called buti with a border of a creeper called bel below. Textile by Farida Gupta.
Celestial Bodies: The sun, moon and stars are revered as celestial bodies. Surya, the Sun God, is worshipped for his life-giving rays, as a source of life, light, energy and warmth.
Chariot: The temple chariot or rath alludes to the large wooden chariot, pulled by devotees, in which the idol of a temple deity is taken out in a procession during festivals.
Conch: The conch shell that emerged from the waters of creation is an auspicious symbol. It is blown during rituals and ceremonies.
Cow: The cow is revered as a sacred animal, a giver of milk, a nurturer of life, a source of wealth, and a symbol of prosperity.
Deer: A symbol of gentleness, innocence and grace. In art, its presence at a place indicates it is a safe and/or sacred spot.
Elephant: A symbol of strength with gentleness, might, majesty, great memory, intelligence and royalty. In centuries past, a tamed elephant was the pride of the royal stables and armies; the best pachyderms, elaborately decorated, carried temple idols during festivals (the practise is still prevalent in the state of Kerala), as well as rulers during festivities, hunts and war.
Ficus Leaf: The Ficus religiosa (pipal) is a sacred tree and the Buddha attained enlightenment when seated under the pipal tree. Its heart-shaped leaves are representative of the presence of the tree.
Fish: The fish is revered as it is linked to Matsya, the fish-avatar of Vishnu the Hindu deity, as well as for its prolific procreativity.
Flower, Flowering Plant: Flowers of different species are featured for their beauty. The single flowering plant called buti (small in size) typically features in the field of garments covering the expanse like a meadow of flowering plants. A larger plant called buta features on end panels, and a flowering vine, representative of the interconnectedness of life forms, in the field of textiles.
Image: Floral motifs set within a lattice with words of blessing for a bride. Woven sari. Image courtesy of Vinay Narkar.
Ganesh: The elephant-headed deity has several names, each one descriptive of his divine attributes. He is primarily worshipped as the Lord of Obstacles. He can place or remove obstacles, both physical barriers and human weaknesses, from one’s path. He is depicted with an elephant head, human body, and four arms to distinguish the superhuman divine form from the human form and thus convey his divinity.
Hamsa: Hamsa, a sacred goose, is a symbol of purity and spiritual attainment. The bird is said to have the ability to separate milk from water, to drink only the milk, an ability that is taken to mean that it can discern the virtuous from the bad.
Horse: The horse is a symbol of strength, speed, and intelligence as it understands its master. It is often depicted with a rider, alluding to the martial warrior-kings and warriors of yore.
Hunting Scene: One of the most celebrated of animal compositions is the shikargarh or hunting scene that depicts the majestic elephant, the doe-eyed deer, the beautiful peacock, stately lion and a hunter amidst foliage. Interestingly, the composition is invariably devoid of any actual attack, and the animals often appear relaxed in their habitat.
Jali: Jali or net alludes to patterned fretted screens seen in Indian architecture that allows breeze and light into the interiors, whilst cutting out the glare and heat of the Indian sun. The jali is typically seen on the field of textiles, and sometimes a round motif, called coin motif, is placed within the squares/forms created by the jali.
Lion: A motif of strength, majesty and royalty.
Lotus: The lotus is a symbol of beauty as well as purity as the flower remains pure even when it grows in muddy waters. Deities are often depicted seated on a lotus bloom or holding a lotus. Often rendered as a circle (akin an aerial view) as well as in profile.
Mango: Evergreen, shade-giving, bearer of a much loved fruit-relished as a sour raw fruit and savoured as a sweet, juicy indulgent treat when it ripens, the mango tree is regarded as a sacred tree and symbol of fertility. The mango fruit, representative of the fruit of the tree, is seen on textiles across the country. Its form is similar to the paisley motif described next.
Paisley: The flowering plant motif also evolved to a larger, increasingly elaborate plant; a plant in a teardrop shape with a slightly drooping tip; a bouquet of stylised flowers often emerging from a vase; a cone-shaped plant. The elaborate flowering plant teardrop-shaped motif features on pashmina shawls, hand-woven and hand-embroidered in Kashmir. With the production of inexpensive replicas of the beautiful handcrafted Kashmir shawls on the newly invented jacquard looms at Paisley, Scotland, in the nineteenth century, the motif took on the name of the town and came to be known in the West by this name. The mango motif - being of similar shape, though different antecedents, is often also called a paisley motif.
Palanquin: A palanquin is symbolic of a bride going to the groom’s home after the wedding.
Image: a parrot motif in chain stitch. Image courtesy of Brinda Gill.
Parrot: the parrot associated with courtship and love, and is a messenger for lovers, a companion in the absence of a lover.
Peacock: A joy to behold, the peacock is a symbol of beauty, love, and courtship. Artisans render the bird in an array of expressions such as two peacocks facing each other; two peacocks with their backs to each other and sharing a train; peacocks with their trains folded and trailing behind; peacocks with their trains spectacularly fanned out.
Image: Small woven peacocks. Image Courtesy Vinay Narkar.
Pomegranate: Bursting with scores of seeds, wrapped in fleshy deep pink casings, the pomegranate is regarded as a symbol of fertility.
Ras Leela: Ras leela or a dance of divine love is a dance in a circular formation featuring Lord Krishna dancing with the gopis (milkmaids/cow herding girls). As each gopi wished to dance with him he multiplies himself and is thus seen multiple times dancing with different gopis in a circle. The dance represents the eternal love of a devotee to God and not romantic love between man and woman.
Rudraksha: The dried fruits of the Rudraksha tree, which are pierced and worn as beads as they are believed to be beneficial for the wearer. Rudraksha literally means 'the tears of God Rudra’ (the Hindu deity Shiva) and alludes to the tears of compassion of the deity for his devotees.
Temple: Motifs such as rows of triangles with serrated sides on South Indian silks referred to as 'temple borders’ that echo the lines of the superstructure of temples have been inspired by temple architecture.
Tiger: The king of the Indian jungle, associated with majesty, stealth and strength.
Tree of Life: The tree is a symbol of life, fertility and protection, and thus is often depicted with branches full of flowers and fruits, and harbouring insect, bird and animal life in its branches and shade. The tree of life motif may not be bound by a botanical species but be a composite motif drawn from different plant species.
Image: Tree of Life. Hand-block printed by Pitchuka Srinivas using 223 wooden blocks. Image courtesy of Vipindas.
Yali: The yali is a mythical feline creature. It is mostly seen - represented with the body of a lion and the trunk of an elephant - as a guardian sculpture in temples. A similar motif appears on textiles. It is representative of power and protection.
Blog courtesy of Brinda Gill