While glass beads are used today in necklaces and bangles in many parts of India, glass seed beads seem to have been introduced only after, 1700, and only in one small area of this vast continent – the Kingdom of Saurashtra in what is today southern Gujarat State. (Suarashtra’s name survives in the modern city of Surat in Gujarat). In fact, the art of bead embroidery was only practiced in one small area of modern Gujarat, where it is associated with the ancient city of Kutch, and was limited to only two villages, which are said to be the only places producing this distinctly Indian style. Furthermore, this beadwork was produced only by members of the Kathi land owning caste (and presumably their servants). Sadly production apparently ceased in the 1940s.
The shapes and forms of the beadwork echoed those of the embroidery and appliqué handwork of the area such as ornamental hangings and valances for doorways (toran), embroidered decorations for bullocks, horses and carts used in wedding processions and everyday objects such as fans and pads used to support heavy water jars when carried on the women’s heads.
The beadwork itself is both distinctive and delightful, consisting of naive animals, people, gods, flowers and trees, usually scattered on a white background.
The purpose of these toran door hangings was not merely to decorate the entrance of the home on special occasions, but also to welcome the visitor, and to protect the house and the household. The peacock at the very top of the pair of hangings above is a very common design element as it is a sign of welcome to guests, while embroidered gods and goddesses would also offer their protection. Other common elements were royal lions, cows and bulls, dancing maidens and may other charming images.
An Indian wedding is a joyous affair, whether it takes place in a palace or a village compound. The bride and groom are treated like royalty for that wedding day, and the groom arrives on a splendid horse, while the bride is often transported from her home on a bullock cart covered with flowers. In the old kingdom of Shaurashtra, the groom’s horse and the bullock pulling the cart are often decorated with special beadwork coverings.
Apart form this small Shaurashtrian enclave near Kutch, I know of only once other Indian community that makes extensive use of beads – the Banjara nomads of India, who are historically related to the Romany gypsies of Europe and produce superb belts and dress ornaments, often combining beads with embroidery , mirror fragments and coins.
The wandering Banjara also call Gujarat home, and their beadwork is often described as Kutchi (anglicised to Coochie)and was surely inspired by the magnificent beadwork of the ancient kingdom of Saurashtra.
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