Exploring the Intricate Embroidery of Gujarat's Historic Mochi Community

Mochi embroideries, which have found their way into museums the world over, are the topic of 'The Shoemaker's Stitch' by Shilpa Shah and Rosemary Crill.

Listen to this article:

In the early 1990s, I began travelling regularly to Banaskantha in Gujarat, developing garments and soft furnishings for the Self-Employed Women’s Organisation (SEWA) with the women artisans in the region. Most were pastoral people, living in villages within a 100 kilometre circumference, their husbands mainly agrarian labour or cattle herders.

The area was a desolate, salty waste, prone to periodic droughts, extremely poor. Radhanpur was the nearest town. In one section, linked by winding lanes, were the small dark homes of the Mochi community. Traditional shoemakers once employed by royalty, they were now perilously poor, as fewer and fewer people ordered their beautifully embroidered leather juthis, preferring branded, industrially-manufactured shoes, or even plastic sandals.

The advent of the motor car also marked the demise of their elaborately embroidered leather trappings for elephants, horses and camels.

In order to eke out a living, the Mochis turned their hands to making generic embroidered ornamental wall hangings and cushions – in fabric rather than leather – for local traders and GURJARI, the Gujarat State Handicrafts Corporation. Few other employment opportunities existed. 

Also read: The Invisible Women of Colonial India’s Textile Industry

As is customary, the men cut and stitched the items and the women filled in the embroidery, using the traditional aari –like a crochet hook or a cobblers awl, mounted on a wooden handle, unlike the chainstitch embroidery done in Northern India using a straight needle and working on a large, floor-mounted frame.

‘The Shoemaker’s Stitch’, Shilpa Shah and Rosemary Crill, Niyogi Books, 2022.

Similar Mochi communities existed in Bhuj and Mandvi in Kutch, as well as Saurashtra and Sind. In fact, many Mochi families traced their pedigree and craft from ancestors in Sindh who were brought to the Kutch court by Kutchi rulers in the 14th century and encouraged to teach their craft locally. Bhuj, as the seat of the Kutchi royal family, was the largest centre of Mochi embroiderers, now sadly diminished to a handful of families. A few beautiful old carved wooden houses, relics of better days, and some fine tombs, temples and mosques relieved the dusty poverty and small town clutter.

Working on fabric was nothing new to the Mochi community. In the past too, the most skilled craftspeople custom made beautiful garments, accessories, canopies, and wall panels in silk, satin and mashru for the local nobility, and even for more far-flung royal patrons.

The workmanship was extraordinary, the aari used like a miniaturist’s paint brush; the embroidery, delicate configurations of foliage, flora and fauna – peacocks and parrots for fertility; elephants, lions and horses for power and wealth; decorative borders overflowing with the roses and lilies and flowering trees seldom seen in those dry climes.

Verdant Trees of Life were a popular theme, as were Sri Nathji pichwais to hang behind the deity in the temples. Extraordinarily fine work was being done both on leather and fabric well into the 20th century, declining post-Independence, coinciding with the decline of the Nawabs and Maharajas who were their patrons. 

It is these Mochi embroideries, mainly of the early 19th century, that are the subject of The Shoemaker’s Stitch, the latest documentation of TAPI’s wonderful textile collection.

Shilpa Shah, co-founder of the TAPI Collection of Indian Textiles and Art, is also co-author of this book. Her inspirational work, collecting and documenting Indian textiles, follows on from Gira Sarabhai and the Calico Museum in the 1950s and 60s. Her travels all over India and Master’s degree from Berkeley University endow her with both academic and personal insights, as well as passion and love.

Her co-author is Rosemary Crill, former Senior Curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, who has studied and written on Indian embroideries and textiles over the years. Their combined expertise and scholarship make this book an intensely pleasurable read – both visually and in its content. On its part, Niyogi Books has done a wonderful job of photography, printing and design. The Shoemaker’s Stitch is a a joy in everything except its considerable weight!

The book documents items from the Kutch, Dhangadhra and Jaipur royal family collections, the V&A and other Western museums as well as pieces from the TAPI Collection itself. It is superbly illustrated: the rich, vivid reds, greens and yellows and ornate, heavily-worked motifs of the Mochi embroideries, often boldly outlined in black, highlighting their difference from the more subtle, delicate Persian and Mughal influenced chainstitch of Northern India and Bengal. 

Even pieces commissioned for the European Market have a distinctive difference from the crewel work of Kashmir or the painted chintzes of the Coromandel coast. As Shah points out, Mochi embroideries travelled to courts and temples all over India, and therefore, have often been mistakenly identified as local work. To the trained eye, they are very different, both in imagery and execution.

An image from the book showing a woman wearing an outfit made of Mochi-embroidered fabric.

Looking at earlier craft and textile traditions, it is easy to fall into despair about their present status. However, all is not gloom, as the concluding chapter of The Shoemaker’s Stitch tells us. 

There has been a revival of aari bharat, and many designers and practitioners are making wonderful contemporary pieces, though not always crafted by traditional Mochi embroiderers. Asif Shaikh, Arun Virgamya, Adam Sangar and their extended families, the Shrujjan Museum and Shobhit Mody are some that come to mind. 

Also read: Book Review: ‘Phulkari From Punjab’ Traces Every Thread of Punjab’s Embroidery

Working with the Mochi, Ahir and Meghwal embroiderers in Radhanpur, SEWA and Dastkar have produced beautiful wall hangings that have found a home in many national and international museums and venues, often combining the three local textile skills of patchwork, mirrorwork and aari bharat.

Mochi Bharat is no longer the preserve of male craftspeople but has given hundreds of women independence and earning, adding yet another important dimension to the practice.

Laila Tyabji is a craft activist and Founder Member, DASTKAR Society for Crafts & Craftspeople.