Book Review | The cobbler’s contribution

Review of The Shoemaker’s Stitch: Mochi Embroideries of Gujarat in the TAPI Collection by Shilpa Shah and Rosemary Crill

Despite an abundance of excellent photographs of embroidery, The shoemaker’s stitch is not just an illustrated book on Gujarat chain stitch embroidery, known as “mochi bharat”. It contains excellently researched, invaluable knowledge about the craft, its origin and its current status.

Rosemary Crill, Indian textiles expert and author of four books on Indian embroidery, traces the origins of the craft. In the opening chapter of the book, she reveals that the originators of this type of fine chain stitch embroidery were “Mochis” or cobblers from Kutch. Speculating, Crill writes, the art may have been learned from China, since earliest examples are Chinese, from the Warring States period (475-221 BC), but the art may also have developed “as an independent development” since the stitch used is Bengal as well.

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Using a wooden-handled tool ‘Aari’, leatherworkers eventually began to embroider on textiles as well, leading to the spellbinding examples reproduced in the book from the V and A Collection UK, but even more extensively from the TAPI Collection. (The Textiles and Art of the People of India was founded by Praful Shah and his wife Shilpa in the 1980s). These include textile panels on the palace walls at Bhuj, a superb tent from the Dhrangdhra collection, garments, pillowcases and more. The embroidery was not only popular in other parts of India but was also exported in large numbers.

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Shilpa Shah informs in her chapter that the “Mochis” of Kutch lived in their own street called “Mochi Sheri” in Bhuj from about the 18th century. Patronized by the Bhuj rulers, the craftsmen lived in close proximity with other wood, metal and ivory craftsmen, leading to ‘a rich exchange and transmission of motifs’. Unfortunately, today the community is no longer associated with the craft that bears its name – after the 2001 earthquake there are only four families left, none of whom practice the craft. Karsandas Gopalji Jhansari, who died in 1937 or 1938, was the last “mochi” embroiderer in the service of the Bhuj ruler. The techniques continue to be used, women are now being trained in the craft and a shop founded in 1866 survives on the same site, although now somewhat incongruously renamed Priya Sarees.

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The book was published by Niyogi Books and has 216 pages. There are three extremely informative chapters and several really captivating photographs showing products with some really refined, intricate embellishment now only seen in museum collections. As Shah writes, “The term ‘mochi’ embroidery undeniably retains its cachet as a paradigm for the finest chain-stitch embroidery to emerge from India…its baton has now been passed to ‘aari’ artisans from communities outside of Kutch.”

The Shoemaker’s Stitch: Mochi Embroideries of Gujarat at TAPI Collection
By Shilpa Shah and Rosemary Crill
Niyogi books
p. 216, Rs. 4,500

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