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The Language of a Stitch

By Columbia Strawberry Cunha When Masha Archer developed her style, which we currently call FatChanceBellyDance® Stylem (FCBD®), she introduced the Indian choli to many dancers. Masha was the first dancer to adorn herself with the Lambani/Banjara and Rabari cholis that are only found in Rajasthan. Masha discovered authentic cholis on one of her travels to Rajasthan with her husband. Since the costumes at the time showed a lot of the body of the female dancer, most nightclubs were not too keen on dancers wearing any folk clothing, let alone sleeves. Masha wanted to bring folk textiles to her art and decorate herself in what she found the most beautiful. She wanted her brand to be very textile-oriented.

What of the Indian cholis worn? What is their history?

The Indian choli we see today is a 17 th Century garment that Islamic Mughal royalty made Hindus wear. In the Mauryan Period (322 BCE-185 BCE), women wore a top which was a plain blouse that didn’t have much of a shape to them. After the Mughals arrived, the blouses became more adorned and more beautifully-shaped as technology advanced. Most of these cholis were made to be laid flat due to the fact they are not made with curves like Westernized cholis you find cheaply made these days. They are made from patchwork they create, and each one is adorned with those patches. They then sew these on woven fabric or a few yards of modern fabric; this is why each blouse is unique.

The peasants of the regions decided they wanted to look like the higher class, so they developed shisha mirror embroidery work and other works to mime the high-end fashions of the times. The Mughals and upper-class wore jewels that lower-caste women could never afford to buy in their lifetimes. The Lambani/Banjara caste were servants to many royals, so they would have been exposed to the courtesans and Queens. They were most likely the first caste to adorn themselves in this way; Rabari and others followed suit.

The stitches used are ancient. They are simplistic, yet complex to duplicate. Women learn these stitches at an early age. They are also common in a lot of Western embroidery that we see today. They have their own names for them, but I will describe some for the readers, so they can be replicated if desired. Garments that are for everyday usage could be embellished as well with these stitches. YouTube is an excellent source for these techniques mentioned.

Bakhiya Phuli is a running stitch with a lazy daisy flower in-between. This is good for a floral

design. (Lambani design)

Buttonhole Stitch is a pyramid-like design. The bottom of the pyramids has one row of netted stitches. The netted stitch ends, continuing up the pyramids which create a unique texture. Each pyramid is topped with a netted star alternating with simple lazy daisies. (Lambani/Banjara design)

Chainstitch is a common stitch found on Rabari work cholis. These are done in floral patterns

around shisha mirror works. (Rabari)

Kutch is a complicated design and probably the most math you will need. Most work can be

done with a grid made with squares and lines. The squares are on their sides like a diamond.

Inside these squares, a net is formed by weaving threads back and forth. Some embroidered

cholis use a knot work in their Kutch embroidery. (Rabari)

There are so many stitches and variations that it seems it would take a whole book to explain

each one. The tribal castes all do it differently depending on their locations, of course. There even is a stunning fishbone stitch with shisha mirrors. Embroidery is the most precious thing that a Rajasthani women can make on her own. Mostly women specialize in this artform. The cotton used to create this is handspun on the charkha which is an Indian spinning wheel. They use natural or synthetic dyes for their pearl cotton they create. To mimic this, we can use a size 5 pearl cotton floss. This comes close to Lambani/Banjara threads. For other works you may want to use finer threads. Experimentation will be

the key to finding success.

Garment-making can be a hassle. Carolena Nericcio explains in her 1990’s costuming

documentary that the pieces are made to lay flat. This means that the choli has no body shape whatsoever. It is more of a bodice with sleeves attached. The choli bodice is folded in creating a gusset for the sleeves. This allows less expensive material to be sewn for the back ties. Veils or a dupatta can be worn, or the back can be exposed here in the West. It protects the exposed back and hair of the women.

As someone who is not part of the Indian culture, is it ethical to make one for myself?

As I mentioned before in my article entitled The Loss of An Era, more dancers are not wearing the artifacts anymore. This includes these cholis from India. I find no objection to the dancers making their own. Each choli from these tribes is different, so I am sure they won’t be upset if someone wants to learn these techniques. YouTube has exposed many secrets of art to a worldwide audience. Anyone can access them now to decorate their garments. The positive thing about making your own is not having to damage originals. Remember, most cholis were made to fit small-framed dancers. Larger

dancers, such as I, have issues feeling comfortable in these adaptations. If you make the garment with good intent, I feel the sky is the limit. No one can police what you want to do. After all, many dancers DIY things which inherently takes business away from others. Those who may end up causing upheaval in the dance community need to remember that embroidery is an artform. If the castes didn’t want it out there, then they would have kept it within their cultural communities.

Next time you get a choli, close your eyes, and feel the woman’s story.

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