The chronicle of Kashidakari and its distinctive motifs find their mythic origins in the enchanting valley of Kashmir. The narrative, which slips through the stitches of historical time and escapes into the realm of fictionalised legend, begins with Sultan Zain-Ul-Abidin of Persia, who ruled over Kashmir from 1420 A.D.
The Sultan introduced handicraft industries to the valley, patronising craftsmen and artisans who worked with silk, wood, paper, leather, and textile embroidery. During his rule, the arts flourished under the influence of Islam. Fine weaving began to gain popularity in Kashmir, and this is where our story undergoes mythification. According to a local legend, a few centuries after Ul-Abidin, a man named Ali-Baba worked as a darner during the tyrannical reign of Afghan governor Azad Khan. The raffoogar happened to notice the imprint of a fowl’s feet on a plain white sheet and was inspired by the beautiful pattern. He is said to have embroidered the outline with coloured thread, thereby making it the very first motif to be used in Kashidakari.
Regardless of the accuracy, it is true that the tale of Ali-Baba captures the quintessence of inspiration behind Kashidakari. Even today, the motifs reflect things of natural beauty that exist in the artist’s surroundings. Most commonly, the embroidery depicts birds and flowers in subtle colours of the Kashmiri aesthetic, although the palette has since expanded due to customer demand and migration of the style to other states. The chinar leaf is a common motif, as are floral designs such as the lotus, the iris, the narcissus and hyacinth. Among fruits, pomegranates are usually favoured by embroiderers.
Coupled with Persian influence that led to motif-work of geometric patterns, the Mughal and Afghan rulers also brought with them variegated flavours of the Islamic arts. The Mughals developed shawls such as the Amli shawl into luxury products, whereas the Afghans introduced fresh designs like Chandar or the moon shawl. Predictably, patterns, as well as edicts from the Islamic world, entered into embroidered products. As a result, Kashidakari did not indulge in figurative decorations, restricting itself mainly to the depiction of flora. It wasn’t until the Sikh expedition into Kashmir that this tradition underwent a change. Along with brighter colours, the Sikhs also introduced human figures as an embroidered motif. Even today, this is less commonly found in Kashidakari, but is nevertheless remembered as an important stage in the development of the art style. The initiation of figurative designs brought about the invention of Shikargarh - shawls representing hunting scenes.
The diverse motifs of Kashida are achieved by making use of the repertoire of stitches that Samjhu Devi teaches in her Masterclass. Having migrated from Pakistan to Rajasthan in India, the artist is living proof of the journey of Kashidakari. The Masterclass, therefore, is an exercise in the Rajasthani tradition of the art, which borrows the landscape of motifs from its Kashmiri parent and branches out into the decorative sphere of mirror-work and sequins. Samjhu Devi’s work, too, is an echo of Ali-Baba’s story - peacocks roam free in the winding streets of her village, and find a home in the Soof Ka Mor motif embroidered by her expert hand.