EMBROIDERED SILK ODHNI
Indian (Banni, Kutch region, Gujarat), ca. 1900
This striking odhni, a woman's veil-cloth or head covering, illustrates the high level of design and craftsmanship that is frequently found in the needlework of rural communities in India. Embroidery is a decorative, nonessential part of garment construction, and thus its significance is more acutely related to personal or communal expression. In the Indian tradition, religious significance and tribal identity might be commemorated through embroidered textiles. However, beautifully embellished fabrics without particular coded meanings were also made for everyday use. Worn tucked into the front of the waist, draped over the skirt towards the back and pulled over the head to fall in soft folds around the face and shoulders, the odhni was a regular component of feminine Indian dress and could range from humble and plain to intricately ornamented.
A splendid example of the latter type of odhni, this piece was made—perhaps as part of a dowry—in the Kutch region of Gujarat, and more specifically in Banni, its remote, northernmost part. This area, which now straddles the borders between India and Pakistan, is famed for its rich and varied embroidery traditions. Much of it is done by women from farming and herding communities for their personal use. Banni embroidery tends to be very finely worked, with tiny stitches on silk or satin, and often incorporates small bits of mirrored glass called shisha. These glimmering discs are thought to have their origins in the use of naturally occurring mica found in the deserts of western India. Radiant patterns are created with the abhala technique which relies on buttonhole stitching to affix the mirror appliqués in place. Though delicate in its execution there is a particular boldness to this odhni; the carefully orchestrated combinations of motifs and the restricted color palette reinforce the graphic strength of the design. At center is a large diamond-shaped medallion of mitered stripes of branching triangles, worked in running stitch; the diamond is broken into four quarters by intersecting rows of shisha. Each corner of the medallion is finished with a lobe of geometric embroidery, studded with shimmering mirrors and encircled with a halo of larger mirror appliqués. Additionally, the entire field of deep rust-colored silk twill, which has a burnished patina, is sprinkled with minute eyelet perforations, clustered in groupings of twelve and five holes in checkerboard formations, all bound with buttonhole stitch and arranged in regularly spaced repeating rows. The embroiderer limited her scheme to four colors of silk thread: garnet red, dull gold, cream, and black. Borders of crimson satin complete this remarkable odhni.