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Motif & Meaning in Textiles – 1 Preface

September 08, 2014 2 min read

A part of my fascination with traditional textiles emanates from the stories hidden within them.

The cultural aspects – who wore them, for what occasion, who made them and how etc. The tales of creation and usage for any given category of textile can be the subject of a dedicated documentary that could entertain the soul for hours.

Then there are the technical aspects of the textile – the weave, the stitch, the loom that was used, the fabric, the dyes etc. These, while not interesting on their own, are useful in understanding the paradigm within which the textile was made. A technique that is unusual for that region might suggest a migration of an ethnic group or at least raise important ethnographic questions.

And finally there is the iconography embedded within the textile that I find as interesting as the cultural aspect. The icons and motifs of traditional textiles made for personal use almost always reflect the beliefs of the people who made it. There is a message embedded that the individuals within the group are familiar with even though we as outsiders may be able to see the common motif all over, but do not understand what it is or why it is there.

The message or meaning does not have to be deep or complex. It could just be the depiction of an animal from their daily lives – a camel as one sees in Rajasthan textiles or a Scarab as one sees in Caucasian rugs. Or, as in the case of Tampans of Sumatra, the message could be complex requiring a multi-layered cipher!

In this series of articles, I present the motifs that I have been intrigued by. I only have conjectures about …. but some I have firm cultural theories about. I could be wrong, I could be right. Scholars and researchers have offered explanations. But the whole truth lies buried with the people who created these works of art.

The purpose is to be captivated by their mystery and their magic!

Richard Dawkins, a remarkable philosopher-scientist says in ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry [*] can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living ….”

[*] He might have easily added ‘art’. 

The awed-wonder  – the highest experience of which the human psyche is capable – delivered not only through reveling in the magic & beauty of the textile arts but also through unraveling their mysteries and understanding them!



Aug 2014




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