The embroidered sarees in India are hugely admired among the Indian women as they display the intricacy and style in their designs. Artisans are settled in different parts of India and, thus, the embroidered sarees created by them have ethnic variations.
Embroidered sarees are mainly made in the western region and display a rich embroidery (bharat) tradition. Much of these renowned embroideries are created by ethnic groups like the Rabari and Sodha Rajputs. The artisans are adept in making sarees with metallic-thread embroidery and these types of sarees are commonly found in the west. However, most of this embroidery work is created throughout northern India as well. Originally associated with wealthy (often aristocratic) Muslim communities, metallic embroidered sarees are frequently worn by Rajputs, Lohana (Sindi traders), Marwaris (Rajasthani traders) and others. Apart from them, urban women also prefer to wear embroidered sarees for weddings and special occasions. The historical evidences specify that when the Mughal court collapsed in the late eighteenth century, court embroiderers emigrated to the Rajput kingdoms. Under the patronage of the Rajputs, the artisans continued their work and their creativity flourished in the other parts of India too. The history also includes that the tradition of embroidery work was in existence prior to the Mughal Empire.
The embroidered sarees are distinguished for their designs due to the threads that are used in the embroidery work. The Indian artisans use three types of metallic-thread embroidery two of which use gold-wrapped threads called either `kalabattun` which was used by the artisans of earlier times or `zari`. One style, muka, requires thick zari to be coiled on the surface and couched with silk, and is usually worked on heavier silks and satin fabrics. Another style of embroidery work, called `kamdani` and sometimes `kalabattun,` has metallic threads embroidered directly into the fabric with both the zari and ground cloth. This embroidery work is done with finer and lighter metallic threads than in muka work. These embroidery works are created on chiffon and georgette that have gained popularity in the local as well as in the national market scenario. This type of embroidery work is called zardozi or zardoshi work. The third type of metallic embroidery is easier to distinguish because it uses flattened gold or silver wire (badla) that is pulled through the fabric. In this embroidery work small raised metallic `dots` or `knots` are distributed over the cloth to form floral and foliate patterns. Patna had a strong commercial zardozi embroidery tradition for many years, serving local aristocrats and other wealthy patrons during the nineteenth century.
Including this, Eastern India also has a strong embroidery tradition. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Portuguese imported embroidered quilts from Bengal. It has also been found in the history of the tradition of embroidered sarees that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cotton and silk appliqués were created in Bihar. Various kinds of cotton-on-muslin, silk-on-muslin and zardozi embroideries were also commercially manufactured throughout the region. Yet by the early twentieth century, many of these commercial enterprises had declined because of changes in fashion. In the present era, the most well-known embroideries come from the traditional domestic arena. The government and non-government aid organizations are also encouraging this craft as a source of income for poor rural women.
As per the history of the embroidery work, kantha embroidery had been considered to be the most famous Bengali embroidery since the second half of the twentieth century. The embroidery is the application of simple running stitch in contrasting colours on a natural-coloured ground, depicting figures, animals and foliage in lively folk-art designs. Since the late 1980s, the `kantha sarees` were embroidered by local rural women. The embroideries were often the mimic of nineteenth-century kantha designs and were created on tussar or mulberry silk sarees.
Bihar is considered to be the centre of embroidery work that is also known to have been created since at least the seventeenth century. The artisans of this region create embroidered wedding sarees that are traditionally worn by high-caste brides. The embroideries and appliqués emphasize form and texture rather than colour, and although colours often found in exclusive contrasting shades. Sometimes, traditional Bihari appliqués have finely detailed white embroidery or appliqué placed against a dark blue or bright red background with meandering designs. This designed sarees are given extra texture through the addition of raised embroidery stitches, tapes and buttons. Although local cottage industries have developed to create these appliqués for the commercial market, most are still being sewn by high-caste Bihari women in the northern and north-western parts of the state.
The only other commercial embroidery still being created in India with an aristocratic history is the chikankari embroidery of Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh). Chikankari is believed to have developed in the seventeenth century as a way of mimicking the expensive jamdani muslins. The embroidery involves about forty different stitches, with six basic ones on which the others are built. Each stitch has an individual name, involves a specific number of threads and has a specific use; it is never used in another part of the design. Each stitch is the representation of a particular purpose. Rahet, for instance, is a stem stitch worked with six threads producing a solid line of backstitch on the front of the fabric, and is used only as an outlining stitch. Finely detailed, dense floral patterns with knots, pulled network and other textural elements are characteristic of this work. In the nineteenth century, muga silk sarees was also used as filler.
The embroidered sarees have a profitable market. As the artisans have started creating embroidery work on very contemporary dress materials, the market demand of these sarees have increased to a great height. The traditional touch amalgamated with modernity creates a fusion in the Indian saree tradition. In recent times, the predominant local commercial embroidery offered in most towns and markets is machine embroidery. Although it is regarded by purists as of a lower order to handwork, much of it is finely made, in a variety of small detailed patterns.