Tribal embroidery in India, is mostly done in straight stitches of different lengths made in various thicknesses of yarn. The effect is achieved not by the number of stitches used but by the manipulation of a single stitch in various ways. A zig-zag pattern in which, light and dark colors and white are used in succeeding ascending and descending patterns creates an illusion of the actual rising and falling of the design. If one looks at it fixedly for a time waves seem to rise and recede in a most realistic fashion.
The thick shawls and skirts embroidered by tribal people in deep colors with a variety of designs are relatively well known. What is not so well known, however, is the fact that a great many of these articles are embellished with the needlework to give an added dimension to the woven design.
Most of the tribal embroidery designs can be traced back to old legends. The snake so commonly founded in thickly wooded areas is an object of admiration, fear and reverence. The beauty of its markings, the deadly poison it secretes and the powers it is said to be imbued with have given it a special place in human legend throughout history in most countries of the world. In Manipur, for instance, an elaborate design called `akoybi’ dates back to early tales about the legendary snake, Pakhamba who, it is said, was killed. Later, the killer tried to atone for his crime by creating a pattern to represent the scales of a snake. The design is composed of circles joining each other, each circle having its own distinctive pattern. Another design is said to have been copied from the contours of a log of wood. The running lines and circular configurations are delineated in black and white for proper emphasis. h a sarong, woven either in a solid shade or with stripes, the border is so skillfully embroidered that it seems to be a part of the weave rather than a later addition. A zig-zag pattern done with silk floss in satin stitch is said to have for inspiration a caterpillar sitting on a castor leaf and nibbling its edges.
In the Arunachal Pradesh tribe of Sherdukpen there is a legend about a girl who fell in love with a snake which, once in a while to please her took on human shape. For the rest of the time she was happy to just have him coiled on her lap. Naturally, as she wove, the material took on the appearance of the serpent’s scales. The women of the tribe embroider the cloth they wear as a knapsack around their shoulders. The swastika is a great favourite and is usually flanked by geometrical motifs. The designs come from objects of everyday life—a jug, a pair of tongs, the eyes of animals, flowers, birds and shrubs. Another tribe, the Hrussos, makes similar designs but interpret them differently. The sun surrounded by its corona made by horizontal lines from the centre of the design is a favourite subject. It is believed that bright sunshine is the result of a God making clouds, feed the sun with the corona. A zig zag pattern is said to be a flight of cranes while a triangle represents a mountain. In another place a triangle is said to represent teeth which show when a person smiles. Black and white squares are explained as fingerprints, a cluster of clouds or the markings of a snake. Since various objects have, over the centuries, been incorporated in the weaving and embroidery designs there is nothing surprising about the fact that modern technological products like the aeroplane should make an appearance there.
Cowries and beads are incorporated into embroidery for decorative effect. Various tribes use them al sashes, bags, belts, aprons and gauntlets. Still others weave them into the fabric itself. The nomadic Banjaras use a profusion of mirrors, tassels, spangles, beads etc. to give a sparkle to women’s clothes.
The shawl that was traditionally bestowed on the Angami Naga hunter for success in warfare and hunting is embroidered with various animals and geometrical designs. The sami lami phee, as it is called, is black with horizontal bands of colour within which the motifs are embroidered.
In Manipur men’s turbans have white on white applique which gives them a look of cool elegance. The rich heavy costumes of court dancers are elaborately embroidered with gold and silver and are studded with small mirrors.