In case you didn’t catch it, there was a lovely programme on BBC 2 on Friday about tribal embroidery in India in the ‘Hidden Treasures of’… series presented by Griff Rhys Jones. I watched it because it featured lots of the places that Mum and I went to when we went to India about 13 years ago. It showed the sort of embroidery that you can buy at textile fairs in this country (John Gillow was interviewed) in its original context, and being worn by the women who made it.
So, there was lots of wonderful work on display, beautiful colours, and plenty of sparkle. But to his credit, Rhys Jones discussed the social impact of the embroidery, particularly the way in which the time spent making it means that women have no time for anything else including education. I was also struck by his conversation with a man in a market who could identify any passerby just by their style of clothing. As Rhys Jones remarked later in the programme, if the woman’s clothes speak for her, she has no need to speak at all and can effectively be silenced.
But with regard to my current project, I was fascinated by Rhys Jones’ comment that these tribal people’s identity is captured in their clothing. So their clothes and textiles indicate their geographic home, their provenance, their tribal affiliation, and in the women’s case, their marital status, lifestage and fertility. When we were in India I bought a piece of cloth that would normally be made into a skirt which was block printed with a design that showed that I was not past the menopause and thus marriagable, or maybe it was the post-menopause pattern. The fact that I can’t remember suggests the latter, but if I were wearing it for real, it would definitely matter. I am increasingly interested in the sociology of cloth, and this is a perfect example of cloth as semiotics – a series of signs which can be read by those who understand the code – or language – but, interestingly, in this example, is incomprehensible to those outside the semiotic system.
Anyway, the show is available on BBC iPlayer. Type in Hidden Treasures and it will take you to the page.