The Flower Syntax

Floral motifs in Indian design

Flowers were perhaps one of the first things in our environment that translated into motifs adorning the first rudimentary clothing and every significant culture has had some definitive floral motif adorning the special and every day use objects, textiles and buildings. Whether they were carved onto wood, sculpted in stone or metal or block printed on fabric, the human world has had an unceasing fascination with floral motifs. The Turkish tulip, the Chinese Peony, Japanese Chrysanthemums and Cherry flowers...the list is endless.

India has been well known for its rich design heritage, and floral motifs have ruled the roost for centuries. Not only that, ornate, elaborate floral designs traveled with traders, travelers and explorers and became sought after in Europe before traveling to other lands and becoming prized possessions there.

A fine example is the Sarasa which originated more than 3,000 years ago in the coastal regions of Gujrat in India. The floral motifs and techniques used for making Sarasa spread west to Europe with Portuguese traders and east to China from where they were introduced to Thailand and Indonesia. The Sarasa subsequently crossed the seas to arrive in Japan where it become one of the most prized textiles during the Edo Period.

Another highly recognized Indian floral design that is still thriving today is Chintz. Originally from Calicut, Chintz started life as glazed Calico fabric resplendent with elaborate, overemphasized floral motifs in bright colors. It was brought to Europe by Dutch and Portuguese traders where it was first used for home textiles and later for clothing.

Flowering plants and flowers have always been dominant theme in the Indian design language and reached a pinnacle during the reign of the 17th century Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan when many artisans from Persia migrated to India and brought with them not only new techniques but also floral motifs like the Paisley, the Lotus and the Peony flowers which themselves were originally imports from China having been brought to Persia by Mongol conquerors. These along with other typically Chinese floral motifs like the Chrysanthemum became central themes in Indian fabrics like the Parsi Gara.

The Mughal invasion and rule on India has had far-reaching effects on her culture and the impact of Persian aesthetics on Indian art has been deep and delightful. One look at the effervescent Sanganeri prints that developed during the 16th and 17th centuries in Sanganer, the Sanganeri hand block printed textile came to India with Mughal kings. Once used for turbans and ceremonial dupattas or drapes, the Sanganeri print uses floral motifs like Roses, Champa or Frangipani, Lotuses & Lotus buds, Canna, Gainda or Marigold and Nergis or Crocus among a host of other locally grown flowering plants like Javakusum, Kachnar and Kaner. The Sanganeri print gained massive popularity in European countries at its peak and was one of the major exports of the East India Company.

Another beautiful Indian print that uses predominantly floral motifs is Kalamkari, literally meaning Pen Craft, also came to India with the Mughals and is part of India's designscape with contemporary uses emerging along with its traditional uses for decorating apparel.

The endless opportunities for exploring the huge range of design possibilities presented by the natural variety in plant life has resulted in floral motifs being used in new and innovative ways in the contemporary design scenario. As our fascination with floral motifs continues, it would be interesting to see how else young designers chose to translate this beautiful theme.

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