Khneng Embroidery: Meghalaya’s weave of beauty


India is home to a vast array of uniqueties, that is an amalgamation of the diversity making up every strand of its intriguing experience. Be it the physical attributes of geography or the heritage aspects of history or the legacy of its exemplary cultural riches, the country is abounding in stories and expressions that span out a remarkable weave upon its motleyed tapestry of exquisites. One such form of the cultural beauty that shines through in all its wondrous ingenuity amassed by numerous residences within the realms of the flair afforded by the artistic happens to be the many traditional handicrafts that are as diverse and as many as the many people of India who make up her innumerable fibers of identity.

Every region of the country has an array of such locally produced hand made wonders that are each special in their own right, and the north eastern part of the country is no exception. A haven of the sublime extravagance that nature has bountifully bathed our land in is the state of Meghalaya, magical enough in its name itself that translates as the Abode of the Clouds and harbouring within its pristine expanse the calm of a beauty surreal. It is through the captivating allure of this north eastern state that flows a charm eked out deftly on a fabric that is one of the most luxurious in the world. The Eri silk, native to some parts of north east India is itself a delight to behold, whether it be in its shimmering elegance or its majestic shine, its delicate feel or its richly royal look, and this particular variety of the eri, called the Ryndia that is the organic, ‘peace silk’ of the Khasi Hills is even more special in its such attributes that makes it shine through all the more in its placid awareness.

While Ryndia silk is already a rich element in itself that marks the expanse of the immense cultural repertoire of the Khasis, the magnificence of its beauty is complemented by also another as culturally relevant form of expression that however is limited to only a specific area in Meghalaya. Unique in its thermal properties is this eri silk that is therefore woven into very fine shawls of immense warmth, an equally reinstating beauty that is also as definite a cultural phenomenon the Khasis take pride in identifying themselves with. Beautifying the luxurious spread of these excellent quality eri shawls is a certain intricate work etched upon its glorious glow in wool that makes for an equally breathtaking pursuit of the wonder that the human hands can deftly conjure up. A unique embroidery that makes its way along the borders of the eri shawl as well as other garments made from the silk variety is one of the most amazing art forms stemming from Meghalaya, or more appropriately only from the Mustoh village of the state, where the 200 years old pattern of needlework called Khneng presents itself as a spectacular work of craftsmanship. Practiced today by only a handful of weavers in Mustoh and also by some in the Shella region of Sohra, the Khneng embroidery itself has a wonderful backstory to its origins that helps embody it even more of the charm across its every stitch steeped in a profusion of beauty.

It is believed that the Kheng embroidery, the pattern of which resembles a centipede, came into being from a lady who upon visiting the woods on being enticed by the curious sound of a particular insect, was so fascinated by that little creature of nature that she set about etching its form onto her Eri silk Jaiñpïen (a wrap-around) along its border. Deriving therefore its form from the insect, locally called the Ktiar, and its name from its featuring along the border or the khneng, this particular form of embroidery have been in practice for some two centuries now and continue to command awe even when it is a dying art. Traditionally done with black wool on the handspun and handwoven checkered Eri fabric as the black helps balance the thickness of the fabric and the spaces of the checks, the borders of which it embellishes, the embroidery is also worked out differently across different garments, as has been the traditional norm. So while across the shawl two lines of the motif, one thick and the other thinner, are stitched together horizontally, it is just a singular thick line of the design that makes for its presence along the vertical edges of the jainpien.

khneng embroidery
Source: Facebook

A really prominent element of the cultural realm of the Khasis is this pattern of the Khneng embroidery that is notable in its graphic design, making it therefore all the more contemporary a play of the aesthetics even in its really far flung reaches into history. Diverging fairly from the more prevalent play of the floral and the faunal expressions as witnessed in other forms of Indian embroidery, but continuing still to dwell in the wonderful world of nature, this geometric style of the stitch has come to amass for itself its own distinctive identity while earning also a certain economic attribute that makes it even more assertive a facet of the aesthetic that the state of Meghalaya has come to be associated with.

But despite all the relevance and elegance of it, that is timeless and unique and charismatic still, the practice of the Khneng art is more than vulnerable to losing its essence to the passing strands of time. And while this indeed is a very sad state of affairs that threatens a significant component of the cultural heritage of a whole tribe of people, it also is the exerting demands of the Khneng embroidery as a really intricate take on etching remarkable beauties upon glorious silks that is partly responsible for its fading into the obscure realms of oblivion. At play behind this work of surreal beauty is the rather painstaking call of the thread count, that which ensures the even distribution of the motif along its pattern, making it emerge as the eye catching expression of beauty that it is. Counting the warp threads however is no exercise in convenience and the women who are exclusively engaged in the craft of it have to be thoroughly devoted in their pursuit of the same. Requiring immense concentration as well as perfect coordination of the mental and the visual faculties is the Khneng embroidery, that is worked out by stitching the motifs from the middle of the cloth border from where they can be spread out more evenly, but with minute attention to the count of every single strand of thread. The exertion is even more pronounced when the fabric worked upon is of a finer weave, since the count of the thread presents itself in even smoother a vision to accurately take into account, even when a fine weaved fabric might make for a more desirable finished product in the market.

Needless to say such attention to detail is a considerable exertion on the physical health of the women working out magic along the expanses of the magical fabric, making them prone very often to developing infirmities. Such exclusive call for intricacy means also that every shawl or every garment requires more than a complete day’s worth of focussed effort from the artisan, which coupled with low market demand is quite a setback for many who might be interested in pursuing this incredible form of artistic exploration as a continuation of cultural and historical heritage. Though an expression of the local cultural identity and steeped as well in the artistic ingenuity of a land thus embodying beauty in every aspect of its calling, the Khneng embroidery exclusive to Meghalaya might soon find itself limited exclusively as well in the heritage confines of history if adequate steps are not taken to revive the glory of this impeccable form of art. For a state so resplendent in the riches of nature to even etch out elements from it to feature in its everyday mode of existence and in its identity, Meghalaya’s pride billowing in the bewitching beauty of the Khneng embroidery is yet another prospect of prominence for the north east Indian identity to manifest itself as one that is every bit as dynamically incorporative and richly radiant as the rest of the country. Upholding the legacy of the really exquisite prevalence of the art of Khneng stitching upon a gorgeous wrap of luxuriant Eri shawl is what Meghalaya needs to be doing to further the expanse of its glorious diversity.