Be it the stars that adorn the skies, the leaves that deck up the trees, or the swirls of the waves that lash the shore, there is a pattern in everything that surrounds us. This is not limited to nature, as several man-made creations of art and architecture are adorned with intricate motifs, patterns and designs, generously drawing inspiration from nature.
In India, the motifs are seen on old paintings, textiles and architecture give a peek into the lives and times of the ancient era and the socio-cultural influences the country was exposed to. They reflect the traditions and customs of people and their reverence for nature (as seen in the wide use of birds, animals, fruits and flowers). Many of the ancient motifs survived the vagaries of time and became a prominent part of Indian art and textiles in the post-colonial period.
Let’s look at some of the prevalent motifs in our country, between 1950 and 1990, employed across various media. While some of the motifs (like mango, peacock and elephant) have not lost favour till date, some of them are making a strong comeback today, after a small hiatus.
Peacock pride: The peacock is a symbol of wealth, beauty and royalty. In India, the national bird has always found a place of prestige and pride. The peacock motif adorned the garments of kings and queen and the jewellery and paintings of the 15th century. Later, the decorative peacock motif began to be used widely in Kanjivaram and Banarasi sarees-on zari and brocade borders, embroidered pallus, and on the body too. The motif continues to win the hearts of Kanjivaram lovers even today.
Mango muse: The mango is one of the most common motifs in jewellery and fabrics, including the Kanjivaram sarees, Lucknowi chikankari and Kashmiri shawls. This droplet-shaped paisley pattern of Persian and Indian origin is considered a symbol of good fortune and prosperity. The charming maankai motif is used in many ways on the Kanjivaram silk sarees-as a series of tiny mangoes along the border or bold mango prints/embroidery on the body or the pallu.
Kanjivaram sarees with rising temple border were hugely popular in the seventies and eighties, lending a touch of grace, tradition and divinity to the wearer. Tall temple borders are witnessing a revival today (on both silk and cotton sarees
), thanks to their geometric beauty and aesthetic appeal.
Yali is a fierce-looking mythical creature found on many ancient south Indian sculptures and temple entrances and pillars. The legendary creature is usually portrayed with a lion’s body and head, an elephant’s trunk and tusks, and the tail of a serpent. The yali motif was used widely in Indian art and textiles, especially the Kanjivaram silk sarees.
The sacred cow represents abundance, selfless giving and prosperity. In Indian mythology, Kamadhenu is considered the mother of all cows and the bovine goddess of plenty. Nandi, the male species, served as the mount and gana of Lord Shiva. Large monolithic statues of Nandi are found in many Shiva temples across the country. Though not as popular as the peacock or elephant, motifs of the cow and bull are used in Chanderi silk, Banarasi silk
, and Kanjivaram.
The major depictions include the horse motif on the Sarnath Lion Capital of Ashoka, the equestrian portraits of Mughal emperors, and the sculptures of the steed at the Horse Court in the Srirangam temple. During the Mughal and British period, the Baluchari sarees of Bengal carried patterns of nawabs driving horse carriages. In contemporary
times, royal horse motifs are found in Kanjivaram silk sarees, Kalamkari fabrics and block-printed textiles from Rajasthan (Sanganeri and Barmer).
The elephant is revered as a symbol of power and intelligence and worshipped in the form of Lord Ganesha. The animal with a congenial face is a prominent feature of temple pillars and sculptures. The Yaanai Yaali and Vanasinghram motifs have been used often in Kanjivarams for several decades, especially on sarees worn for wedding
Serene swan: The hamsa is yet another iconic motif from ancient times. It has occurred in sculptural reliefs and mural paintings of the Gupta period (seen in the Ajanta caves). The vahana (vehicle) of Goddess Saraswati, the hamsa is a symbol of spirituality and peace the motif was commonly used in textiles and sarees.