prov-e-nance \ˈpräv-nən(t)s, ˈprä-və-ˌnän(t)s\noun. the place of origin or earliest known history of something.
Guest edited by Jacqueline Wein, Tokyo Jinja IMAGE | Antique Toran via The Textile Museum of Canada
A number of years ago I spied a charming doorway textile at the home of a dear friend. Clearly Indian in origin, it was a rectangular banner with small fabric flaps hanging down and tiny mirrors embedded in the pattern. She told me it was a toran, a hand embroidered and embellished door hanging, traditionally made in Gujarat, on the coast of Northwestern India. My fascination with them grew and over the years I have continued to keep an eye out for them.
The word toran (or torana) itself originally referred to sacred gateways in Indian architecture, with roots in Buddhism and Hinduism, like this pair of 12th century sandstone ones in Vadnagar, Gujarat. It is easy to see the connection between the embroidery of the fabric hangings and the detailed stone carvings, as well as in their function to welcome both the gods and people. Decorative toran also play a role in holidays like Diwali and Holi or at weddings and celebrations as they are believed to be auspicious and lucky. The doorway blesses every person that walks under it, showering them with an abundance of love, prosperity, health and happiness. While the heavily embroidered ones tend to be regional to Gujarat, toran in other forms are popular throughout India. In the south, green mango tree leaves are threaded together and hung across the door. In Northern India, marigold flowers are strung together and used the same way. The small flaps that hang from the fabric versions are meant to represent dangling leaves and flowers.
The Kutch region of Gujarat is particularly well known for its embroidery techniques, with specific tribes and communities having their own particular style. Shisha, which is the Indian word for little glass or mirror, is the most distinctive technique in which small mirrors decorate the textile, being held in place by a framework of overlaid embroidery stitches. No glue is used and the mirror is not threaded through or attached in any other way. It was believed that the mirrors had the power to ward off evil spirits by trapping or confusing the evil eye. While many of the other decorative stitches, such as the chain stitch, are universal, shisha work is unique to the Indian subcontinent. It comes as no surprise to me that women are solely responsible for these creations and that motif and patterns are not copied or written down, but instead passed along orally.
Base fabrics and threadwork include cotton and silk and pieces over 50 years old may also have beadwork in addition to shisha work. Motifs are varied, from very naturalistic animals to very stylized patterns and geometrics. Mismatched patchwork is also part of their charm. Museum collections have toran from the late 19th century, but most of the older pieces available on today's market are mid-20th century. Invariably, the vintage pieces have some damage - in my mind, patina - and there are also many newly made toran available as well, although the details and quality of the silks doesn't match that of the older pieces. The decorative possibilities, in particular for children's rooms, are obvious. They make charming valances or would be perfect fronting a bed canopy. Some toran are as long as 30 feet and I have seen them draping the edges of party tents as festive adornment.
But they are also incredibly sweet when taken completely out of context and used in ways you might not expect like here, hanging over a kitchen nook in floral designer Nicolette Camille's Brooklyn apartment. This toran also defines and elevates what would normally be a rather simple kitchen.
Perhaps best of all is when toran are part of a truly global design aesthetic. In Maryam Montague's Marrakech master bedroom, featured in Elle Decor, this toran-like textile used as a window valence mixes happily with decorative items from many nations, including France, Mali, and Morocco.
Have you used a festive toran as decoration in your home, or do you have something else to share with us on this topic? If so, we'd love to hear all about it. Please leave a comment below or email us at info(at)clothandkind(dot)com.
ABOUT PROVENANCE | Provenance offers a scholarly nod to the history of iconic styles in textile & design and is guest edited by Jacqueline Wein of the blog Tokyo Jinja. Previous Provenance topics include: Kasuri & Kuba Cloth.