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Indus Arts: Ralli Work

Indus Arts: Ralli Work

I am always on the hunt for what is new and happening in the fashion world. During my quest to find the next biggest thing, I stumbled upon a Pakistani talk show highlighting the then latest collection of a Pakistani designer, Wardha Saleem. As excited as I was to find the beautiful Sindhi (a Pakistan’s province) influences in her designs, color combinations, and embroidery, the outfits that caught my eye were her ralli outfits. She used them in two places-her pret line and her formal line. They were so exquisite that I decided to investigate this art form and found myself drooling over a ralli kurta in Ensemble Karachi on a trip earlier this year to Pakistan. I didn’t purchase it because of the designer price tag, but let me tell you, the work was absolutely stunning and worth every dollar/rupee it asked for-no haggling required (Just kidding!). So today, I have decided to shed some light on this Pakistani art form-ralli.

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Originally ralli was found on quilts. Ralli quilts are traditional quilts made by women and just now gaining international recognition, even though Sindhi women have been making these quilts for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Rallis (also known as rillis, rellis, rehlis, and other names) are a cultural symbol of the regions where they are made. The most common uses are for a single person sized bedcover or as small bag or placemat. Traditionally rallis were made at home from recycled and hand dyed cotton cloth for use by the family. Now there is some commercial production of rallis as colorful quilts, table runners, cushions, pillows, and even women clothing. This production can be found in Sindh in Umerkot and Tharparkat. However, you may be able to hunt for a hand-worked ralli in an obscure shop or market.

Embroidery quilts are the specialty of a few nomadic groups especially the Saami. These quilts generally use a large piece of whole or patched cloth and using colored thread, have stitching in embroidery designs go through all the layers of the cloth. Many regions and communities have their own special colors and patterns in their rallis. The traditional colors of rallis are called "satrangi" or seven colors (white, black, red, yellow orange, dark green, blue and purple).

History of Ralli

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The variety of ralli patterns is intriguing. The motifs appear to have originated far back in the history of the Indus Region. The carvings of the desert tombs of Sindh and Baluchistan (covering about 400 years starting in the middle of the fifteenth century AD) have many similar motifs. The geometric designs in the blocks of carved stone are very similar to quilt blocks.  Some of the lines in the stone look like lines of stitching.  However, going back farther than this are clear similarities between ralli designs and ancient painted pottery of the region (most from about 2000-800 BC).  The majority of the patterns are based on a geometric grid, but there are also patterns based on circles, stars or flowers. Some of the designs that are shared by the rallis and pottery are simple including checkerboards, lines and triangles, yet others are complicated patterns using many shapes and design elements together. 
 
Another interesting aspect of the ancient pottery is that archaeologists think that the pots may have been painted by women and the old designs resemble those in ralli and embroidery designs today.  Even though ancient records are scarce we know that quilting, especially ralli quilting is an old tradition in the region.

The rallis come in three categories of design: patchwork, appliqué, and embroidery.

Patchwork Patterns
Patchwork rallis are the most common ones found on the village beds in Sindh.  They are made from small pieces of hand dyed fabric either torn or cut into geometric shapes.  The patterns are often bold with frequent use of triangles or squares on point to give movement to the design.  One pattern is used for a chess type game (tukri) and another game uses the spaces in a cross pattern (chopar).  Overall geometric patterns are called farsh or tile floor.  Often the borders on patchwork quilts are fairly simple.  In some cases, small squares of fabric are cut out (similar to a paper "snowflake"), and then edges are turned under and sewn unto a block fabric. In the Punjab, patchwork is often alternated with appliqué work.

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Applique Patterns
Applique patterns came in a wide variety of abstract shapes.  Ralli makers are proficient at appliqué work including many very fine lined appliqué designs. In upper Sindh, the rallis are mostly appliquéd with a specialty of layered appliqué.  In this work, the appliqué is cut and before it is sewn down, another color of fabric is inserted in the space.  This gives the applique work more shape and dimension. Lower Sindh specializes in appliqué work with a red appliqué border on many rallis.  Most patchwork or appliqué rallis also have some appliqué in the border including scallops, cones, interlocking circles or intricate stepped square patterns (upper Sindh).

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Embroidered
The most famous embroidered rallis are from the nomadic Saami and Jogi (snake charmer) tribes from lower Sindh.  On a solid fabric (usually black), they embroider a vast variety of beautiful and intricate designs using a thick thread that gives the impression of a printed pattern.  The Jogi group more often uses a brown fabric. The stitches include running stitch, chain stitch, double chain cretan stitch, feather stitch, herringbone stitch, interlacing stitch and others.  Sometimes the quilters will make a quilt using running stitches on a printed fabric called a lassi (simple) ralli.  In upper Sindh, appliqué blocks are sometimes alternated with embroidered blocks in a quilt. 

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Regional Variations
Sometimes it is possible to know where a ralli is made purely by its design. In the southern part of Sindh (lower), the region of Badin is famous for intricate quilts made in a black, white, red and yellow color scheme.  The desert region there is also where the embroidered Saami quilts are made.

In middle Sindh, there are many variations in ralli design.  The color scheme often includes white, black, red, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple. The backs are often green or fabric over-dyed green.

In upper (northern) Sindh, they are famous for intricate blocks of appliqué (and sometimes embroidery) using many colors.  The appliqué shapes often have other colors inserted in the openings. Multiple borders with many different designs are also used.  They frequently put tassel borders in the corners or around the entire quilt.  The older quilts have more subdued colors that have faded with time.

In southern Punjab (north of Sindh), the rallis have some very distinctive characteristics.  In the area of Rahim Yar Khan, the ralli most commonly seen are a mix of 9 path blocks with very fine lined appliqué blocks.  The border used frequently is squares on point and the backs are often orange.  The desert of Cholistan to the east also uses some patchwork mixed with fine appliqué.  The colors used are often red, blue, yellow and white or more muted variations.

Where can we find Ralli?

You do not need to hunt for a village in Pakistan or follow a nomadic caravan to get your hands on this beautiful artwork. You can find this craft in a city market. However, only a handful of designers have worked with ralli outside rural areas. In Lahore, designers like The House of Kamiar Rokhni and Rano’s Heirlooms revive this old art form and make it more luxurious through combining it with thread or metal (think wires) embroidery as well.

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In Karachi, where I am from, prominent designers like Nida Azwer and Wardha Saleem have definitely revived this ancient art form in their modern collections. You can see some of these designers’ work in the pictures.

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Well, I hope you have learned something today. Till next time- Happy Shopping!

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