Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gift wrapping in India

In keeping with the traits of a person born under the sign Cancer, I am big on hoarding. Handwritten letters, tickets to museums, city maps picked up while travelling, an emu feather I picked up on  a street in Madrid, a bit of raffia that someone once wrapped a gift in, hotel visiting cards, paper, painting supplies etc. I'm fortunate to have people around me who think I put all this to good use (they only ever see the tip of the iceberg) and think I need more supplies, so I keep getting more paper, painting supplies, and other odds and ends. Anyway,  there are times when I actually take out the stashed items and look at them. And there are times when I use them too.

These days I am happiest when I am able to look at art blogs, and crafting blogs. Recently I found  a blog where the blogger had posed a question about gift wrapping in different countries. I had added my two bits worth of information on India on the message board, and mentioned that sometimes we like to make our own gift envelopes and wrapping paper. I had mentioned my mother's talents in the area of making her own gift envelopes, and Charissa the blogger at the Gifted Blog had asked to take a look at some of them. Since my mother lives in Bangalore, and I'm up in the north in Delhi, I didn't have any samples. But since I have seen her making them, I thought I'd just write and show pictures of how it is done and also give a glimpse of  gift wrapping in the Indian context - it is a very urban view really, and it might be interesting for others in their respective parts of the country to talk about their experiences.

There are  special  festivals like Diwali and Navratri, and certain events like weddings, which could bring out a more extensive range of packaging. There are even specialist shops where exclusive gift wrapping services are offered. But this post is basically about a typical urban household where one would need envelopes to gift money on birthdays and weddings, or bags or wrapping paper to wrap items like books or board games for children.

Store bought  jute drawstring pouch and purse(top left and right). The yellow purse can double as a gift envelope. A store bought  handmade paper envelope is at the bottom of the photograph.

A  gift  envelope with money. Money is usually gifted in ones as in 101 or 501 or 1001 rupees as the extra one rupee is more auspicious than a round number. Fancy envelopes are available with a one rupee stuck onto them.

Plenty of affordable ready made gift wrapping options are easily available in stores these days. Gift bags come in very handy to put items like jewellery pouches, or scarves, or even books -- in fact, many stores offer these as add-ons, or free depending on how expensive the item is I guess. In these days of increased security during air travel, it is easier to carry a gift bag and the gift separately and then assemble them at the destination.

But the pleasure of creating your own wrapping paper, bags or envelopes is without parallel, and often gives as much pleasure to the crafter as the recipient. With the kind of raw material available easily and inexpensively in India, it would be difficult not to get tempted to make own's own wrapping material. Let's take a look.

The whole world is my canvas (and the art supplies are available in my neighbourhood)
Ask any visitor to India about the country and they are sure to say that the colours were very vivid. The kinds of fabric, the colours and textures, really define our country.

Colours and textures of fabric. Jute on top left, the rest are cotton.

And when the concept of hand made paper came about as a cottage industry, it was clear that the colours just moved from cloth to paper. The kind of variety of textures and colours that are available is mindboggling.

A wide range of handmade paper with vivid colours and textures are available in many cities. Some of the high end ones can be purchased in small quantities and used for accents.

It is difficult to walk past a store without being tempted to buy some of this paper which can be used for many purposes including making gift bags, gift envelopes, for mixed media collages etc. The prices vary, and some of the top end expensive ones might cost from Rupees 50 to 70 for a single sheet. I usually buy a single such sheet, for instance, the gold embossed ivory coloured one seen above was bought for Rs 50 about six years ago. I still have it and use it sparingly, just for accents, sometimes just cutting out a single flower. I have used it in the papier mache doll's tiara and handbag in the earlier post.

Besides this, we have always had these little neighbourhood stores from the time when tailored clothes were more common, which sell laces, ribbons, buttons, fancy beads, tiny mirrors and the like..all of which may be used as embellishments. Some specialised stores are also found in areas like Raja Market in Bangalore, or in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi where you can really stock up on odds and ends.  Then again, something bought for a particular purpose could find a completely different avatar a few years on. For instance, at one point in time, I was heavily into making flowers out of stocking material. For this you need an assortment of stuff like two kinds of wire and fake stamens etc etc. Anyway, some of the wire has found itself in the kingfisher paper sculpture that appears in an earlier post. The point is, nothing that is hoarded need go to waste.

I unearthed a few of my storage containers, and here is a peek at what I found.

A peek at one of the boxes in my craft cupboard. (And no, it doesn't always look this neat..)

Here is a closer look at some of the contents.

A closer look at the odds and ends in my collection.
Gold string, lace, strands of gold beads, glass bits like mirrors usually used along with embroidery on clothes and cushion covers, cutouts of auspicious symbols and Gods from old invitations, imitation pearls.
Colourful ribbons, ribbon-based accents like bows are also in my arsenal.

Rolls of ribbon and bows for adding accents.

Another interesting feature in India is the variety of block printed textiles available in the country.

Wooden blocks from India are in the little seed pod boat, with a whale rubber stamp from Canada keeping them company.

Wooden blocks are used for this, and many of these blocks, from tiny flowers to larger border blocks, are sold especially in tourist shops in Delhi. It's a good idea to take some time and examine the block before buying it to make sure its outline is well-defined, as if they are used blocks, some of them could be slightly worn out. These blocks can be used on both fabric and paper, with different kinds of paint of course. Again, such blocks lend themselves well to printing gift envelopes and bags.  Of course these days, with all the relatives one has in different countries, it is possible to add on to one's collection. In the photograph above, the stamps in the little seed pod boat are made of wood. The cheerful whale rubber stamp outside was gifted by my sister when she was in Canada.

The urban magpie

My mother's envelopes really come under the category of ephemera so it's appropriate to mention them in this blog She also stashes things like little cutouts of auspicious symbols and other bits of ribbons and bibbons and uses handmade paper to make her envelope. All this is done the previous day or a few hours before she has to leave for the event --   yet, the recipient always knows that it was handmade and personalised for the occasion. It gives a nice warm gooey feeling.

It's a bit difficult to sum up why we hoard some things - to understand this, the reader must really understand customs and backgrounds of the people. Many wedding invitations come with symbols of Gods and symbols like Om - and people are really reluctant to trash such material. So long after the wedding is over, you will find an invitation floating around the house being used as a bookmark or just propped up somewhere so that the symbol is visible. As the number of such fancy invitations, which sometimes look like booklets, increased, it was clear that they couldn't ALL really end up as bookmarks or be propped up somewhere. So the next option was to cut out those symbols and keep them safely...and then dispose of the rest of the invitation.

Then there are festivals like Raksha Bandhan where auspicious threads are tied upon the wrist of brothers by the sister. They are a symbol of prayer for longevity for the brother, and also a symbol of the love between siblings and a prayer that the brother will protect the sister. As ceremonies like these acquired a commercial hue, the range of the gifted bracelets has to be seen to be believed. Where a simple thread coloured with turmeric would suffice earlier, it looks like some overenthusiastic designers have gone overboard and let loose their creativity in the form of these bracelets.  That's all very well -- but again, such bracelets also end up in the same category as the invitations, and are stored in that cooling out zone where such things end up - safe but invisible. At any rate...they CANNOT be junked by the recipient (but of course someone who lands up and does not know any thing about this item and is not connected to it in any way could probably be urged to do the needful...oh, ok, I'm just kidding).  Friendship bracelets have also joined this category these days. Ah, how I long for the day when a blade of grass could perhaps be used instead of all these complicated bracelets..but maybe...maybe, I'm just a teensy weensy bit jealous that I don't get any of these things.

To all this, we add a range of good paints, glues, a creative mind, and some time, and one would really have to have a  good reason not to make their own gift wraps/envelopes.

Creative options

Here are some photographs of how material can be mixed and matched to make gift envelopes. I've just used a piece of handmade paper in this demo.

In the first two photographs, the colours used are very traditional. Incidentally, we avoid black in anything auspicious, and even plain white in apparel especially is not  gifted to ladies, especially married ones as it is a symbol of widowhood. Red, orange,green, and saffron, are always a safe bet. But of course white could feature in ribbons and bows etc. for gifts.

The third photograph is of block printing a gift envelope with a wooden block and adding ribbon. This might be considered a more modern touch to an envelope.

Option1 -  Using mirrors, gold beads, and a cutout of Om on the homemade paper envelope.
Option 2 - Using lace and a cutout of Ganesha, the elephant God.

Option 3 - Block printing on a rice paper envelope coupled with matching ribbon provides a modern touch.

In the present BROWN phase that I'm in, my hot favourite is kraft paper and cardboard. I have block printed some kraft sheets with an octopus stamp(again sent by my sister, and this was long before Paul became famous). I stamp the cardboard tag with the same image but using gold paint so it stands out. This has been my trademark gift wrap for kids this year.

All time fave kraft paper with kiddy themed rubber stamp in white, and cardboard for tags.

I hope you have enjoyed this bird's eye look at gift wrapping in urban India. Do let me know if you have specific queries.

Finally, it's true that gifting envelopes, bags and wrapping papers are readily available in stores...but making them yourself gives a  bigger high to both the person making it and the recipient. It's just the thought that someone took an extra half hour to do something like this that would make the gift seem very special indeed. And as you  can see, it's also a good way of letting your hoarded stash see the light of day!


  1. The belief (according to my mom at least) of giving gifts in ones - 101. 201, 501, 1001 - is because rounded figures have a very finite feel - and the one is added for their wealth to grow. Kind of like seeding the pot.

    As for black - a weaver in Kancheepuram says the negative associations with black are a British import. He says his grandmother actually got married in a black 'koorai podavai' - the traditional 9-yard silk saree Tam-brahms get married in.

  2. Hi Namitha - This is so amazing! Thank you for taking the time to give us this extensive look at gift wrapping in your family and culture. It's really exciting. I like the mix of patterns on the store-bought envelope. It is also very cool to see your handmade renditions - I have a better understanding of the kinds of mirrors and trims your mom must use!

  3. Namitha - thank you. This was fascinating and I love how you use language. Beautiful writing.

  4. Thanks everyone for comments -- silly me didn't realise I had to moderate them and allow them to be published... that's the novice blogger for you.

  5. Kamini, thanks for that insight. About the colour black - I remember that the only time ever that a black colour saree was presented to me was before Anant was born at the ceremony held at that time (Note for others from different regions: this ceremony is something similar to a "baby shower"). The beautiful black saree with a rich red-maroon border was presented by my mom-in-law and it is a tradition in their family (Tamil Brahmin,although living in the state of Karnataka). At the same ceremony, the saree my mother in Bangalore presented was the darkest shade of leaf green she could find, which almost looks black, but is not. Although some kind of clan and regional cultural symbolism exists, each family has its own take even if they are geographically close. It would take a few lifetimes to figure all this out...

  6. Hi Namitha,

    I enjoyed this blog as I could easily relate with it. Art and craft blogs inspire me any time. I have tried making gift envelops using duppata borders, gold ribbons and even lace from old dresses.

    I loved the way you described the Indian customs. Will be visiting you page when ever I can

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