CHENNAI: The delicate threads holding together traditional craft go beyond mere fashion statements - they spell a deeper story of poverty and urban migration.
The dizzying mirrors and bright skirts of the nomadic Banjara tribe which were fading into oblivion are making a comeback, thanks to the efforts of a doctor couple.
Inside the gates of the modernist campus of the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Chennai’s bustling IT Corridor, traditional patterns woven by Banjara women of Sittilingi valley in Dharmapuri sit framed in glass panels alongside contemporary garments with Lambadi embroidery, at an exhibition put up by the women’s group ‘Porgai’.
‘Porgai’ in the Lambadi dialect means ‘pride’, and Dr Lalitha Regi, one of the minds behind this women’s group, is proud indeed of the rich craft of this community. Only a handful of Banjara women from Dharmapuri still wear the ornate traditional garments.
This tribe, that has its roots in Rajasthan, have formed settlements called ‘Thandas’ in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The community generally guards their culture, and in the north, such garments are still made for occasions like Garba.
But in settlements such as these two in Dharmapuri-- A K Thanda and Melvalvu Thanda, an entire generation grew up without wearing the traditional garments and never bothered to learn the embroidery work.
Gradually, with the encouragement of Lalitha, the couple of women who knew the craft began teaching the others and ‘Porgai’ was formed --an alternate livelihood for these communities who often faced losses due to erratic rainfall.
Dr Lalitha and her husband Dr Regi moved to Dharmapuri to provide medical services in places with dire need, and set up the Tribal Health Initiative in Sitilingi in 1993.
But believing that merely medicines do not mean health, the couple and thus went on to tap their craft.
“Hospitals are for illnesses, but solutions to ‘health’ go deeper into issues of livelihood and migration,” says Lalitha. With the coming of the Tribal Crafts Initiative and Porgai, the women began getting a chance to work from their homes with fair wages.
The association with NIFT came about when a group of students visited the village this June as part of a project to study and document craft clusters. The potential in the hands of these Banjara women inspired the students, and the technique and finesse, NIFT professor B Karthikeyan says, is unique in Tamil Nadu where this cluster seems to be the such only one in the State.
The variety of stitches and the geometric patterns were documented by the students, and the college provided the space for this exhibition as a platform for these women. Funds from the sales would directly go to the women’s group.
Anitha Manohar, the Director of NIFT believes that Tamil Nadu has vast untapped potential of traditional textiles from patterns to weaving styles to embroidery, and NIFT already collaborates with the government to help many handloom and textile co-operatives. “With just a touch of style that can be added by designers, and some fine-tuning of the fitting, designs like the Banjara style could get a much wider market,” she says, hopeful of NIFT playing a role in reviving other such lost crafts.
Districts like Nagercoil and Kancheepuram have several languishing crafts, such as ‘korvai’ technique of Vadamanapakkam which has dwindled because of lack of labour and regular wages.