Business of Elegant Embroidery
How the thriving Lambani craft of making female attires is in continuation with the rich heritage of erstwhile nomadic Lambanis, and has now diversified to a range of daily use items
Green valleys encompassed by spectacular hills with abundant yield of ores, exuberant forests with colourful trees, the gently flowing streams, and the enchanting lands—this would be the best way to describe Sandur, the ‘settled home’ of the thirteen-lakh strong community of erstwhile nomadic Lambinis or Banjaras, who were peripatetic traders, cattle herder, farriers and equipment suppliers to armies. They regard themselves as the descendants of the Romanis of Europe, who came to India via the Ghor province of Afghanistan and then settled in Rajasthan and Gujarat before migrating down south with the Mughal armies to whom they lent their services as equipment suppliers, peripatetic traders, farriers (to look after the horse shoes), traders, spies and camp followers.
However, with the establishment of ports, railways, and road networks, they lost their salience with the armies and settled in Sandur, a small principality of the royal family of Ghorpades. After Independence, Sandur first merged with Madras state as a taluka of Bellary, became part of the Andhra State in 1953, and finally joined the linguistic state for Kannada speaking people which was called Mysore in 1956.
Not long ago, far away from the madding crowd in the national capital at New Delhi and the state capital of Bengaluru, a milestone was established at Hampi (Karnataka) on the occasion of the third meeting of G20 culture working group (CWG). A Guinness world record was created by 450 women artisans and cultural practitioners from Lambani — a nomadic community of Karnataka for the ‘largest display of GI-tagged Sandur Lambani items’ which received the GI tag in 2010.
The credit for reviving the craft goes to the institutional efforts made by Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra (SKSS), established in 1984 by a local teacher, Mahalaxmi, who was supported in her efforts by the Ghorpade family and the Sandur Manganese and Iron Ore Limited (SMIORE) to work towards bringing national and international recognition to the traditional Lambani art and other crafts.
Embroidery as heritage
This embroidery is linked to the rituals and rites followed by the Lambani community, which they call as ‘khilan’ and ‘toon’. They have preserved their rich cultural heritage through oral traditions expressed in proverbs, riddles, folk tales, songs and, most importantly, the unique embroidery style which has been handed down from mothers to daughters through many generations. For the community, these are not ornamental pieces, but functional garments that are a part of the daily attire. Traditionally, Sandur Lambani embroidery has been done on garments worn by women only – such as a skirt called ‘lehanga’; a blouse called as ‘choli’ and a veil called ‘odhni’.
The lehanga is a garment stitched with strips of vibrant colours, making it a colourful vibrant attire. The skirt is tied at the waist with a drawstring which is made with bits of cloth, and the end is decorated with beads and shells. The band at the waist, called patteda, is the most elaborate part of the skirt, being closely embroidered with beads and mirrors. Patches of cloth called phool (flowers) are appliquéd onto the skirt and, in turn, interspersed with mirrors and beads. At the lower edge of the skirt, a narrow border called laavan is attached. This is made of thin strips of coloured cloths attached together, and again decorated with beads and mirrors.
The blouse worn by the Lambani women is called as choli or kaalli. The blouse is short with a bare back tied together by two pairs of cords – one attached at the shoulders and the other at the waist. A distinct feature of the blouse is the use of large square mirrors stitched as a strip edged with metal bells (ghungroos) and coins. This piece is called a taagli. These are attached on both shoulders and above the chest. A single large mirror surrounded by smaller mirrors is called a peti and attached in the middle of the lower end of the blouse.
The veil is called as odhni. This covers the head and its ends are tucked into the skirt in front. The part of the odhni which covers the forehead is attached with a border of large mirrors, beads, ghungroos and coins.
Sandiya and Singdi
In addition to the adornments for their women, they have also created coverings for their oxen and bullocks who are an intimate part of their life!
The bullock is an important animal in the tribal life of Lambanis. It is decorated for special occasions with its own garments. The sandiya is designed to fit the forehead of the bullock. It is made of four rectangular pieces attached together by a large square mirror which forms the centerpiece. A horizontal rectangular piece lies between the two horns from which hang two vertical pieces. The sandiya is embellished with shells and mirrors. Mirrors of all sizes and shapes are attached to the cloth while the shells hang all along the outer edges. The singdi is a conical or cylindrical embroidered piece which fits onto the edge of the bullock’s horns. Bunches of shells dangle from the fully embroidered singdi. During wedding times, the bullock is adorned with sandiya and singdi and the bride sits on it, with a stick in her hand called as dandiya, to sing a song of adieu before she departs from her maternal home.
Quilts, memories and an intergenerational connect
Making patchwork quilts has often been the source of many happy memories for generations of women within the Lambani tribe. The act of gathering together to create quilts for women in a (Lambani) community provides a means of improving community structure, sharing stories, and teaching younger family members valuable skills that they will pass down to future generations. The patchwork itself is often intricate, and its execution is considered a work of art. Along each seam, the patchwork ends in a series of tiny triangles created by folding the material.
At a time when ecological and environmental sustainability is the buzzword, the Lambanis will get full marks, for they only use indigenous fibres and native plant dyes. All materials are locally sourced and based on the principles of reuse and upcycle. No wonder then, that there are laurels galore for this tradition. It was showcased as an “eco-garment” at the London Fashion Week in 2016 and has won several awards, including the Seal of Excellence for Handicrafts Products in South Asia, twice — first in 2004 and then in 2012, awarded by UNESCO.
Many more awards and recognitions are in the offing. So, choose a masterpiece, which is now available in new formats such as purses, armbands, computer bags, pillows, bedspreads, curtains, and wall hangings, in addition to being a part of the bridal trousseau!
(Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration)