Picking up the Banjara Thread

by - Saturday, March 12, 2011

Maiwa and the Maiwa Foundation have been trying to work with traditional Banjara embroidery for a number of years now. We've had a long and successful relationship with KMVS in the Kutch desert of Gujarat, and we've hoped to implement that model to the exquisite and bold Banjara embroidery.

Banjara community visited in 2004.
The Banjara (sometimes called Lambani or Lambada) are a semi-nomadic people who reside mostly in Southern and Middle India. They share a common ancestry with the Roma. who migrated through the mountains of Afghanistan and settled in the deserts of Rajasthan. Since the 12th century, the Banjaras have gradually traveled down to the south and large numbers worked for the Moghuls transporting provisions and trading goods. They traveled with herds of thousands of pack bullocks, buying and selling sugar, salt, and grain. Their habit of living in isolated groups away from others, which was a characteristic of their nomadic days, still persists.

Banjara community visited in 2005
As with many "tribal" groups, especially those with a nomadic heritage, there is a modern tendency to either isolate or assimilate. The Banjara women, however, are mostly holding to their ancient mode of dress, which is perhaps the most colorful and elaborate of any tribal group in India. It is their dress and jewelry that sets them apart from all others. Their full-length skirt is often red with borders embroidered in mustard and green thread. The odhni (mantle) which covers the head is long enough to drape down their backs almost touching the feet. As with much embroidery which originates in the desert regions of Rajasthan it is elaborately embroidered and studded with mirrors. A variety of materials - silver, brass, some gold, cowries, ivory, animal bone and even plastic - are used in the making of a Banjara wardrobe. Heavy silver ornaments are conspicuous. Patterned cowrie shells decorate their hair. The numerous cowries that the Banger women wear are very auspicious as they represent Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity.

Meena Raste, from KMVS, shows a densely embroidered handbag and demonstrates some Rabari stitches, 2006.
In 2006 Maiwa traveled south of Hyderabad to meet the Banjara communities. Because there was constant work in the larger cities, many groups had purchased land on the outskirts. The expanding city, combined with the increase in property values (the result of a modernizing India), permitted many groups to obtain quick and substantial profits by selling off their land. If the group could hang on to the money this was a good situation. But often the money was immediately spent on luxuries that did not last.

We encountered two main reactions in 2006. Firstly, that the quality of embroidery we were asking for could not be done. Luckily we had historic samples with us, some contemporary Rabari work, and Meena Raste from KMVS (who could quickly demonstrate stitchwork). The second reaction was more problematic, the increased wealth of the groups had led to a lack of interest in embroidery. This was a major setback. Our attempts to place orders and develop relationships with cooperatives and communities at this time turned out to be unsuccessful.

Shortly after this two individuals who had been working with Banjara embroiderers just outside of Hampi found our book Through the Eye of a Needle while visiting Kutch. The two were Laxmi and her husband Jan. Together the two had started Surya's Garden - a non profit collective and trust. They wrote to us and wanted to meet. This was what we were looking for and we began to make plans to visit them.

Laxmi at the door to her office, 2009.
Laxmi (standing far right) and the Banjara embroiderers.

In 2009, owner Charllotte Kwon and manager Shirley Gordon made the trek. It turned out to be epic, driving from Panjim (Goa) to Hampi took 17 hours. It should have taken 5. A tight schedule and a return journey meant that they could only spend a few hours with Laxmi and Jan. In that short time Charllotte and Shirley were so impressed that they placed an order and began working on some finishing options. 

We returned to visit again in 2011. Details in the next post.

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