An Exhibit Twelve Years in the Making

by - Friday, October 19, 2012

Poster for the Banjara Exhibition

Tickets to the Exhibition/Lecture event. Available here.
7:30 pm in the Net Loft, Granville Island, Canada. 

The upcoming embroidery exhibition represents twelve years of concerted effort by Maiwa Handprints and the Maiwa Foundation.

The project began in western India in 1999. We located some historic pieces of embroidery in a merchant’s stall. We were told that they were made by a group known as the Banjara. Also sometimes called the Lambhani, Banjara are thought to be the ancestors of European Roma. They are nomadic but are under great pressure to settle. Many Banjara are concentrated in groups near Hyderabad and Hampi, in central India.

Banjara women visited in 2004
In 2000 and 2001 Maiwa made its first trips to try find the peoples who had made this embroidery. At the time we could encounter women in the marketplace dressed in the distinctive style. Large mirrors were set beside cowrie shells, and the ground was embroidered with red, yellow and orange threads. Geometric shapes were prominent: triangles, squares, and circles. Bags had additional cowrie shell tassels and pressed-lead ornaments.

We did not know it clearly at the time, but we were looking to establish a relationship with a Banjara group that was the equivalent of the relationship we already had with the KMVS embroiderers of the Kutch Desert in western India.

After working with the KMVS (Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan) co-operative for years, Maiwa mounted a large-scale exhibition of embroidered work at the Vancouver Museum. Through the Eye of a Needle: Stories from an Indian Desert was one of the best attended displays in the Museums’ history and after an extended run, the embroideries, text panels, and artifacts went on tour to other institutions. The exhibition also led to a thirty minute long documentary film and a book.

Village politics are complicated, but we knew that in order for a new project to succeed, there needed to be at least three things

The Banjara visited in 2005
1) Elder craftswomen, who are respected and who still have traditional embroidery skills. 
2) Younger craftswomen who want to learn these skills and see the value of continuing traditional work, 
3) The support of the larger cultural group i.e, the village or a cooperative.

Our method of working involved contacting a group that seemed to meet these three requirements. We would then invest in source materials for a project (threads, fabric, cloth, and mirrors) and give an advance on the completed pieces. The advance showed trust and also served to give an indication of the value of skilled work.

Contemporary business thinking does not encourage this model. A business is supposed to unload as much risk as possible onto the makers, and then squeeze them for lower prices. But we were not out to merely run a business. We were determined to encourage a system that would see the continuation of one of the most impressive embroidery traditions in the world.

Traditional dress and adornment.

Our search for a group to work with continued for five more years.

In 2004, as part of the very first Maiwa Symposium, we partnered with Vancouver chef John Bishop to hold the “Genius of Origins” event. The combination fashion show, sit-down diner was an ambitious fundraiser for the Maiwa Foundation. It was a success. It was also the first time the Banjara cultural group was clearly identified as an ongoing project for both Maiwa and the Maiwa Foundation.

We returned to India villages in 2005 and again in 2006. We investigated co-operatives and NGOs that might be able to provide on-the-ground support.

Meena demonstrates a stitch.
In 2006 we brought Meena Raste with us. Meena was our main contact at KMVS and it was with Meena that we worked to produce the Vancouver Museum exhibition, Through the Eye of a Needle.

India in 2006 was experiencing an economic boom. The price of real-estate was on the rise and many people in rural areas were being encouraged to sell what they had to developers. The sudden wealth meant that there was little interest in developing embroidery for income generation.

Over the next few years we experienced a number of disappointments, but we did not give up hope. During this time we saw the supply of traditional Banjara embroidery slowly disappear from the markets. The quality of pieces went down as the prices went up. What might have started out as a larger piece of embroidery was often cut up and sold, sometimes as a fragment, and sometimes remade into a bag or cushion.

One day the break we were waiting for came in the form of a message from Meena.

In 2008 Meena told us that an “unusual couple” had founded a trust to preserve Banjara Embroidery. The couple, a French man and a woman from the Banjara community, lived near Hampi in central India. It would not be easy to get there to visit, but they seemed dedicated. The founders were Jan and Laxmi Duclos and together they ran the Surya Lambhani-Banjara Women’s Welfare Trust or Surya's Garden.

Our first contact with them came in the mail. Jan wrote to us in an elegant longhand telling us about the project, explaining the difficulties they faced and strongly encouraging us to visit.

Laxmi in 2009
In 2009, Maiwa made the decision to see the author of the hand-written letters. Charllotte Kwon and Shirley Gordon, made the drive from Goa to Hampi. On a map Goa and Hampi are fairly close. The trip should have been 5 hours – but it lasted 17. This only afforded a short visit with Jan and Laxmi. After that first contact Charllotte Kwon called Vancouver, “We may just have found the group that we’ve been looking for.” she said, trying hard to curb her enthusiasm – trying hard not to be too hopeful after so many disappointments.

That 2009 visit, did not take place in isolation. On that same trip to India, the Maiwa Foundation conducted a week-long natural dye workshop in Assam. Charllotte had just finished conducting a 21-day tour to visit artisans. The tour covered almost the entire north of India from Kutch, to Bengal. There were also many other stops to visit blockprinters, dyers and the Jawaja leatherworkers.

We decided we wanted to work with the group. Now it was simply a matter logistics, designs, sizes, backing fabrics, embroidery threads, timelines, and of course, costing. Maybe to facilitate this new project we didn’t need another Meena, maybe what we needed was Meena herself.

Talking stitches on the porch of Surya's Garden, Hampi.
In 2011 the Maiwa Foundation had just completed a Masterclass workshop held in Bengal. Meena was a participant and so we arranged to regroup in Hampi. We had a substantial team together and we took full advantage of our visit. Meena assisted the group with costing estimates and several options for backing materials. After much discussion it was agreed that KMVS and Surya’s garden could work together. KMVS could supply tailoring expertise and finish the works that Laxmi and Jan’s group had made.

This was a leap of faith for everyone. It is no small thing to pack up pieces that had each taken many months to stitch, and ship them out to strangers in the hopes that they would complete them.

The results of this partnership arrived at Maiwa in September of 2012. Twelve years had passed between the conception of this project and the arrival of the first completed piece.

You are present at an historic moment in craft. Nowhere on earth will you find contemporary Banjara embroidery of this caliber. You are present at the beginning. The beginning of the revival.

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  1. How I wish I could attend the Symposium this year! But I reside in the Frozen North, and can not make it south till mid-November. Please, please, please!!!!Is it possible to obtain a copy of the Banjara poster!??

  2. I found Maiwa today in Vancouver. What a place for artists! Supplies, books, dyes, everything you could want. Plus inspiration! If you can, visit them.


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