For the Lamani community, survival in the urban milieu has come at the cost of their craft

At the age of 10, Deolibai Ramavat, like every girl from her community, learned an art form. Six decades later, she mentions how important it was to keep practising that art every day.

Today, in her mid-70s, Deolibai has spent more than 30,000 hours in stitching intricate patterns — every one of them reflecting patience and a warning sign that the art form will soon fade away. With every passing hour, she became a master of the traditional Banjara embroidery. It was her mother, the late Somlibai, who had taught her the embroidery in the agricultural fields of rural Andhra Pradesh back in the day.

When I meet Deolibai in Pune city, without speaking a word, she removes a five-decade-old Ghagra Choli stitched by her mother. She touches the mirror in an attempt to rejuvenate her memories. “This art form is dying now,” she says looking at her own reflection in one of those tiny square shaped mirrors.

For the Lamani community, survival in the urban milieu has come at the cost of their craft

Deolibai Ramavat, now in her mid 70s, has been practising the Lamani embroidery for more than six decades now. All images courtesy of the author.

Deolibai is one of the few older Lamani [known as Banjara in other states] women who have kept the meticulous art form of Banjara embroidery alive. She calls it sui kaam [Needle Work] and mentions that the art form is centuries old. At the age of 15, she migrated to Pune’s Pashan area in Sanjay Gandhi vasti, also known as Laman Tanda, where more than 300 Banjara families live. The Lamani [Banjara] caste has been listed under Other Backward Caste in Maharashtra.

Labour of love

To design one Ghagra Choli, it takes about 110 hours of stitching spread across two months, estimate the older community women. The embroidered dresses are worn in the Lamani marriages and traditional community festivals. Earlier it used to be their everyday clothing. “Now the younger generation has stopped wearing these dresses even in marriages. We just give it as a mark of our culture,” says Deolibai. She has lost count of the number of dresses she embroidered for the community members. Coloured woolen threads, different types of needles, mirrors, and old coins are some of the things used to stitch intricate patterns and designs in these Ghagra-Cholis. The mirrors are stitched together with colourful threads on the entire dress. Coins are also attached to the bigger mirrors and are then stitched on the Choli [blouse]. The embroidered cloth used to cover the head with mirrors embedded in it is called Ganophulia in the local dialect.

Along with the embroidered dresses, the younger generation is also turning away from the traditional Banjara bangles

Along with the embroidered dresses, the younger generation is also turning away from the traditional Banjara bangles

Embroidery workshop takes up the narrow lanes of the community on Sundays. It’s the only day of the week when the community women take an off from their construction labourer jobs. Deolibai is still not tired of paying attention to the minute details. She makes sure that every stitch retains the beauty of the art. Now she has started mentoring a handful of young community women. They talk about how stitching for a long time puts a strain on their eyes. “I can’t stitch for more than an hour because tears start coming from my eyes. This work is difficult,” says the 45-year-old Laxmi, Deolibai’s daughter-in-law. Pointing towards Deolibai, she says, “She can stitch for ten hours continuously without any strain.”

The journey of settling down

Deolibai’s grandson, Kishor Ramavat (24), says, “Several decades ago, many Lamanis from Mahbubnagar district and Yadgir district [in Telangana and Karnataka] migrated and settled here [in Pune].” They have been working as construction labourers since then in an attempt to make ends meet. The Ramavat family migrated from Kollampalle village in Mahbubnagar district’s Narayanpet mandal of modern-day Telangana.

“Earlier our ancestors used to graze cattle far and wide, and that’s how we migrated [to different states of India],” says Kishor. “While travelling, the women used to practise the art.” The younger generation now is exploring other pastures leaving the art form to the older women.

The Sanjay Gandhi vasti also known as Laman Tanda in Pune’s Pashan area where Lamanis migrated several decades ago

The Sanjay Gandhi vasti also known as Laman Tanda in Pune’s Pashan area where Lamanis migrated several decades ago

“When I was young, even I would work on buildings. I would always carry my needles and threads [to the construction sites] and stitch after eating my lunch very fast,” remembers Deolibai. A tragic incident instilled fear in her mind after which she quit working as a labourer. Three decades ago, her husband, the late Tulsiram, passed away after falling accidentally [from a construction site] owing to an electrical shock in Mumbai’s Goregaon. She was left scarred after this.

“Usually I start my embroidery work at afternoon [around 3 pm] after my grand-daughter sleeps,” she says. Every day she stitches detailed designs for two hours. Deolibai mentions that women stitch mostly in the natural light only as it becomes more painful to stitch in the night.

Deolibai has spent more than 100 hours spread across two months in stitching a new Ghagra Choli.

Deolibai has spent more than 100 hours spread across two months in stitching a new Ghagra Choli.

The dying art form

The community members assert that one of the reasons behind the decline in the art form is the terrible name-calling. “When we wear our traditional dress many people from the other communities ask why we wear it. They say that it’s not good to wear such dresses in public,” says Laxmi who has experienced several such cases at the construction sites.

At least one kilogram mirrors cut in several shapes are used in a single Ghagra Choli estimate the community women.

At least one kilogram mirrors cut in several shapes are used in a single Ghagra Choli estimate the community women.

“A lot of people after seeing our members in this dress use derogatory terms and say that these lamanis have come. People think that this dressing is bad and cheap,” adds Kisan Pavlatkar, 45, a community member. His wife, Shevanti, 38 is a homemaker and rarely works on the embroidery now. The ludicrous comments from other sections of society have deterred the younger generation to pick up the art form or even wear the traditional dresses.

Another reason behind the decline in the art form is the rising cost of the raw materials and the manual labour involved in the process. A single dress [Ghagra Choli] encompasses at least one-kilogram square and circularly shaped mirrors of varied size. Older coins [paisas] are also stitched to the dress. Earlier, these older coins were available readily, but finding them now has added more to the cost. “We get these coins only in our village mela (fare) [in rural Telangana] where we pay Rs 800 for 20 coins,” explains Deolibai. “Now, women have started using newer coins also. You will find the new Rs 10 coin in dresses,” adds Laxmi.

Traditionally, older coins were used, but due to their increasing costs and lack of availability a lot of women have started using the new coins.

Traditionally, older coins were used, but due to their increasing costs and lack of availability a lot of women have started using the new coins.

The lack of time available to the youngsters and kids deters them from practising the embroidery. “Now the younger generation is getting educated, and they don’t want to learn this art form. This education [embroidery] is more important though,” says Deolibai. To date, she has not sold any of the dresses she embroidered. “We stitch the dress for ourselves and never for the purpose of selling,” she elaborates. Now, the younger community members have kept the traditional dresses as a memory of their culture.

Working as labourers

On an average, the community members work 24 days a month as labourers on the construction sites. Men are paid around Rs 600 daily, and women are paid Rs 250 for ten hours of work. “We don’t get paid much because we do all the manual labour. Only the men are taught technical work [like waterproofing], and they get more money for it,” explains Laxmi about the old discriminating practise.

Every Sunday, Deolibai and Laxmibai carry on the art form together in an attempt to keep the traditional art alive.

Every Sunday, Deolibai and Laxmibai carry on the art form together in an attempt to keep the traditional art alive.

Laxmi’s two sons, Shivaji (27) and Kishor (24) work as construction labourers and her daughter, Manisha (22), is a homemaker. Deolibai remembers the time of the early 1960s and smilingly says, “We were paid Rs 1 daily at the construction sites.”

Deolibai’s sons own agricultural land in their village on which their relatives farm. “Stitching is my farming here in town [sic],” she says laughingly. Kishor and Kisan talk about how they grew up watching the art form. For the past couple of years, they have started documenting the embroidery on their phones fearing its decline. “We settled in Pune, found work, earned some money, but the city killed our traditional art form,” says Kisan sadly.

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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 14:19:11 IST

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