Quilting a tradition

Quilting a tradition

unique practice

Quilting a tradition

Mundgod town in Uttara Kannada district is popularly known as ‘Mini Tibet’, as it is home to the culturally diverse Tibetan refugees and Buddhist monks. But, as we alight at the main bus stop of the town, we also come across members of the Siddi tribe dressed in sarees, with flowers adorning their spring-like helix-shaped black hair. Siddi tribe is an ethnic community with African origins, who migrated to this part of the State many centuries ago. They speak fluently in Kannada and Konkani languages.

There are many stories on how they came to Mundgod, Yellapur and a few other places in the region about 5 centuries ago, but what is more striking is their assimilation into the Indian culture. Members of this tribe have spread across Uttara Kannada district with a dominating population in some villages.

Reflective of their origins
Though a majority of the Siddis are confined to villages in the forests even today, some of them have achieved success in different fields and are settled in cities. Known for their unique art, culture and tradition, the Siddis have adapted and integrated many aspects of Indian culture. However, at the same time, they have also retained some of their African traditions. One such tradition that has been preserved is the making of quilts, a handicraft that the tribe has been doing for generations.

They credit their ancestors for teaching the art of making traditional quilts, known as kawadi in Kannada and kawandi in Konkani. It is said that the colourful quilts made by Siddi women are reflective of their origin. In villages around Mundgod and Yellapur, one can see a number of women, especially the older ones who can no longer work in the fields, practising the art. Quilts made by Siddi women are usually bright in colour and exhibit distinct elements.

The process of making a quilt first begins with a new 6-yard cotton saree used as a base. It is then sandwiched with another saree to make the quilt softer and insulated. Next, they plan the designs of patches (which they call tukade) and start designing them on this thick base using a needlework technique. They choose the fabric of various hues and tones and begin stitching the patches from the corner of their base doing a back stitch by hand.

The quilts are completed by sewing the edges with small 3D triangular motifs, which appear like flowers and make them attractive. Sometimes, a border is also added. At the end of the process, the quilt, decorated with small geometrically-cut cloth pieces, looks like a masterpiece.

Though quilts are made in different parts of the State, the ones made by Siddi  women are unique due to the vivid colours that are frequently used. It is said that the colours and designs are inspired by Africa’s climate and culture. Furthermore, the stitching patterns that are used set their quilts apart. Often, one can find symbols like the crescent moon on their quilts.

Usually, they get the colourful patches (scrap unused cloth) from tailor shops in nearby towns. When there is a demand for a certain type or design, mostly from overseas customers, they get cloth from places like Goa. Many times, they even stitch the patches according to the specifications of the customer. They make these quilts in 4 sizes: king size, queen size, medium and baby size.

While the king size is the largest of all serving as a blanket for 4 to 5 people, the queen can cover 2-3 people. The baby size, the smallest size, can be used to spread on the cradle. Though quilt-making is quite time consuming due to the detailed work involved, these women enjoy the process and their passion is reflected in the quality of quilts they design.

Livelihood activity
Initially, the quilts were made for personal and family use. Now the passion has grown to be an income-generation activity. With the help of Holy Cross Sisters, who have been working with the Siddis for around 20 years, and other well-wishers, the women have formed a co-operative society called the Women Quilt Co-operative Society. The society lends credit to make quilts and supports other livelihood activities as well. The society is managed by the funds deposited by these women who earn money from selling these quilts.

Each quilter imprints her name on the backside of the quilt to identify whose quilt has been sold. “Every month, we conduct a meeting of the society members for cash-credit allotment. Also, we provide them new sarees which are used as raw materials for stitching the quilt. The women repay the money when the quilts prepared by them are sold in the market. Presently, there are around 30 members in the society. In Mainalli village alone, women of 20 families are involved in quilting,” says Sister Raphael Mary.

Siddi women also use this quilting technique in making handbags, mobile pouches, key chains, table cloths, wall hangings etc. However, these products are not in much demand in Indian markets and  much of their buyers come in from foreign countries, where the quilts are in good demand. “Quilting is in our blood and I have been practising this art since I was young. Now I am happy that it is also fetching me some income,” says Paskin Siddi, a quilter settled in Mainalli village. While a tradition has been used as a tool of empowerment by these women, their joys would double if the market widens.