The best of Banjara

The best of Banjara

A needle craft that has stood the test of time

This is one craft to learn about which I did not have to travel anywhere. It came to my doorstep — literally.

During my school years in Hyderabad, I would often encounter the Banjara women roaming the city streets, going from door to door, selling their wares — skirts, batuas, blouse-pieces, salwar-kameez material, TV covers and bedspreads — all colourful, beautifully embroidered and embellished with tiny circular mirrors and beads.

Today, the range of products made by the Banjarans has expanded greatly to include clutches, cellphone holders, tablecloths, big handbags and jholas, kurthi material, throws, wall-hangings, cushion-covers, letter-holders, table-linen, and so on. These craftspersons have also become more market-savvy and now make customised items for weddings and special events. They retail their products in major showrooms and at most textile/crafts exhibitions.

Recognition, of course

Some of them have won awards at the state and national level. They have even held workshops about their craft. Angoori Sepavat of Hyderabad is one such example of a recognised and award-winning craftsperson who has held demos of her work at crafts-promotion events and even taught the craft to groups of urbanites and foreigners. The Crafts Council of India, NGOs, social workers and a few activists within the Banjara community itself have taken interest in their work and have initiated or catalysed these changes around India.

However, not all of them manage to get such platforms for selling their work. They have to make do with sales at nondescript shops in small and big bazaars. There are many among these artists in the interior or rural areas who produce gorgeous stuff, but are still exploited by middlemen and have to settle with meagre returns for their work.

Roots & offshoots

The Banjara community has its roots in Rajasthan. They are often referred to as gypsies. The term Banjara is derived from the two words, ‘vanaj means to trade, ‘jara’ means to wander or travel. Today, they are spread over other states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, they are often referred to as Lambadas or Lambadis, and their characteristic colourful, mirror-work rich and appliqued clothing is their most identifiable feature.

In Rajasthan, they are referred to as Gwaraiyya or Gwaar, and in Karnataka, as Lambanis. You will find many among the community who no longer practise this craft. They are now well-educated and engaged in professions like medicine, engineering, accountancy and other white-collar jobs.

The base fabric is cotton or mill-cloth or poplin. Threads of various colours are used. Always, the principle of contrast is followed, so the multicoloured threadwork will be of colours different to the base cloth. Tiny mirrors, beads, shells, coins, woollen tassles and cowries are used as embellishments. Geometric patterns are popular. One sees a lot of squares, triangles, circles and the diamond shape, but other shapes and motifs are also used. Flowers, leaves, mangoes, peacocks, elephants, parrots, chakras and so on can be found embroidered on these products.

In some products, instead of a single cloth, pieces are appliqued together held by a chain stitch, double herringbone stitch, or a back stitch.

Skillful hands

The different patterns of designs which the Banjara craftsperson uses to sew the dresses include makhi, rela, goth, laldi, gunjara, teka, narka, gauder and katta.

Raw materials and technical details aside, it is, ultimately, the creativity and skills of the Banjara artist which creates such objects of beauty. Watching them at work gives an insight into the talent that these simple, rustic women possess.

As with most Indian traditional crafts, the needlework of these women is a skill taught to them at home by the elders in the family. “I learned this craft from my mother and grandmother,” is the answer you get from them.

However, with the increase in the market for these products, there are now different centres in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and South India, including Hyderabad, where women are trained in this craft by experts or seniors from the community (often with the help of NGOs) and are creating a wide range of products.

In other words, women outside this community are learning the craft. Several state governments have taken steps to promote the craft.