Adorned in ivory bangles up to her arms and clothes with sparkling bits of mirror work, 30-year-old Sunanda Jadhav of the nomadic Lambani community in Karnataka's Vijayapura carries off her traditional attire with grace and embroiders exquisite designs on fabric effortlessly.
Jhadav, a single mother to four young children, is among 60-odd women working with Banjara Kasuti, an all-woman NGO working to revive the age-old textile art. Their lives and livelihood, up till a few years ago, were hanging by a thread.
Rampant poverty, alcoholic husbands and the sword of migration, in search of back-breaking jobs in agriculture or construction, hanging over their heads, the Lambani community women of the nondescript village of Arakeri have recently found a new lease of life in the age-old art.
"My husband abandoned me and our four children nine years ago. With nowhere to go, I came to Banjara Kasuti in October 2017. It is because of this job that I am somehow able to feed my children and fund their education. Everything I know of Lambani art, I learnt it here," she uttered as her fingers adeptly sewed stitches on a mirror-embellished black patch.
Lambani art is a form of textile embellishment practised by the Lambani or the Banjara community, a nomadic group inhabiting several states of India, including Rajasthan, Gujarat and Karnataka.
It involves an elaborate use of colourful threads, stitching of mirrors, decorative beads, small cowries shells and even low denomination coins and a rich array of stitch patterns on loosely woven fabric.
According to the 2011 Census, the population of Karnataka's Lambani tribe, listed as a Scheduled Caste community, stood at about 12.68 lakh.
The money they make, ₹250 per day, might seem like loose change to city-dwellers but to these women, it means "financial independence" and "self-reliance".
Asha Patil, who founded Banjara Kasuti in 2017 with Seema Kishore, said money in their pockets ensures that the women are no more reliant on their husbands for their well-being.
"Earlier, some of these women would embroider these Lamabani patches at home and their husbands would sell them on beaches of Goa or flea markets in nearby towns. That way, the money always remained with the husbands.
"Now, the money is with the women and as a result, the decision on how to use that money is theirs. In many households, this newfound financial independence is giving women their well-deserved seat at the table," Patil told PTI.
Besides money, the opportunity of escaping harsh field jobs in the scorching heat of Vijayapura, also called the “Jaisalmer of Karnataka” due to its hot weather, for the safe environs of home or well-equipped centres of Banjara Kasuti is lucrative enough for these Lambani women to pick up the thread and needle and save their art from an existential threat.
For 32-year-old Kavita Rathore, this is the "best job" available in her village as she can share a laugh, shed tears and even indulge in the occasional gossip with other women of her age while creating the "best-in-class" Lambani art.
Her favourite is the “tera dora” stitch, and given a chance, she would like to sew something for her favourite singer Himesh Reshammiya.
"We are allowed to work from home also. But I make it a point to come here and do the six-hour shifts and go home only for lunch breaks. This is a good distraction from household chores, plus there is always someone to help if you get stuck somewhere," Rathore, who recently stitched a “Phetiya Kanchali”, the traditional outfit of Lambani women, for her mother-in-law, said.
Though founded in 2017, it was only in October 2022 that the NGO entered the market with its line of apparel and bags ranging from ₹1,200 to 10,000.
It has showcased products in five exhibitions, four in Bengaluru and one in Mangaluru, and is already in talks with Dastkar, a prominent organisation working to support traditional Indian craftspeople, for collaboration and furthering the business.
Happy with the response in the market so far, Kishore, a diploma holder in fashion designing, admitted the "immense competition" from cheap machine-made goods they face and urged people to realise what might be a "fashion statement" for them is the "livelihood" of these artisans.
The NGO aims to scale its workforce to 100-150 artisans this year or latest by March 2024.
"These artisans are in dire need of our support. We all have to take care of them and the fading Lambani art form. Machines can take over the world but we, human beings, too need to live, right? Please save the planet and these artisans," Kishore said, adding that Banjara Kasauti would soon come out with its home furnishing collection as well.
And the Lambani women know the truth rather too well, which is why most of them, even after earning their bread and butter from this traditional art, don't want their children to take it up.
The irony was not lost on Patil and Kishore, even though the duo are hopeful that their stitch in time would save both the Lambani art and the tribe.