Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
A Tale in a Textile … notes from one of my lectures.
The Geographical Origin
The brown represents the state of Gujarat – the one that M.K. Gandhi hailed from and the newly elected Prime Minister Modi hails from.
The upper jaw of this region is largely a salt-desert that came about through the surfacing of the sea bed over earthquakes over the centuries. Temperatures go up to 48 degrees celsius in summer. A place that demands cool airy dressing that overcomes the heat of the desert.
Kutch is the residence of several gypsy tribes that have connections to Afghani and other gypsy tribes. Let us have a look at their costume traditions.
The Creators & the Wearers
A few pictures of the women of the Rabari Tribe in the Kutch region of Gujarat, India:
Many of these families spend half their year as pastoral nomads and the other half settled in village homes. Below we visit a nomadic family. (pics from my visit in 2007).
Here we are at a wedding – where the women have gathered and are singing wedding songs. Once again notice their costume.
The one common costume element that stands out – is the BLACK VEIL.
They always wear a Black head cover. It is roughly 3-4 meters long and about 1.5-2 meters wide. In summers it is cotton but winters it is wool and all year round, it is a long black headdress that is a must-wear.
As this tribe is a Hindu tribe the choice of black is unusual.
So we dig deeper to understand how this came to be the color of the veil used uniformly by the entire group.
But before we get to the cultural story, let us examine the art and the craft briefly.
The Ludhi is a specific example of the black veil – the one that is used by brides. Naturally it is a highly decorated veil as it is worn at her wedding.
The Textile Art
It is made using hand spun goat wool:
The cloth is woven on a narrow hand loom and then tied & dyed to form patterns with simple dots.
Two pieces of the the wool cloth are sewn together with a number of elaborately embroidered florets along the vertical spine of the cloth.
This is a Vagadia Rabari Ludhi – there are other types such as Debariya etc – which connote the village. (Vagad is a village cluster). The difference between these styles is more a matter of artistic preference that got replicated rather than an ideological difference. But more about that in another note in the future.
The black color has aroused my curiosity and I ask a village elder to explain the roots of this textile tradition and he tells me over leisurely plates of chai (as is gujarati custom, the tea must be poured from the cup to the plate for cooling and then drunk from the plate – that also results in economic efficiency).
“Once upon a time” a few centuries ago, the Rabari tribe with their herd, roamed the lands ruled by a particular King.
The Rabaris and the Royals always shared a good relationship and the tribe was asked to assist in political matters of the state. Highly trustworthy and reliable they acted as secret message carriers and offered convoys to escort royal women when they travel to visit their maternal homes. They were also called upon to fight in battles and have many stories of valour
In India there is the concept of forging a relationship by ‘declaration’ that is followed by simple ceremonies. So by mutual agreement it is possible for me to “declare” someone as my ‘Rakhi’ brother.
In that manner, the tribal lord’s wife, declared the the King as her brother and a bond was formed and recognised by both the tribe as well as the royalty.
At some point there was a battle and the king lost his life. Mourning was declared in the state.
Now mourning usually lasts a few days and ends when a ceremony is conducted in which offerings are made to the spirits and the community.
In this story, The Tribal Lord’s wife was SO deeply grieved and she declared more stringent terms of mourning:
She declared that mourning for the tribe would continue until an offering of a feast was held, in which 1 mulo of salt would be used in the cooking. Now 1 mulo (old measure) = 100 mann (new measure) and 1 mann = 20 kg therefore 1 mulo = 2000 kg.
2000 kg of salt …. How much food that would be … how many people would that feed!
Since such a feast is beyond the eating / preparation capabilities of the tribe, the end of the mourning period never came and the tribe continued to wear the black.
Naturally since this happened centuries ago, normal life has since resumed but the dress tradition continues even today. This is a legend and an interesting one.
In the olden days when the only entertainment was to sit around in the evenings and talk, these stories were passed around and they survived across the generations. Today, there is so much attention-seeking media even in the lives of rural folk, that the transmission of such folk legends is being crowded out.
I have heard this first hand from a prominent Rabari Tribal Patriarch.
The discovery of this tale in this textile what I found most attractive about Ludhi veils!
You never know what you might find woven into these beautiful threads!