India is home to over 706 indigenous tribes, which accounts for 8.6% of our diverse population. Several of these tribes can be found in the stretch between Rajasthan and West Bengal which is referred to as India’s “central tribal belt”.
Several tribal art forms have become a unique ally to the Indian handicraft industry as a whole. Celebrating the artists from the Indigenous tribes of India, Navaldeep Thareja, of the Private Label Sourcing and Production team from ABRFL’s Jaypore takes us on an artistic journey of some of the tribes in Gujarat and West Bengal. Discover with him, the tradition and magic of how these tribes bring culture to life.
India is a confluence of modernity and tradition in culture, values and a way of life. Ethnicity and tradition continue to be intrinsic to the fabric of India, despite the country adapting to a modern way of living. All of this is evident in the way we dress and the culture around us.
No one brings forth this fusion of contemporary-with-culture more than tribes within our diverse country. As part of my journey to deep-dive into the rich heritage and history of Indian clothing brands, I had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with the indigenous tribes of Kutch and Dhokra.
As I stepped into the homes of the Rabaris of Kutch, the first thing that met my eye was culture —from the colours of the home, the way they live and the soul of the embroidery, it was all around. After conversing with them, I discovered that the men are looking for better opportunities in factories. Children are gaining quality education by going to school, whereas the women are safeguarding the legacy of the tribe through their craft.
The geometric and edgy embroidery of the Rabaris is a beautiful play of threads and mirrors, passed down the generations. It is a testament to the changing world of Rabari women, reflected in the mirrors of different shapes and sizes. Even though children are going to school, they have not forgotten their roots, with girls learning embroidery and creating bridal outfits in their childhood.
The Islamic nomadic pastoralists known as the Grasia Jat tribe of Kutch have two distinguishing features. The first is that the men are nomads to date. The second, is that the women are rooted in culture, connected to it through their intricate embroidery, done by women of this tribe only.
All around, I could see heart-warming sights of young girls sitting by their mother, watching them embroidering. It was symbolic of the passing down of culture in the form of intricate embroidery. The effort that goes into stitching minute mirrors on cross-stitched yokes on a churi (a long gown), speaks volumes about the pride and tradition of this tribe.
What stayed with me about the Meghwal Tribe long after my trip, was the simplicity of their way of life. In small homes made from mud and cow-dung, these people have found ways to adapt to the rules of modernity while retaining the ways of their ancestors. Scattered across villages on the outskirts of Kutch, the people of this semi-nomadic tribe have turned to business as a means of livelihood, spurred by the rise in tourism.
The clothes of the tribe captivated me with their breath-taking symmetrical patterns, with solid tight square stitches. This striking regional Sindhi embroidery style, Pakko, is a revered skill passed on from mothers to daughters. The mothers make an effort to teach this art to their young girls, which they then use to create their wedding dresses.
What sets the tribe of Dhokra Dhamar apart was how men and women work together to create works of art. With their sheer skill and eye-for-detail, the traditional metalsmiths of West Bengal and Odisha create stunning and unique artefacts such as grain measuring bowls, incense burners, statues, worship bells and livestock anklets.
They take great pride in what they create. They start with modelling a clay mixture in the shape of the desired product. Then, they cover it with a smooth layer of wax and tar, or tar and resin wood gum. The skilled craftsmen then painstakingly carve out each layer in all its finer details. The mould is covered with drain ducts for pouring in metal and baked before the liquid metal takes on the shape.
We need to honour and respect these traditional and indigenous art forms, even as we integrate them to create fashion forward clothes, as the role they play in the landscape of Indian fashion brands is mammoth.