Lambani art still awaits a place on the marketing map
Twenty-five years of Santhi Bai’s life been given to suirkam embroidery and Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra (SKKK). She has received a national award in the year 2000. She is the supervisor of the lambani community who works at the Kendra, sometimes sitting on her chair, sometimes sitting with them, she instructs, teaches and shares their workload. Now, 200 lambani women work under her. She is a single mother who didn’t have a proper place to stay before joining the organization. SKKK helped her with ration and arranged housing for her.
“I learned suirkam embroidery when I was young; I attended some workshops on tailoring for ten months, then I got married to a drunkard. I was physically assaulted many times, tried to commit suicide too but got lucky to save myself. Then I got into this NGO; they gave me and my child a place to stay. After I got the national award, other than my villagers nobody recognizes me or my work.”
Lambanis is a colorful, joyous and fun-loving community. They live life through their dance, song, and craftwork. One can easily differentiate a lambani woman from others by their appearance. If the women are wearing phetiya, kachri (ghagra-choli) paired with heavy silver jewelry then they are the lambanis. If not wearing then the women must be having tattoos inked on their hands or their face will be having dots inked. Most of the lambanis come to work from the village Suseelnagar which is 7 km far from Sandur taluk. They all travel this distance every day. Bahirji Ghorpade the prince of the royal family of Sandur gave information for the documentary video of Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra.
The Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra was established with the support of the Ghorpade, royal family, in the year 1984 for the lambani women. Mrs. Mahalakshmi Bai was the then principal of Sandur Residential School who put her heart and soul into embroidery work and noticed that other lambani women also had this interest. So she started teaching the suirkam embroidery to four lambani women at her house courtyard. Then she requested the Ghorpade royal family to help in the employment of these women. Yeshwantrao Ghorpade and his son M. Y Ghorpade gave the land to build the organization and supported the community by every means.
Says Roohi Azam, one of the board members and consultant of SKKK, who also looks after the Bangalore store in Shivajinagar, “I had a passion for the embroidery since my childhood and the first thing I did after my schooling, trained myself in textile design from Srishti, Bangalore and then came back to Sandur, interned there and stuck with them and served whatever knowledge I gathered till then.”
“SKKK is helping in keeping alive the lambani art, embroidery but the community fears that their culture and art will fade away. Without their culture and traditional art, they do not get the recognition they deserve. They are recognized as the lambanis in the society, by the way, they dress, they perform and the way they make their living out of the art (embroidery). It’s their heritage that is flowing down through ages,” she added.
Gowri Bai said, “I have been here for 30 years now. I taught my daughter too. I got a National award for a khadi shawl embedded with suirkam embroidery. My eyesight is getting weaker so it takes a lot of time to finish one and I get paid per piece. It is not enough but I am not able to leave this place because I love my work and it pays me.”
Papa Bai who was intensely working on a blue khadi kurta with a blue and white thread, wearing the traditional lambani dress said, “I have reached an age where I should get retirement but if I stop coming here, my only way of income will be disrupted and we the artisans even if we are not happy with the piece rate we get, it’s the work that we love to do and other than this we don’t have any talent. My daughter and daughter-in-law also work here with me.”
Although they have collaborated with various brands and start-ups and attended exhibitions, the wages they get have not been sufficient for their living and it varies from Rs 600-1000 in-hand per month though they get their ration included. They are happy to put the amount of effort and heart in their work to make a particular product but they are not satisfied with the amount of money they get in return.
“I receive Rs 15000 monthly, adding the ration. Among all the lambanis here, only I receive a monthly wage, other artisans here, get piece rate. This is not enough for us. But even if I get offers from other organizations, I will never leave this place. SKKK gave me new life,” says Santhi Bai.
The lambani men either waste their time drinking or playing cards or working in mines and in the farm. These men have always dominated the women and they have faced domestic violence for ages. In Roohi’s words, “Domestic issues can be seen quite a bit in villages. The prime occupation is either farming or working in the mining area so from June to August not a single lambani woman will show up at work as they have to lend a hand to their husbands. The embroidery is their culture and they need to understand its value to sustain in society.”
“This has to be a delicate balance between what a fair payment for approximately four hours of skilled work in a day and what price the end product can command in the market. Since Lambani embroidery is very striking and unique, people find it attractive, but the product has also to be well designed, well finished, and competitive in the mainstream market,” Laila Tyabji, co-founder of Dastkar shared.
Says Keya Sarkar, a columnist and an entrepreneur who has her own handloom and handicraft shop Alcha in Shantiniketan, “According to me, the main problem with craft is most people produce what they think will sell without keeping in mind who their customer is. Depending on the customers’ detail like their age, their salary, their choice, the quality of the products should vary. Once you fix your target audience then you have to know how to reach out to them through proper sources.”
“A rural artisan cannot go and market their products, this is where I come in the table for my shop to market my artisans’ works. Every input of production has a price and that’s how we build-up the cost of production. The artisan has a cost, the entrepreneur has a cost and from the exhibitions or participating in different sales that price should bounce back. The business per se has to be worth it and has to be able to return something to the NGO.” she added.
Thus, they are shifting to other professions like farming or opening grocery stores in their own courtyard. The younger generations are getting educated and want to be doctors or engineers instead of an artisan. They fear that with the new generations, the remnants of the craft will fade away.
Asha, a seventeen-year-old girl, daughter of Paru Bai, dreams to be a doctor in the future, says, “I have seen my mother arranging money for us so that we can study. I want to be a doctor to give her a good retired life. I took science in my 11th standard only to pursue my dream, I know my course fee is huge and my mother arranges that but I promised her that I will make money and that I cannot do by doing embroidery.”
Says Roohi, “Earlier the objective of the organization was to build up this community and give employment to the Lambani women, therefore, the craft was the only way they could survive. On one hand, we are trying to revive the craft, but also on the other, you have to tell them to educate themselves and their children. So the minute they get educated, they do not want to get back to the craft anymore, they want to become doctors or engineers or others which is great in terms of the success of our objective in uplifting these women’s status, but it is sad for the craft.”
“The women we have today in SKKK, among the 400 artisans, 300 are old and that is the biggest challenge we are facing now. We don’t even know in which direction this is going to. Even if the younger generation works with us, they work against their will. We pay the artisans during the training programs to get them to learn so that a little interest stays alive,” she added.
Paru Bai, “I worked at the SKKK for eight years but the wage that I used to get was not enough for my family and in the meantime, my husband died so I had the responsibility of my family. I am a single mother of four children. I could not concentrate on the pieces I used to get and to do embroidery you need a peaceful ambiance. One mistake on the cloth, and I had to do it from scratch. I had to raise my own children and it was so time-consuming that I couldn’t balance it. That is the reason why I left SKKK. Now I sell vegetables from my farm and run the grocery shop at my home. I sell tea and bhajis in the evening.”
The women like Paru Bai who left SKKK have shifted to either farming and selling at their home or market, or harvesting and selling sugarcane in Mysore. But as a secondary profession, the women still continue tailoring at their home.
First, it was only restricted to lambani embroidery and mirror work, now it has expanded to several departments including tailoring, embroidery, khadi, manual block printing, natural color dyeing, stone, wood, bamboo, and cane carving. The infrastructure of the institution has been given by the parent company, Sandur Manganese and Iron Ore (SMIORE).
The institution now has 550 workers among which around 400 are the lambani artisans only. Products are sold in different textiles in different cities like Madras, Kerala, Mumbai, Pune, Calcutta, and Delhi. Students from different colleges come there to learn different types of embroidery.
The parent company SMIORE helps the organization, give ration to the artisans. The SKKK got the Geographical Indication, (GI) tag in 2008. GI is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin.
The Kasuthi kelsa embroidery has been inspired by the banjaras and it can be seen in many parts of north Karnataka, even in Rajasthan and Gujarat but the procedure slightly differs from one another. The phetiya, kachri, and davri that they wear are the original and authentic lambani work. But with the advent of the new fashion trends, it was quite difficult for the lambanis to cope with that.
Says Santhi Bai, “We have a total of 39 ways of stitches and we try to blend our folk tradition in our work. We just change the pattern or mix two-three stitches or put the different color combinations to make suitable for the product. Roohi Azam has really helped us going strong to date. And in terms of designs that we have, workshops and exhibitions that we attend are all possible because of Laila Tyabji, founder of Dastkar and Lakshmi Narayan, a designer who has shifted to Boston now.”
Roohi said, “Somebody put us on Dastkar and Laila Tyabji, and Lakshmi Narayan really helped us. Because of Lakshmi, we have a dictionary of designs to work with and because of Laila Tyabji, it became easier to attend the exhibitions. We never miss any workshops that she organizes. Now we have the chunk of designs with us, just we need to concentrate on our season work depending on which exhibition we are participating in.”
“SKKK approached my organization DASTKAR (Dastkar is a national Indian NGO working with crafts and craftspeople for the past 39 years. It offers support services in design, product development, skills, and organizational training, and marketing, to over one lakh traditional, often rural-based, craftspeople in 25 states all over India.) for helping with product development, design, skills training and marketing in 1991. We had been working with the displaced Lambani community for some years as part of the Sandur Manganese Company’s welfare schemes, but had not managed to successfully generate regular sustainable incomes for the women despite training them in various skills,” shares Laila Tyabji in an email conversation, Chairperson and Founder Member, DASTKAR Society for Crafts & Craftspeople.
Recalling the early days of working with the lambanis, Laila says, “It was Dastkar’s idea to use the women’s own traditional mirrorwork embroidery as the basis for home furnishings, garments, and accessories. Design inputs, strategy planning, and organizational training were given through regular visits and workshops by Lakshmi Narayan and other members of the Dastkar Delhi team.”
“When I attend exhibitions I have to describe what this embroidery is, who we are and that our work culture is different from the Gujarati. We use more original materials. Like we use mirrors instead of those plasticky materials, and also we use original thread weaved from the Khadi department and not the silk ones, ” said Santhi Bai while making pundas. Pundas are small tassels made of cotton yarn or wool. They are usually edged at the end of products such as sarees, dupattas, and bags. These are traditional to Lambani/Lambadi embroidery and can be in different ways, combining with mirrors in jewelry items.
“Creating awareness of this distinctive technique and skill is key. There are still many people who don’t know about Lambani embroidery or confuse it with the mirror work embroidery of Gujarat and Rajasthan. SKKK needs to constantly be looking for new markets and buyers, both nationally and internationally,” states Laila Tyabji.
The lambani art is affiliated with the Crafts Council of India and the Crafts Council of Karnataka. Their products are sold to the different market place, amongst which FabIndia has collaborated with them, apart from that, NatureAlly, Reliance Trends, Mother Earth. Recently AJIO is coming up with a new sector named ‘Indie’ where they want to put lambani products and tied a contract with Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra and the lambanis who work there.
Their products have been exhibited in foreign countries too. Foreign brands like IXX from the Netherlands, Monsoon Accesorize based out of the UK, have a home textile department which has tied up with SKKK but now the exportation of products is disrupted due to some issues. Their work has been showcased in Lakme Fashion Week.
Praveen Nayak, the Production and Marketing Manager of Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra said, “We are a brand but as we are from rural India, we do not get the name. If a buyer tries to judge us through the same lens by which they have judged Bombay Dyeing, then we will never be able to meet their demands. To survive we have to give out our products to the companies which have a name in the market like FabIndia. Most of our target audience is the Indians, the NRIs.”
“The craft industry is now in a lower and fragile sector, ignored. In this year’s central budget, our finance minister didn’t mention anything about the textile industry. Handloom and handicrafts are different even if they come under the same cottage industry. We are thinking to open a school so that we can train more people. They can be entrepreneurs or they can join us. We really want to become a name and we want our products to be recognized by everyone and that is why we are coming up with our e-commerce store because we all know that now people are more into online buying. We are trying to expand our wings as big as we can,” he added.
Roohi said, “We had an aim to give employment to the Lambani women which we have succeeded in that. Some are moving out of the organization because of the wage issue, and we are fearing that the culture will fade away in the next few years. We are trying to teach other people from different communities that is why we have planned the school but I fear the authenticity will get lost.”
“We have just got through a big sponsorship from the KVI, the Khadi Village Industries to develop the Khadi, as what we have realized that the Khadi base is fantastic for the lambani embroidery like the Khadi sarees, stoles are doing really well in the market. So, if we can get more looms and more sewing machines then we can run for a longer period. But the most important thing that is in my mind is to open a museum with the beautiful art piece that we have collected for 200 years. We have a Sandur studio in Bangalore now. We have also collaborated with a Bengali singer Lopamudra Mitra in Calcutta. She has her own store ‘Protha‘ and she has an eye for art, so she collaborated with us,” she added.
Says, Laila, “All over the world people are becoming aware of the strengths of hand-craft and hand-made vs machine-made industrial products in man-made materials. Lambani embroidery conforms to the increasing demands for slow fashion, green, eco-friendly, low carbon footprint, biodegradable manufacture. So the potential is huge. But unless craftspeople themselves reap the benefits of this demand, and are given the honor and financial and social rewards, the next generation will not want to continue this tradition. Craftspeople all over India are increasingly leaving the sector.”