4 Rare Tribal Crafts In India

December 14, 2019


Uttarakhand - Aipan art

Festivals are aplenty in India and one main component during this time is the colourful rangoli that adorn the floor at the entrance door! Aipan has been around since the 7th and 11th centuries and is one of the more traditional forms of the now evolving rangoli. Mainly practised in Uttarakhand, the designs have cultural and religious significance for the Himalayan people of Kumanois. They are drawn on occasions like birth, Janeu (sacred thread ceremony), marriage, death and a variety of  festivals.

Aipan is quite different from the rangolis you see today they are identified by their vibrant contrasting colours - white designs created over a deep vermillion background. Both of these colours are made out of natural materials. The background is made of red earth, ‘Geru’, and the white paste is made out of rice which has been ground into a fine paste after about 16 hours of soaking. The patterns are then drawn using the ring finger of the right hand.

Design-wise the Aipan has a few quirks that makes it unique! First is the use of dots, all the lines in the patterns are completed with a dot/dots, this is said to symbolise wholeness and life. When a death occurs, the Aipan drawn for the occasion is the only time you will not see the dots. One other feature is that the number of lines used need to be an odd number. Lines signify continuity, therefore the odd number of lines is seen to have an open-ended story.

The number of people who truly know how to make the original complicated Aipan varieties are diminishing. It is part of Kumanois culture to pass these designs and patterns down to the younger generations, but nowadays people choose using quick readymade solutions or simplified works.

- Meet Dr Savita Joshi, one artist who is keeping Aipan art alive!


Tamil Nadu - Toda Tribe Weavers

The Todas are a small community who reside on the hills of the Nilgiris. Their community comprises of only about 700 to 900 people since the last century. The myth goes that the goddess Teikirshy and her brother were the first to create the sacred buffalo and soon after the first Toda man. Because of this the Todas worship the buffalo and they place importance on their dairy products (for their staple diet, cattle-herding as an occupation and for trading). As a way to evolve and survive they have also started finding new avenues of monetization.

This is where the Todas Poothkuli, embroidered shawls, comes in. Unbleached, white cotton is woven in with three stripes - an alternate pattern of two red stripes and one black one. The colours all carry deep significance! The cream or pale white signifies purity, the red represents youth and black as the colour for maturity. Each stripe is six-inch apart and these stripes are also where the patterns and motifs are worked in. When the embroidery is completed, a darning stitch is used to bring them together without the use of a frame.

The Toda style of embroidery is called ‘Pugur’, which also means flower. The embroidered designs are inspired by flora and fauna in the area, their way of life and myths that have been passed down over generations. One of the main motifs is the buffalo horn (mentioned before as their sacred animal). These geometrical images are embroidered using a woollen thread and a steel needle, whereas, in the early ages vegetable dyes and vegetable fibres were in use. Imagine their artistry as they are known to weave and embroider simply out of expression and without a plan (no tracing). The Toda people have a separate styling process for their poothkulis, they consider the rougher underside as the side for display because of the beautiful embossed effect.

- Here is a company, RAGA, who work to  empower rural and tribal artisans. They have worked closely with the Toda community other amazing remote communities. We truly believe in their process and cause.


Gujarat - Rabari Tribe Tattoos

The folk story behind the Rabari community goes all the way back to the Himalayas! It is believed that Parvati shaped the dirt from her body to the figure of a camel. Then Shiva gave it life. They then created the first Rabari man, Sambad, to tame and graze the camel. Sambad was the first of the nomad clan. Today, Mindiyala, a small village in Kutch, is known to be the biggest Rabari village in India.

As a tradition in the midst of this remote group, tattooing is considered a sacred and revered art form. They believe that traditional patterns (trajuva/trajva) would be the only thing that would accompany the wearer into the afterlife. So they carry with them, their identities and stories, having these markings in-turn display a stronger level of religious and spiritual devotion. More than the men the Rabari women have intricate and elaborate tattoos (geometric symbols) on their necks, breasts and arms (only after marriage do they do their feet).

Rabari women start their tattooing process when they are around 7-10 years old. The tattooing process itself displays a woman’s perseverance and strength because it is quite a painful process. A traditional Rabari tattoo is made using a single needle and a gourd bowl to hold the liquid pigment. The pigment itself is made by mixing lamp soot with tannin from the bark of local kino trees or with mother's milk or even sometimes urine. An interesting thing is that they add a small quantity of turmeric powder which is used to brighten the colour and prevent swelling and infection.

The symbols themselves are there either for identity, for protection (scorpions, spiders, snakes, etc), fertility/auspicious symbology and of course stories (religious Hindu mythology or the story of their people).

- Here is a tattoo artist who loves drawing inspiration from trajva symbols!


West Bengal - Dhokra figurines from the Dhokra Damar tribes

Dhokra art is a crafts form that goes back 5000 years. Traces of this art has been discovered amongst the relics of Mohenjo Daro and Harappan civilizations. This work is the earliest known method of non-ferrous metal casting. Way back then, Dhokra art was created by the nomadic craftsmen of the Dhokra Damar tribes. They used to wander widely in the Chota Nagpur Plateau (present-day Odisha, Jharkhand, Bengal, Chhattisgarh) exchanging their beautiful pieces for food. Today, they are still spread out sporadically across tribal-dominated areas in the east. Bastar, a district in the southern part of the state of Chhattisgarh is where Dohkra art is largely practised - more than 70% of their population comprises of tribal groups including the Gond, Abhuj Maria, Darda Maria, Bison Horn Maria, Munia Doria, Dhruva, Bhatra and Halba tribes.

Creating Dhokra pieces is a complicated process. First, a small core is created using clay - made from a mixture of gobar (cow dung); bhusa (hay) or paddy husk; black soil and red soil; and fine sand (collected by the river banks). This core is then left out in the sun to dry. When it is sun-baked enough, it is wound by fine threads made by with pure beeswax and saras (gum). These two ingredients are boiled to a thick paste and pressed through a strainer, achieve that finesse. They make sure that the entire surface is covered uniformly and to the desired thickness of the piece.

Next, the wax layer is coated with chikni mitti or fine clay sourced from termite mounds - the design intricacies are carved on here. When this layer dries, numerous layers of clay (used to make up the core) is added, making sure to place drain ducts. During the  - the mould increases in strength and turns hard and the wax would have melted away.

After that, the space between the core and clay layer is filled with molten metal (brass scrap or bell metal - copper and tin in a 3:1 ratio) The liquid metal flows uniformly filling in the mould. This is then allowed to cool and solidify. The most satisfying part is right after the metal has dried! You need to break open the clay mould and voila the metallic final figure is revealed. Now you just brush on a layer of patina and a final wax coating to enhance and preserve the patina.

Each piece takes about a month or two to create and because the mould needs to be broken at the end of each process, every work is truly unique. Most of the craftsmen use scrap metal and because of this, it is known as an eco-friendly craft. Increasing prices of metal and the difficulty in distribution is proving to have a negative effect on the tribes that rely on their skill and craft. It would be a true shame to have this craft lost. Like most folk art, the craftsmen draw from artist mythology, and their everyday culture and natural environment. Religious deities like Bhuda Deo, Karma Jhaar, Danteshwari Mata and the cult goddess of the Gonds. Other figures of local birds, horses, elephants, deer and magical stories like the Mahua tree (considered the tree of life) are all commonly occurring themes.

- a travel writer who knows that stories need to be experienced before being told.