A passionate team and two tribal women were all it took to revive the traditional Lambadi embroidery that was threatening to disappear

In the picturesque Sittilingi Valley in Dharmapuri district are 21 villages that have benefited from the Tribal Health Initiative (THI), started by two doctors, an engineer and a social worker in 1992. It has built, over 20 years, a 24-bed hospital that not just offers subsidised healthcare to the local tribes but also trains and provides them employment at the hospital. The initiative has also begun helping the local farmers with organic farming and the Lambadi women with reviving traditional crafts. It is here that Porgai (Lambadi for pride) Artisans Society began in 2008.

The two doctors Lalitha Regi and Regi George realised that health was not limited to providing medicine alone. “When we came here, the villages were so remote that they had to travel around 50 km to the nearest doctor. So, our initial plan was to improve medical care. The infant mortality rate in the area was 140 in 1993 and in 10 years we brought it down to 20,” Dr. Lalitha says.

Holistic approach

With healthcare off to a good start, “we realised that our work with the farmers and artisans too should be also part our goal. The point was not to treat illnesses but to see that the people remained healthy all-round — this could be anything from economic independence to agriculture and food security,” says Dr. Lalitha. “When traditional crafts die, people migrate to the cities to earn through labour. The working hours and living conditions harm their health and when they come back to the village, they’re ill. Instead, if we gave that craft the life it deserved, they wouldn’t have to move.”

And so, when Dr. Lalitha found out that Lambadi tribes lived in two villages she treated, the team decided to help them revive their traditional craft. “They’re originally from the Gujarat-Rajasthan border and migrated down south with the Mughal army,” she explains. The tribe, which became involved in agriculture, slowly stopped wearing their traditional dress and weaving too. “They stopped learning embroidery for two or three generations; the craft had almost died. Then, we realised that two women had managed to learn the traditional stitching and they taught others. Slowly, the craft was revived.”

Though a registered association now, starting Porgai and convincing the women to earn a living through their craft wasn’t easy. “There was great potential, but the women were plagued by doubts. We had people from Kutch come and talk to them about the market for these products and they helped convince the women.” Soon, the Porgai Artisans Society was formed. THI helps with marketing, purchasing raw materials and selling. “They’re doing well and enjoy the process of creating something,” Dr. Lalitha says.

Porgai makes garments, home furnishing, bags and other accessories. Currently, the association employs at least 40 to 45 women at any point in time. “There are about 60 artisans in the village, but they don’t have work through the year. So, they move out for a few months and when we get orders, they come and do it for us. We’re trying to develop the initiative to a point where it sustains them through the year,” she adds.

For now, Porgai sells their products through exhibitions across the country or through orders on their website — http://porgai.wordpress.com/. The group opened a tailoring unit recently and has now started making cushion covers, bed spreads, table mats, runners and more. “We are best known for our garments,” says Dr. Lalitha, “and Chennai has always been our biggest market.”

“In Porgai, the artisan is central. So, given the effort and skills that go into the craft, we’ve priced the products fairly.”

(Porgai will be part of the Crafts Bazaar exhibition in Valluvar Kottam between September 27 and October 6)