Innovations ensure that the traditional Toda embroidery does not die out. Subha J. Rao meets Toda women who use their age-old craft to embellish modern products

Narsamma, 75, may not be able to walk without support, but give her white cotton cloth, a needle and red and black threads, and her hands fly to the unseen commands of an ancient craft. Narsamma is a Toda elder whose intricate pukhoor embroidery has won her many awards.

There was a time when she embroidered just the puthukuli, the elaborate traditional shawl worn by her community in the Nilgiris. But slowly, the women started embroidering bed covers, runners and table cloths, and their work is taking on newer avatars.

“Guess what this is?” asks Sheela Powell, pointing to an arrow-like embroidered strip tied to a red thread with wooden beads at either end. She is the founder of Shalom, an NGO that markets Toda embroidery. A neckpiece? “No, that would have to be better embellished. This was our top innovation last year — a luggage tag,” she smiles.

Sheela takes out the tags by the hundreds. They are priced at just Rs. 50 each. “This is a great gifting idea for someone who wants to buy Toda embroidery but can’t afford to spend much,” she says.

Not just tags, the current range of products with Toda embroidery includes purses, book marks, waist coats, clutch bags, passport pouches, foldable shopping bags, spectacle cases, dress yokes and embroidered patches that can be stitched on to anything.

It took time to convince the Toda artists to do new things, but once they understood the concept, they were eager students, says Sheela.

The scene is similar at the Kotagiri Women’s Cooperative Cottage Industrial Society Ltd. They stock the puthukuli and shawls, but also sell shirts, coats and kurtas with Toda embroidery. Prices start at Rs. 15 for a book mark and run into thousands for the puthukuli. Chelly, accounts-in- charge of the Cooperative, which has 100 members, says that the staff finalises the product design and asks the Toda women to embroider its requirement.

Sheela does something similar. She stops with design inputs; she does not interfere in the embroidery. “Who are we to teach them or hone an art form mastered over centuries?” she asks. All they do at Shalom is to train them in neat execution, and educate them on what buyers look for. Malar Malli, 32, who works with them, has been embroidering since she was 16. “The designs are what have been passed down the ages, but I now focus on how I pull the thread and finish a stitch so that it looks nicer,” she says. Malar says designing for newer products means she can finish more pieces in a week’s time; a shawl takes her about 10 days to finish; a purse just a day. The purse finds many more buyers.

P. Nirmala, 28, has been embroidering since she was 10. She knows a lot of traditional designs and says the tips have made a difference to the way the final product looks. For the artisans, the new product range, and the resulting lower prices, also means a chance for their art to reach many more people. “It makes me happy that many more people can afford our work,” says Malar.

Sheela says the training sessions have helped. “Now, I just tell them to embroider for a tablecloth or a foldable shopping bag. They choose the designs, but space them out as we have taught them. That makes it easier for my staff to cut and finish the product.”

Among Sheela’s prized artisans is 90-year-old Mahalpoof. She can’t see much anymore, and embroiders by touch and feel.

One of the reasons why the Toda women have adapted well to the new products is because it does not require them to dilute or change their embroidery designs. That is something Toda-speaking dentist Tarun Chhabra is particular about. He was part of the group that got the Geographical Indication tag for Toda embroidery. “The Todas have so many traditional designs; they should not be diluted.”

Mumbai-based Geeta Patil, an alumnus of NID, Ahmedabad, has conducted a workshop for Toda women at Keystone Foundation, Kotagiri. “The idea was not to cater to the market, but to come up with products that support this embroidery, and create a market for them,” she says. They created tote and sling bags, curtains and different kinds of furnishing.

Vasamalli, 54, is the first graduate from the Toda community. At her home in the Karsh mund near Tamizhagam, she speaks about how the new products have popularised Toda embroidery. She then speaks haltingly in Hindi over the phone to an exhibition organiser up North. “They want me to come by and demonstrate our craft. These new products have ensured greater reach. In exhibitions, people find it easier to buy smaller products. This way, they have a sample of the embroidery but at a price that is not prohibitive.”

Call the Cooperative at 04266-273689 and Shalom at 0423-2441455.