History & Culture

Every stitch has a story

A traditional shawl being woven.  

(This is a monthly column on tribal and folk traditions from across the country.)

It would be difficult today to trace the lives and histories of the nine Toda embroidery patterns which Murray Emeneau, the famous linguist of the Toda language, so diligently recorded in an article in 1937. Prior to that, we get only passing mention of the art as the special occupation of the Toda women in an otherwise detailed and painstakingly long ethnography on the most ancient occupants of the western Nilgiri plateau -- The Todas written by W.H.R. Rivers in 1906.

Known by the name, Pugur in Toda language (meaning flower), the embroidery tradition has lived through a century of its documented history to manifest today in drapes, dupattas, table cloth, stoles, kurtas, pajamas, skirts and jackets, besides the traditional Puthukuli (shawl), its original place of majesty.

For the Toda men and women, wearing an embroidered shawl is not only a matter of aesthetics but also a way of carrying oneself with dignity. Each lifecycle ceremony demands a particular design on the shawl, and the shawl complements and completes the carefully constructed aesthetic ecosystem of their environment.

Surrounded by stone circles of the megalith burial sites on hilltops, about 2,000 Todas live in 69 hamlets. The hamlets consist only of six to seven curved huts constructed with bamboo and thatched grass. They have spaces for a buffalo dairy, and a barrel vaulted and conical shaped temple. During various ceremonies such as one for pregnancy, they requires half a dozen particular plants and flowers. And that's when one realises that all the plants and flowers are found in the hamlets and they establish an aesthetic continuum along with the embroidered shawl.

No wonder, Emeneau draws parallels between the structures of Toda language and their rituals and lifecycle ceremonies.

Flower is an epistemological tool in Toda thinking, and seasons, patterns of stars, buffalo behaviour, emotions, and monsoon rains are named and measured after flowers. Emeneau’s monumental work, Toda Songs, further reveals the tribe’s extensive knowledge of flowers and Nature in general.

Their daily life reflects various aspects of Nature in many ways. Their houses are arranged in rainbow patterns. Their curious cane stick is modelled after a flower. Even the miniature churning stick resembles the petals of a flower. Curiously for a floral universe, one discovers very few floral designs in the embroidery. Restricted to crimson and black, the patterns include the Sun, moon, snakes, squirrels, rabbits, and buffalo horns. Rabbit ears are always embroidered at the edges of the fabric. The black triangles that constitute a box motif are named after their first priest.

Toda women embroider from the reverse side of coarse bleached half white cotton cloth that has bands – two of red and one of black woven at an interval of six inches. The women embroider within these stripes using a single stitch darning needle. The base fabric has a balanced weave structure that allows the women to count and embroider the pattern. No embroidery frame is used, and the women count the thread with their fingers. At each turn of the needle, the women leave a little tuft to protrude so that the embroidered cloth has a rich texture.

Asked about the few floral designs, the women often reply, with their characteristic humour, that the embroidery is their tribute to Nature.

True to their worldview, the Todas bury their dead with the embroidered cloth shrouding the bodies.

(The writer is a folklorist and director, National Folklore Support Centre. He can be contacted at muthu@indianfolklore.org)

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2020 10:25:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/the-todas-and-their-embroidery-tradition/article7429489.ece

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