The Rasamalli jacket, the Vasamilli shift and the Samarani top — these are named after three Toda women who spent the lockdown in their traditional homes in The Nilgiris working on their famous embroidery that has been awarded the GI Tag. A Dravidian ethnic group of The Nilgiris, the Toda people live in small huts made with bamboo and mud called munds; there are about 2000-odd Todas living in the district.
The Toda Collection from Kochi-based Linen Trail showcases the work of Toda women and also celebrates its core value of slow fashion. Shalini Anilkumar, the label’s head designer, connected with the reclusive tribe through a social worker, and urged the women to embroider for Linen Trail and earn a steady livelihood.
“The Toda men are mainly into buffalo rearing and eke out a meagre living. The women run the homes and also do traditional embroidery though they do not get regular work,” she says, adding that she wanted to highlight intricate Toda embroidery, which is done using wool on cotton textured fabric as a symbol of sustainability. The fabric and the yarn is sourced locally from markets in Udhagamandalam.
The most well-known product of the Todas is the Pukhoor: the red, white and black striped shawl. Toda life is connected to Nature and their art is steeped in their culture. The sun, moon and trees are worshipped and form common motifs in their embroidery. These are represented in symmetrical and precise geometric patterns. The colours used symbolise purity, maturity and youth. The art is passed on to children who are taught the techniques almost like mathematics. Shalini points out that one recent change is the addition of deep blue to the traditional colour palette.
Empowering the community seemed the only way to sustain their shrinking lifestyle and art, and so Shalini and her team began working with the women. Vasamilli, who has learned a smattering of English and heads the self help group, became the facilitator. She networked with eight women from the tribe located in Karshmud, Kundikodumud, Thavattukodumund and Karikadumund and distributed work among them .
Not that it was easily done. Shalini wanted to widen the scope of their embroidery, contemporise the art and create affordable apparel. But the challenge was incontemporising the designs; Vasamilli conveyed the reluctance of her tribe to alter their native patterns and motifs. “I wanted to create a timeless, seasonless collection that could be worn any time, anywhere,” says Shalini.
“[Vasamilli] was categorical that she wanted their embroidery to remain original and without any changes. So we remained true to it. But I also wanted a long-term partnership with them and asked the women if they would embroider other patterns,” Shalini adds.
Fast vs slow fashion
Once the partnership began, they worked right through the lockdown last year. Anirudh Kollara, Shalini’s son and director of Linen Trail, explains how the collection is part of the slow fashion movement. “Fast fashion garments, which we wear less than five times and keep for 35 days, produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year than garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year. Linen uses very little water in comparison to cotton, and is a more sustainable fabric. We have designed in a way that each garment can be worn in different ways. Therefore, slow fashion garments have high quality and tend to be pricey. But we have tried to keep them affordable,” he says.
The Indo-Western Toda Collection in ecru cream, white and black comprises smart casuals and formals as well. In keeping with slow fashion, the ensemble is designed such that garments can be paired or worn in different ways to remain in a wardrobe forever. “We stuck to classic muted tones so that it doesn’t limit the garment,” says Anirudh.
A Toda embroidered cotton-wool shawl is priced at ₹3,000. A Rasamalli ecru jacket costs ₹6,850. The money from the work sustains the women; an extra five percent of the proceeds from sales go towards empowering the community. “They use it especially to hold weddings,” says Anirudh.
The Toda Collection is retailed online at www.linentrail.com