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Treading the Toda tradition

Nov 04, 2023

Two Puthukuzhy artisans from the Toda community educate the participants at MLS about their land, art of weaving, and transport them to the blue mountains

Published: 05th August 2023 07:04 AM | Last Updated: 05th August 2023 07:04 AM | A+A A-

Toda tradition

CHENNAI : In the misty, sprawling hills of the Nilgiris, Seetha Lakshmi — like most girls from the Toda community — was handed a glimmering needle, when she turned 12 years old. With this needle, her grandmother and mother gradually taught her to master ‘Puthkuzhy’ or ‘Pukhoor’, a style of embroidery practiced by women of this Adivasi community. Guided by their fingers and thread counting style, the artisans deftly stitch nature-inspired motifs and geometric designs with red and black acrylic thread on coarse cotton cloth.

Four decades since she picked up a needle, Seetha has embroidered countless garments and passed on this dying GI-tagged art form to other women in her family. Now, this artisan leads a group of women from her community in selling stoles, shawls, and other products on Coonoor & Co., an online lifestyle and artisanal store.

Miles away from her hamlet, she demonstrates Puthkuzhy along with another artisan Anbu Lakshmi, at a session ‘Art of the Todas’, an initiative by RnP Trust, at Madras Literary Society. To a crowd of curious onlookers, the artisans, decked in traditional Toda saris, explain how the embroidery works, teach them how to say “How are you?” in their language, and explain how they style the characteristic twists in their hair. There are only 1,700 Todas left in the world and 400 artisans, including Seetha and Anbu, explains Ramya Reddy, author of Soul of the Nilgiris and founder of Coonoor & Co.

Journey to ‘mainstream’The beauty of the Toda design lies in its reversible format and the thread-counting technique. The artisans explain a pattern — whether diamond waves, forest, or floral patterns — appears in their mind’s eye and is then stitched onto fabric, leaving no room for error. “At the start, we would only make the traditional Toda ceremonial dress for ourselves. After that, we would make small designs for the Badagas (another tribal community in the Nilgiris),” explains Seetha.

With the aid of activists from the community, namely Evam Piljen, the art was popularised outside the Nilgiris. “The art came into the mainstream by some of the movements that were spearheaded by some senior Toda artisans back in the 60s. The art came to the forefront and became a livelihood for women artisans. They sell it to various cooperatives across the district, and you’d see it at several garment stores across the state,” explains Ramya.

With Coonoor & Co, Seetha, along with Ramya, began planning interventions for the progress of the art form, and experimenting with fabrics such as custom weave merino wool and organic cotton instead of the traditional coarse cotton. By 2022, the store was officially launched. “In Chennai, you can’t wear these fabrics due to the weather, so we tried different fabrics and now, we can put (the thread) onto dupatta and other different garments,” explains Seetha, who also hopes to experiment with different colour threads. Anbu adds, “We learned the art for our use, weddings, deaths, or other ceremonies. And, now we make doing pouches, shawls, and bags.”

Months of trial and error over two-three years lay behind the seemingly easy transition to different fabrics. “More than just a special binding, this event was a breakthrough for all of us, and in particular marked the moment these traditionally bound artisans bravely ventured beyond the comfortable and conventional moulds of their art form,” Ramya writes on Coonoor&Co. website.

Initially, the team began with four-five artisans. It is now 25-strong, and will continue to experiment with beautiful artistic collaborations, says Ramya, adding that Seetha has been the force behind this project. “There were times where I felt like this was not doable or that this reviving, renewing or contemporising was conflicted…Seetha would tell me we need opposition, we need criticism. And that is how we are going to evolve.”

As Prabhu Viswanathan, a member of MLS, says, “It’s not just about embroidery, but the entire ecosystem and structure of what they do…It is magical to go up to the hills to the villages where they live, watch them sing and embroider, amongst the grass and forest, within the trees, a splatter of rain here and there.”

Onward and upwardDuring the event, the artisans also perform a throaty song in the Toda language, transporting the audience to the damp grass, warm sunlight, and mountain air. The haunting lyrics fill the room: what happens in our lives is not their choice but up to the will of destiny. Weaving their fate and destiny, both artisans hope that the community gains access to education and livelihood opportunities. Seetha says, “We have this dream of educating our children, and we are working for our community’s growth.”

Apart from the dying art form, the artisan explains, loss of livelihood is another challenge they face. In the past two months, a tiger has attacked and killed four buffaloes, at the core of the community’s livelihood, in her hamlet. “For the Toda community, the buffalo is very important for worship, milk, and livelihood. For people living inside forests, their livelihood and culture depend on the buffalo and its milk,” she says, adding that outsiders rarely understand the difficulties of the Adivasi communities. Seetha and Anbu add that they wish to resolve these difficulties, and more people understand their communities’ hardships. They also hope that their traditional art form grows, and flourishes much beyond the hills.

Journey to ‘mainstream’Onward and upward