Lambani women in Karnataka see their art fade away with rigours of time and climate change

Buffeted by winds of change with the climate crisis, economic challenges and evolving customer tastes, their lives are changing by the day.


Published Jul 30, 2023 | 4:51 PMUpdatedJul 30, 2023 | 5:08 PM

Lambani art

By Uzmi Athar

Women of the Sandur Lambani tribe, many in their twilight years, who skilfully stitched together their lives and livelihoods — with the textile art that made their name famous now watch helplessly as that tapestry slowly comes undone.

Buffeted by winds of change with the climate crisis, economic challenges and evolving customer tastes, their lives are changing literally by the day. And Karnataka’s Lambani women face the difficult truth their craft honed through generations may perish with them with the young more interested in walking a different path.

Lambani art, which once flourished in the heartland of the state, weaving culture and tradition into the very identity of the nomadic community, is intricately linked to rituals and rites.

Lambani embroidery, known as “khilan” and “toon”, is a symphony of colours, patterns, and symbols that tell stories of ancient legends and celebrations.

Sitting under the shade of a gnarled banyan tree in Mariyammanahalli village, about 30 km from this Karnataka town, 80-year-old Rukmini voiced her despair.

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‘Art might fade away’

“Embroidery is our soul, our connection to our ancestors and our way of life. But the younger generation is drawn to modern pursuits that promise economic stability. They see little value in learning our craft. It breaks my heart to think that our cherished art might fade away,” she said.

Rukmini is amongst the hundreds of women who have spent much of their lives creating stunning textiles and garments using colourful needlework, decorative mirrors, beads, and intricate stitches.

According to locals, of the 400-odd Lambani artisans in Mariyammanahalli, about 300 are over 50 years old all of who have spent decades learning and perfecting the craft.

Rukmini’s sentiments find a wide echo. Many other women attribute the dwindling interest in the art to poor payment and economic hardships.

Netravati, 72, explained how the payment system works.

“As a senior artist, I may receive ₹5,000 per saree, but it takes me a month to complete one. The younger artists receive only ₹500-600 per day, along with some rations. It’s difficult to sustain a family on such meagre earnings,” she said.

Struggling to find balance

Gauri, 53, added eloquently, “Embroidery is our language. Each stitch tells a story, a part of our history. It is our duty to pass down this legacy to the next generation. But it’s not easy. We struggle to find a balance between our love for the art and the need to provide for our families.”

Despite the challenges, the Lambani community has found hope through collaborations with self-help groups in the region. This has to some extent reduced the role of middlemen who would pay them about 10 per cent and pocket 90 per cent.

These groups provide the Lambani artisans with a cloth to embroider on, which is then sold through fair trade practices. Although the payments are still modest, this partnership offers a lifeline for the artisans to continue their craft and earn a more sustainable income.

“People have aspirations for foreign brands and the value of our art is not much. There is not enough consciousness and awareness. We have the capability of taking more orders but there is not much demand. To add to that, there is a changing climate due to which the natural resources we depended upon are becoming scarce,” said Shanta Bai, a member of a self-help group.

The community is also reeling under the impact of climate change.

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Depletion in resources

Lambani artisans, intimately connected to their environment, have noticed subtle shifts in their ecosystem. The flowers that once provided vibrant pigments for their threads are now scarce, while the water sources they relied upon are drying up at an alarming rate. These changes directly impact their ability to sustain their craft and maintain the authenticity of their embroidery.

“In the past, we would rely on the changing seasons for the materials needed for our embroidery natural dyes, plant fibres and other resources. But now, with erratic rainfall and rising temperatures, our once abundant natural resources have become scarce. It has become increasingly challenging to source the materials we need to create our art,” said Lakshmi.

The Lambani artisans, deeply rooted in their ancestral traditions, understand the importance of adapting to the changing climate.

They have begun exploring sustainable practices and alternative materials to ensure the longevity of their craft. Some are embracing organic dyes and utilizing recycled materials, while others are experimenting with new stitching techniques that require fewer resources.

Said Savita Bai, another passionate Lambani artisan, “We are innovating, finding ways to create beautiful pieces while minimizing our impact on the environment. It is a delicate balance of preserving our cultural heritage while also embracing practices that promote sustainability. We must work hand in hand with nature to ensure that our craft survives for future generations.”

Disappearing way of life

As the sun sets, casting a golden hue over the village, a group of Lambani women gather in a modest courtyard to discuss their future, their colourful attire and rhythmic clinking of needles against beads and sequins creating a happy symphony.

But it’s a way of life disappearing fast, admitted Vijaylakshmi, a young Lambani woman who inherited the art from her grandmother and embodies the struggles faced by the younger generation.

“While I am passionate about our art and determined to preserve it, the reality is that it is not a very lucrative career choice. We face economic challenges that make it difficult to sustain ourselves solely through embroidery. Many of my peers are compelled to seek alternative means of income, leaving our traditional craft behind,” she said.

Recognising the urgent need to address these challenges, Prof D B Naik, an eminent expert in Lambani art and former vice chancellor of Karnataka’s Folklore University, emphasised the importance of valuing and supporting traditional crafts.

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‘A dying art’

“Lambani art is a testament to the richness of our cultural heritage but it is a dying art. We must strive to create an environment where the younger generation sees the value and potential in continuing this legacy. By providing them skill training and giving them opportunities for economic growth and recognition, we can encourage their involvement in preserving this exquisite art form,” he told PTI.

According to him, Karnataka is home to around 40 lakh Lambanis. The nomadic tribe, about one crore in total, are found all over India, except for some northeast states. Around one-third of Lambanis in Karnataka were artisans but that number has significantly reduced over the years.

In a bid to create awareness and inspire a newfound appreciation for their craft, the Lambani artisans recently set a Guinness World Record for creating the highest number of embroidery patches in a single day. On the day, around 450 Lambani artisans together wove 1,755 unique embroidery patches.)

This remarkable achievement garnered international attention and brought pride to the Lambani community. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, lauded their efforts, recognizing the extraordinary talent and commitment displayed by the Lambani artisans.

(Disclaimer: The headline, subheads, and intro of this report along with the photos may have been reworked by South First. The rest of the content is from a syndicated feed, and has been edited for style.)