Nine Yards Of Nuance
In the magnificent blue mountains of the Nilgiris that line the outskirts of Tamil Nadu lives the Toda tribe, a small indigenous community, known for their unique culture, traditions, and customs, which have been passed down from generation to genera...
In the magnificent blue mountains of the Nilgiris that line the outskirts of Tamil Nadu lives the Toda tribe, a small indigenous community, known for their unique culture, traditions, and customs, which have been passed down from generation to generation. Commanding attention for their unmistakably Grecian appearance, many claim they are Greek descendants who never left the land. Among their unique traditions is intricate embroidery on a nine-yard shawl, which is called Poothkulli.
This unparalleled art form has a GI status, which means it is protected from being plagiarised and has uniform pricing throughout markets. The art, practised mostly by Toda women, involves weaving a white cloth with black and red stripes (like bands) towards the end so that Poothkulli looks like a modern-day shawl. In between these bands, the women stitch a pattern using the age-old thread-count method.
Embroidery is done on the “inside” of Poothkulli so that the front has a rich embossed pattern but in effect you can use Poothkulli on both sides. This is the original reversible wear of Indian tradition!
The designs, slightly different for men and women, are geometrical with motifs from nature depicted in the embroidery. As the buffalo is sacred to Todas, it is one of the most popular patterns to feature. Black and red parallel striped bands form the base design for all Poothkullis. The embroidery is done in between and around these bands in a systematic manner. The patterns made to the left of the black band are known as karnol while the ones on the right are called karthal. The Todas drape Poothkulli across themselves much like Grecian robes, adding more testimony to the Greek descendant theory.
At a wedding in Toda community, people wear heavily embroidered Poothkullis that have been passed down generations as heirloom. Interestingly, the most delightfully embroidered shawls are seen during funerals. Traditionally, vegetable fibre was used as threads. In recent times, modern embroidery threads are used.
Young girls of the Toda community learn the art from their mothers at an early age. They don’t need any stitching patterns to refer to or consult any rule books to create these beautiful patterns that are passed skilfully by hand.
Toda embroidery was on the brink of extinction but help and funding from NGOs and developmental organisations helped in preserving the art form. In keeping with contemporary trends, you can witness traditional embroidery not just as Poothkulli shawls but in articles of everyday use like bags, table mats and bed covers, providing an opportunity for the art form to thrive in the modern world.