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    With nature as their inspiration, the Todas and Nagas explore flora and fauna in very distinct ways

    As I trek down Tamizhan Mandu (a Toda settlement) in Ooty, to meet Toda social activist Vasamalli, I am mesmerised by the expanse of grass-covered hills rearing above valleys with streams running through. Fairytale perfect. In the midst of this, the traditional arch-shaped Toda houses, with motifs of bull horns, leaves and flowers, blend in harmoniously. Before entering the land, Vasamalli asks me to remove my shoes because nature is sacred to them (much like you’d remove your footwear outside a temple before entering it). This reverence of flora and fauna, and of their tattoos—Vasamalli’s 75-year-old mother-in-law proudly shows me the drawings on her legs, done the traditional way when she was 15, with black soot and breast milk—spills over into their embroidery too, which received its GI (geographical indication) certificate four years ago.

    Nature’s call
    Toda embroidery, locally called pugur (meaning flower), is done on red and black shawls (called poothkuli) by men and women. The stylised geometric motifs—common ones include the sun, moon, stars and the eye of the peacock feather—are so intricate that they resemble weaving. Interestingly, Toda embroidery is not repeated; the women make a new design each time. It was one of the reasons why I decided on the toda necklace collection. The jewellery was a hit at the stores and at exhibitions. And it led me to my next discovery. I soon realised that the embroidery was often confused with the Naga weave. So I reached out to Mudita Chauhan-Mubayi, who has extensively travelled in the region and is an expert on the weave.

    String theory
    “Naga chadors (shawls) are mesmerising. The 16 major tribes have sub-tribes and clans, each with its own palette of colours, patterns and weaves,” she tells me, elaborating, “Each shawl is a symbol of identity. Traditionally, there were different ones for head-hunters, the warriors, farmers, and the like. With evolving social structures and lifestyles, some shawls are only worn occasionally now, and some have become fashion accessories. My favourite is the Chakhesang tribe’s flamboyant chi pi khwu. Meant to be worn only by one who can feed an entire village with rice, meat and rice beer, it is literally a feast for the eyes—with motifs of elephants, tigers, orchids, and roosters embroidered on a backdrop of orange (for vitality), yellow (prosperity), white (bravery), green (nature’s gifts) and black (soul strength).” On closer examination, I discovered that while they do look similar, the Naga weave is made up of thinner lines as compared to Toda embroidery. And the motifs are very different: while Toda uses only nature-inspired geometric patterns, the Nagas use images of actual birds, animal and flora on their shawls. Clearly I’ve found my inspiration for my next collection.

    Loramhoushu is an elegant white cotton shawl worn by the Angamis. Its vocabulary is basic: black and red bands signify blood and the soul, while the geometric patterns in the centre can be everyday elements like spears or abstract icons for fertility and prosperity.

    Tsungkotepsu is the Ao warrior’s decorative shawl. Contrasting black-red-white bands surround a central white strip on which figures are hand-painted: mithun (bison) for social status, tiger and elephant for fearlessness; the spear and dao (sword) for war; and the human head, to show the wearer has ‘taken’ human heads.

    Gina Joseph

    The writer is the founder and chief designer of Zola India, a brand that helps folk artisans express themselves through wearable art

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