She is eighty-something. But she winks like a little girl of five that wants to have you on her side. She is over eighty and sits on the floor with her stall of banjara crafts, sharing with all the tourists that pass by a wide betel-red smile. ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow!’. For her, all foreign girls are called tomorrow. And just a few of them, maybe, become “today” and crouch on the floor to choose braceletes and belts with jingling bells and coins. ‘You happy – me happy, last price…’ – negotiation starts and she seems to enjoy it, or maybe she likes the company. Whatever people take, and no matter how hard they huggle down the prices, she always adds to their bags a few extra bracelets in the end. Then she winks and smiles, and turns to a new group of tourists passing by. “Tomorrow, tomorrow!”, she calls another foreign girl.
Her name is Mangibai. But we would not know if we did not ask. She calls herself “gipsy gipsy” as if reiteration would stengthen the sense of identity. She poses proud and still for a photograph. We will later come to know that her people, the Banjara (from sanscrit “wanders of the forest”) originally came from Rajastan and left their homes behind to earn a living transporting goods for trade. Mangibai says she has a home and address in a village nearby, and speaks at least two languages and a half. For centuries, while transporting salt, wood and cattle across India the Banjari people spread from Rajastan around the subcontinent. They moved in large caravans wandering the jungle paths and transporting basic goods, along with their crafts, to the most remote corners of the country. In the 18th Century, though, the develpment of infrastructure brought about a decline in their trade and the Banjari, like many nomadic tribes, saw themselves settling down far away from their original homes and communities. More than a million live in Karnataka, where we meet Mangibai. A scheduled cast in some Indian states, a scheduled tribe in others, and “backward class” in a few, in every place they fall into a different category, still bearing the stigma of the Criminal Tribes Act, a creation from the British Raj, that for more than 50 years marked over 150 nomadic groups as natural-born criminals and restricted their movement and lifestyle.
Unmistakable, Banjari aesthetics stick out even from within India’s colourful jungle of crafts. Tiny mirrors, beads and coins are carefully embroidered and stitched to womens garments. Silver trinklets hang from the women’s plaited hairs. Tatoos colour their hands and thick bangles cover their arms. And they dance. Banjari women dance, and their anklets sing while their skirts shine with a thousand reflections. Banjara crafts speak of dance. Skirts, blouses and belts, as well as table clothes, spread and bags (and traditionally also covers for their animals) are made of rainbow coloured fabrics covered in a mosaic of shiny mirrors and stitched geometric motifs, in a style called lepo. Patchwork, quilting, needlework and embroidery are combined in as many ways as there are artisans, making each Banjara piece totally unique.
I had met Mangibai six years back. On my first travel to India I stayed for a while in Hampi, a town in Karnataka made of ancient ruins and temples, impressive boulders and backpackers life that is slowly turning into a neat archeological site. She was one of the many women selling handmade souvenirs around the bazaar, and every afternoon I would find her sitting on the floor in front of the same yellow wall, sewing tiny mirrors to colourful pieces of cloth. She would work and scare monkeys away at the same time. And I would often sit around, watching or chatting with broken words, or even trying to sew tiny broken mirror to my bag. She would smile, joke around and try to sell me anything every time “You happy, me happy, good price”. At the end of the month I had gathered bracelets, belts, bags, purses and a bright skirt from her stall. A most beautiful skirt that whenever I wore back at home would tell the story of a gipsy lady from Hampi bazaar. I kept her picture in my mind as a precious memory, and her crafts as a treasure from “my Banjara crafts lady”. She does not remember me, of course, and calls me “Tomorrow”. But she opens her eyes wide when she sees a photograph of herself I had taken six years back. “Same, same? Beautiful?”, she asks for confirmation of the obvious, and shows it around to a little crowd that gathers. “Beautiful?”.
“This one, my mother made”, says Mangibai pointing at an old belt with mirrors and coins. “This one, I make”. As we have often seen with crafts all over Asia, the skills of Banjara crafts makers are transmitted from mother to daughter and from neighbour to friend, and women sit around working together in this corner of India just like the felt makers in the villages of Kyrgyzstan or the kilim weavers we met in Iran. In one of the photographs that I bring her, Mangibai is working next to another lady a bit younger than her. “Sister!” – She points to the woman. “Bad sister” – she frowns – “Stole six piece.” Apparently she was not her real sister, but a neighbour, a relative or a friend. I fail to understand what happened between them, but little does it matter by now: “Sister, dead”- Mangibai explains – a fever, probably dengue, had taken her away.
Mangibai’s stall is a collection of new and old, or large and small, finished and unfinished pieces of embroidered Banjara crafts. After a while I realize I can recognize half of her stuff. She has not sold many of the older pieces in six years, irregular, worn out and wonderful as they are. And she no longer makes blouses or skirts or bags. The newly made things are only small bracelets and anklets. At first I wonder if it is for market reasons,maybe bracelets are what foreign girls like; but then I look carefully at her watery eyes and a missing falange in one of her fingers…Forty five years sewing and embroidering by a dusty road are not everyone’s dream work. But she keeps on, needle and thread in hand, sewing tiny bells and shells to fabric bracelets and looking up from time to time to wink and smile at anyone who passes by. “Tomorrow, tomorrow!”, she calls us the next morning when we walk by her patch of floor. We wish her good health and the same funny mood for many year to come. And walk away secretly wishing that in six years time, when we come back again, she will be still be sitting around the streets of the bazaar with that big smile coloured with paan. And a part of me wishes, or better said hopes, that in that future time there will still be something here, something else than ruins and monkeys and us, tourists, roaming about.
The Banjara are also called Vanjara, Lambani orGormati. The word Banjara is said to be derived from Sanskrit word vana chara (wanderers in jungle).The word Lambani or Lamani is derived from Sanskrit word lavana (salt) which was the principal good they transported across the country. Ghor or Ghormati means “the nation with the oxen”.
And a little request: if anyone has good info, links or materials on the history, culture and crafts of the Banjara, I would be most grateful if you would leave a comment and share. Thank you!
This post is part of the series Handmade in Asia (also known among friends as Snail Trails), a roving initiative to document, collect and share crafts from the places we pass by and the artisans we meet on our way from Europe to India overland. Because there is a life behind the souvenirs and we are curious to see what it looks like. If you also want to know more click here for artisan’s and craft stories.