Brown-eyed Vasamalli points to her nose and says, “Looking at our features, like the shape of our noses, people think we are part of an ancient Sumerian culture or that we are descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers. We are not aware of any such lineage. All we know are the Nilgiris and ourselves. Eshwara created us and we are very close to the five elements in nature.”
Vasamalli, who smashes myth and mystery with her words, is the first college graduate and one of the most respected members of the Toda tribe, a group of 1400 people spread across 125 hamlets (or mund, as they call them) in the Nilgiri range in Tamil Nadu. They are a pastoral community, sometimes nomadic, and almost entirely dependent on their herds of buffaloes for livelihood and sustenance. Considering the land as holy, they walk barefoot; considering animals as their friends, they don’t eat meat. There is an enviable bond that this tribe has cultivated with their mountainous ecosystem. The Todas are recognizable by their fair features, silver jewellery, tattoos and women’s hair neatly styled (with ghee) into ringlets. But the most significant marker of the tribe is its iconic poothukuli – a shawl worn like a Roman toga, a suitable defence against the chilly hilltop winds and embroidered with metaphors of the Nilgiris and Toda life.
“Pooth” is Toda for “to wrap,” from which this ceremonial garment derives its name. Worn across the back like a shawl, with a striped end thrown over the left shoulder, it is identical for both men and women, but differs in the manner of styling. While men wear it from across the right to the left shoulder, women drape it more like a saree – from under the arm and over the left shoulder. Furthermore, men drape it such that it reaches just below the waist, while women wear it full length, covering the whole body from the neck to the ankles, with stripes running vertically down the front of the body.
For a tribe that daily and ritually bases its life on its surrounding environment, the poothukuli belies literal associations. If you were expecting curvy floral motifs or lifelike representations of local fauna, the poothukuli is a sartorial surprise. It is controlled. It is mathematical. It is modern. With a series of abstract lines and geometrical patterns, the poothukuli transforms its untameable surroundings into a metrical system. Mountains, valleys, snakes, rabbits, sunflowers, peacocks, butterflies, honeycombs and grains of rice – a living universe finds its textile presence in the form of these abstractions. Of all these motifs, the most significant one is the semi-circular buffalo horn, homage to a creature that is central to Toda life.
The Toda women embellish the poothukuli with these bold line-based designs by counting and picking up threads, a process called ‘counted threadwork.’ Vasamalli, whose name means “fragrant jasmine,” sits outside her house in the morning light and works on a poothukuli, expertly counting the stitches and humming along a Toda song. Measuring approximately 2.5 x 1.75 yards in size, the poothkuli is two pieces of cloth made into one. “Wit-kuth” and “ad-kuth” are embroidered separately and later stitched together, and Vasamalli reiterates the obvious, “Because they will be united like husband and wife, you know.” She stitches a variation of the peacock’s tail feather, what the Todas call metiv kon pukhoor, shaped like a diamond. It is a matter of great practice and second nature to the elderly expert, who makes a graceful art of stitching by numbers. She doesn’t use a frame and turns the cloth around freely with every stitch she completes. Vasamalli explains, “The threads have to be stitched perfectly so that you can see the design on both sides. It’s like latitude and longitude.”
What is most striking about the poothukuli is its stark colour palette – a classic trifecta of buttercream, black and red. Sometimes, there is the occasional blue as well, and is called “arz muditch noorzh” by the Todas or “English lady’s thread.” The colours represent the stages of life – a butter coloured base cloth for infancy, red for adolescence and black for maturity. The reds and the blacks have their own space in the poothukuli, becoming stripes and motifs, and no thread runs amok.
Childhood, youth, adulthood – from life to death, here is the Todas’ constant companion. Man and woman wear the poothukuli at the “post-pregnancy ceremony.” The deceased are shrouded by the poothukuli on the pyre. Vasamalli explains that the poothukuli has a stitched pocket or a “kush”, which is “very handy while travelling,” but of more use to those departing their earthly abodes.
“When a person dies, we place things like jaggery, honey and millets for him/her to take to the other world,” she says. The poothukuli meant for funerals is the most elaborate, with several important motifs sewn in such as “tor pukhoor” and “ashki.” The “ashki” or the rice grain motif is one that is used sparsely by the community and mainly seen on the funereal poothukuli, and that too in fewer numbers. The Todas believe in keeping the soul’s journey a hassle-free one; too many rice grain motifs will make the poothukuli-covered soul too heavy for birds to carry to the afterworld.
At Ooty, the headquarters of the Nilgiris, there is a growing demand for Toda products. For long, Vasamalli headed the government-funded Toda Embroidery Cooperative Society in Ooty. Younger women in the community routinely go the co-op to fetch cotton cloth and deliver embroidered shawls. The emergence of this market has translated into gradual changes in the Toda embroidery practices. Wooden needles and thread have been phased out for regular metal ones and woollen yarn. While powerloom cloth is available, the Toda women however, still prefer to work on handloom fabric procured from weavers in the neighbouring Karur district. Most Toda households that make embroidered products such as bedspreads and cushion covers for sale now possess a sewing machine, necessary for giving a final finishing. In the community, most youngsters have kept with the times and have now resorted to denims and t-shirts. Change is seeping into the Toda lifestyle.
Does this mean that the sacred stitching by numbers of the poothukuli is under threat of commercialisation? Given the remote location of the Todas, the poothukuli has resisted many of the changes that have affected other traditional arts in India. The poothukuli remains an endemic art, a discovery for travellers and tourists. Then there are some perks for the Todas – an additional source of income and a way of telling their stories to the world. Bearing the poothukuli in her hands, Vasamalli, has travelled to Rome, Dhaka and Durban representing a Toda culture, often side-lined by histories of mainstream India. The only word of caution is sensitivity on the part of establishments and designers who may wish to be inspired by the Toda embroider, for the poothukuli is not just a textile art form; it is way of life.
Ms. Vasamalli can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org