These Tribal Women Can Teach Modern Designers a Thing or Two

The Toda community living in the Nilgiris has been making spectacular shawls since the 18th century.

3 min read
An elderly Toda tribal woman plaits a girl’s hair in front of their hut near the Indian hill station Udhagamandalam, or Ooty, in Tamil Nadu. (Photo: Reuters)

You can identify good designs by their simplicity and finesse, and this 18th century embroidery technique, Toda, easily passes these two checkpoints.

Red, black and white — a vivid combination of colours—is the dramatis personae here. The intricate geometric genius of this technique is brought to life pain-stakingly, by hand, by the women of the Toda tribe in the Nilgiri region of Tamil Nadu

The shawl adorned with Toda embroidery is called poothkuli. The beauty of this embroidery is rooted in the fundamentals of symmetry. The alternate red and black stripes look striking, and the motifs are created by counting the threads.

Patterns used in the embroidery are similar to the ones which were used as tattoos by the Toda men and women in olden days. Sample this:

Famous Delhi-based fashion designer Anupama Dayal is completely charmed.

Toda embroidery is fascinating. The symbolism is fantastic. The colours are extremely modern and will sit well in any context.
Anupama Dayal

The Toda has been identified as one of the six primitive tribal groups of Tamil Nadu. Their embroidery technique received the Geographical Indication status by the Central government in 2012.

 A Toda woman. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Keystone Foundation</a>)
A Toda woman. (Photo Courtesy: Keystone Foundation)

Although the numbers aren’t exact,there are approximately 1,500 members of the Toda community estimated to be living in the Nilgiris currently. With the scant numbers, and a lack of commercial know-how, Toda shawls never got the platform that other celebrated Indian embroideries have received.

Shalom, a self-help group working in the Nilgiris is working towards showcasing the traditional embroidery skills of Toda women on a global paltform.

It wants to make the Toda community’s cultural skill a symbol of its uniqueness. But founder Sheela Powell has tough challenges at hand.

Working with this community is a great challenge as they feel very threatened, even if someone wants to help them. At the same time, they are a very proud race. Proud of their craft, their culture, their uniqueness.
Sheela Powell, Founder, Shalom
A Toda tribal woman sports a hairstyle typical of her tribe in the Nilgiri hills in Udhagamandalam in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state. (Photo: Reuters)
A Toda tribal woman sports a hairstyle typical of her tribe in the Nilgiri hills in Udhagamandalam in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state. (Photo: Reuters)

What remains the most fascinating aspect of Toda embroidery though, is how these men and women, with their bare hands can create something so symmetrical — something we took years learning in geometry classes in school.

Perhaps this tribe has the best lessons to offer on the subject.

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