A group of about 20 women arrive at the Dongariya Kondh Development Agency (DKDA) every morning for their embroidery training sessions. One group has been coming from Hundijali for a week now, a village about an hour into the hills from Bissumcuttack by the jeep they take, and then about half an hour on foot. ‘It's steep,’ says Sukri Kadraka, aged about 35, who is helping the women out with embroidery. ‘You have to climb a lot. Will you be able to?’ She speaks Kui, a language spoken by the Dongariya Kondhs.
The women from Hundijali will be training for 15 days at the DKDA office, after which women from another village will start. ‘It's really more time for the women to sit and embroider. They are unable to give embroidering much time at home because they spend their days working in the fields,’ says Ramesh Nulla, an employee with the DKDA who has worked with the Dongariya Kondh community for many years now.
The Dongariya Kondhs are a particularly vulnerable tribal group who live in the Niyamgiri Hills in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts in east Odisha. The 2007 Census pegs their total population at 6,340 with 1,457 households across the region. The DKDA works with the community to improve health, housing, education and such areas, and is funded by the SC and ST Development Department. This training in embroidery is part of the agency's efforts to encourage women to embroider more so that they can earn an income through the sale of Kapdagondas—shawls that the Dongariya Kondh women embroider.
The Dongariya Kondh women begin to learn embroidering young. Sukri started when she was about nine or ten. Telanga Jakesika, who is about 16, doesn't remember when she started to embroider. She can embroider a whole shawl without any assistance already. Kumri Sikoka, aged about 26, says she learnt to embroider from her aunt when she was about nine or ten years old. All the women say their aunts taught them. Their atta, father's sister, they explain. Young women in the Dongariya Kondh community live in dormitories (Chaudhury 1989) —houses that young women live in in every village. It is in these dormitories that they learn to embroider from others. Their Atta, however, is the one who all of them say they began to learn embroidering from.
Figure One: Kumri Sikoka (left) and Sukri Kadraka (right) embroidering together
Binjo Jakesika, aged about 35, embroiders in the evenings after she gets back from the farms. ‘There is a lot to do. In the winter now, there's wood cutting. Harvesting is going on now—of millets, ragi, we are all harvesting right now,’ she says. ‘There's also sweeping,’ Sukri chimes in. ‘Chopping wood in the forests and getting it back home, fetching water from the streams, sweeping the house when we get back...’ she trails off. ‘Clothes must also be washed,’ adds Binjo. The women find time, if at all, to embroider only in the evenings after chores are taken care of. ‘We mostly embroider with friends. The huts are close by so we sit behind the huts and embroider. Some of us embroider individually, some sit in groups in the village, it's of all sorts,’ says Sukri. The DKDA office consists of two squat buildings that serve as offices and space for workshops. There is space behind the office where the women work. They sit in circles, just how they must be sitting together in the evenings, embroidering. Every once in a while, one of them shifts out of the sun, into a shady spot on the razai. There are plants here in abundance and Telanga goes often to pluck some flowers and tuck them into her hair. She offers some to others as well.
Figure Two: A group of Dongariya Kondh women embroidering Kapdagondas
The Dongariya Kondhs live a life that is intricately entwined with the forests and the mountains they live in. They practice slash-and-burn cultivation, which means they clear a part of the mountain slopes to cultivate millets, ragi, khusla (a kind of rice), turmeric, ginger, chillies and a variety of fruits. They are especially fond of cultivating pineapples, mangoes, jackfruit, oranges and bananas. They shift from cultivating one patch of land to another every once in a while, for the soil to regain its fertility (Saxena et al 2010). The Dongariya Kondhs subsist on the food they produce and also make a living out of it. All the women spoken to said that they make a living off their farms. Site Jakesika, who is about 25, says she sells what her family cultivates on their farm in the weekly market. ‘Turmeric, ginger and roots from the jungle—the ones for eating, we sell them in the market. Leaves for making plates as well. That is the main source of income.’ Kumri collects leaves in the forests that she makes brooms out of and sells in the weekly market. The Dongariya Kondhs also sell mushrooms and honey, roots and tubers. All the women said they depended on the farms for a livelihood and that none of them depend on daily wage labour.
What then, of embroidering for a living? ‘Anwesha Tribal Arts and Crafts (a non-profit based in Odisha) first recognized that the shawls that the Dongariya Kondh women embroider could also be sold and that the women could earn some money through this. This was way back in the 1990s. No one sold these shawls then,’ says Nulla. Sukri and Binjo remember the Collector coming to their village a few years ago. ‘Some NGO people and the Collector had come to our village some years ago and said that we could make money out of this. They give us cloth to embroider and this thread,’ Sukri says, pointing to little bundles of yellow, green, dark brown and red thread.
The Dongariya Kondh women have been embroidering Kapdagondas for quite long. Quite long because no one has a definitive answer to how long. It's something they have learnt from older women in the family and carried on. Women embroider Kapdagondas for family members and sometimes for lovers; a boy may also gift one made by a family member to a girl he loves. Kapdagondas are worn during festivals—women wear it wrapped around the waist and tied around the neck, while also taking another Kapdagonda around the neck like a stole. Men wear Kapdagondas around the neck. The cloth, with a strip of orange running horizontally down the middle, is bought for about Rs 200 from weavers of the Domb community. ‘We used to give them pineapples and other fruits in exchange (for the cloth) but for a long time we have been paying for it at the weekly market or when the market is held in the villages,’ says Sukri. When the women embroider a Kapdagonda at home, it costs about Rs 300 for the material and takes anything between three months to a year to complete, depending on skill and time. Kumri says making a shawl is hard work, so she has made one for herself but not gifted any. Binjo, too, made one for herself that she wore to festivals and weddings until it tore and then she embroidered another. She hasn't embroidered any for anyone else. Site says she could gift a Kapdagonda but it is easier buying something from the market. ‘We do gift Kapdagondas but not so much anymore. It's a lot of hard work and now we buy gifts in the market. Towels and such. Also, men don't wear Kapdagondas so much anymore,’ she says. Women are embroidering fewer Kapdagondas—sarees can be bought in the market and some women at the training centre are wearing them. However, the number of women wearing what the Dongariya Kondh women traditionally do, cloth wrapped round the waist and tied around the neck, is much higher.
Figure Three: A Kapdagonda in progress.
Women from Hundijali have been selling Kapdagondas for about four or five years now. Their first customers appear to have been foreigners who visited Dongariya Kondh villages. ‘I bought gold and clothes with the two Kapdagondas I sold,’ says Kumri. She sold each of them for Rs 2,000 each to foreigners who had come to their village. Telanga hasn't sold any Kapdagondas yet, but she doesn't take a second to decide what she wants to do with the money she's going to earn selling the one she is embroidering right now. ‘Gold,’ she says. ‘And clothes.’ Site sold a Kapdagonda for Rs 1,200 and bought gold bangles, a saree and a towel. The women wear gold nose rings and earrings and most say that is what they have bought with the Kapdagondas they sold. Site says that earning money from embroidering helps in being more independent. She doesn't have to give any money at home, but it's important that she fends for herself. ‘In our culture they don’t ask unmarried young people for money. If you work, you get money and you can spend that money on yourself. In our tribal culture, if you are young, you don’t need to depend on your family or parents. If I earn money, I have to purchase for my daily needs,’ she says.
Buses full of tourists stop by the DKDA office in Bissumcuttack, minutes away from the street where the weekly market takes place on Wednesdays. Very few tourists are Indian. ‘Most are German and Danish,’ Jitu Jataka, aged about 25, says. He studied in Bhubhaneshwar and is one of the few Dongariya Kondhs who speaks Hindi or English. He arranges for tourists to visit the weekly market and villages further uphill. Jitu says he was able to sell 17 Kapdagondas to tourists for about Rs 70,000. That makes it about Rs 4,000 each. The women, though, say the most they have been able to sell a Kapdagonda for is about Rs 2,500. The negotiating power appears to lie more with the buyer, less with the women selling them. ‘2,000 is okay, 3,000 is also okay. I am happy with 2,000, I am happy with 3,000 also,’ Kumri says. Binjo hasn't sold any Kapdagondas yet, but she is decided she wants Rs 3,000 for it. ‘They tell us how much they will pay. If they ask how much then we tell,’ she says. ‘The foreigners go to their villages and buy Kapdagondas from the women. ‘For some reason, they pay more for what the women have made for themselves than for brand-new Kapdagondas,’ Nulla says. ‘They tell us a price. Sometimes we negotiate. Now we negotiate more. Sometimes 2,500 also,’ says Sukri. The foreigners also buy katris, the dagger-shaped hair ornament the women wear. Kumri sold one that she had bought for Rs 50 for Rs 400 to a foreigner. Negotiating power is gradually increasing.
Training at the DKDA pays the women Rs 100 a day for embroidering from about nine in the morning to about three in the afternoon; lunch is included. The women are given cloth and thread, and the Kapdagondas will be sold by the DKDA. ‘I don't know how much the Kapdagonda will be sold for,’ says Binjo. ‘We never asked, how will we know?’ asks Site.
Figure Four: Site Jakesika, embroidering a Kapdagonda.
Not all women from Hundijali have sold Kapdagondas; Jitu says that this might have to do with Hundijali being higher up in the hills and more difficult of access than villages downhill, where he says women are likely to have sold more Kapdagondas. The Dongariya Kondh women don't consider embroidery to be a dependable source of income yet. At most, they look at it as an extra, but occasional means of making money. ‘The main work is farming, we do this only when we have more time,’ says Bami Shikoka, aged about 40. ‘There isn't enough time. And there are colourful sarees in the market, with designs. This used to be white (the sarees) and we would embroider on it. Now it's in the market,’ she says. The women barely have the time to embroider for themselves, embroidering to sell is harder work. Nor are there as many buyers as the women would need to earn consistently through embroidering. ‘In embroidery there is little to sell. In farming there is more to sell. There is food for home also. Embroidery takes a lot of time. What if there is no one to sell it to? It's also hard work. Farming gives money and food so it's obviously more important,’ says Binjo. Nulla says that the locals don't buy Kapdagondas. ‘These are too expensive for the locals to buy. Also, it is tribal clothing, which the locals will not wear,’ he says.
The women say that they earn well through farming. ‘That is the main source of money. We sell ginger, turmeric, pineapples and papayas and such,’ Sukri says. Farming is hard work too but the women clearly prefer that to embroidering. ‘I enjoy embroidering but here it is too much,’ she says. ‘My eyes spin in my head. My neck and back hurt. At the training, doing it all day long hurts the back,’ she explains. Others agree. Binjo says she doesn't embroider that much. ‘We spend a lot of time embroidering now (at the training) and my back and eyes and fingers hurt. It is different from embroidering for just some time in the evening. Then I make them at home in the evenings when I have time,’ she says. She doesn't intend to put in a lot of time making Kapdagondas to sell. ‘I don't want to do that much embroidery because it is too much hard work. This is my first training but this is a lot of work. It's too much embroidery to do. Eight hours a day sitting (hunched) like this. This training is a lot of work, it's okay but it's hard work,’ she says. Sukri has sold a few Kapdagondas but she doesn't put in extra effort towards embroidering more so she can sell more of them. ‘Not so much (embroidering) when I'm at home,’ she says. ‘More now for the past week because training has been going on. But not so much every day. Maybe 15 minutes, maybe an hour.’ Women work on the farms and also do all of the housework. Making time to embroider more than they usually do is tiresome. ‘I get very tired and very worried as well. There is too much work. There is housework, then going to the jungles and also work on the fields. The girls work a lot. The boys don’t work so much,’ says Site. She adds that when there is time to relax, she doesn't feel like embroidering.
None of the women have been to handloom exhibitions or stores where the Kapdagondas they make are sold. They are well aware, though, that there is a demand for what they embroider. ‘They come here, they ask whether they can buy shawls in the market,’ she says. She would like to talk to the foreigners who come to the market, but language is an issue. The women say they wouldn't mind learning new ways of embroidering. ‘It is the same for both home and market. The designs remain the same because there are very few motifs anyway,’ says Sukri. Kumri says she doesn't mind learning new designs. ‘If I can make more money then I will make more shawls. If we are making more money then we will work faster and make more shawls,’ says Site.
Chaudhury, S.K. 1989. ‘Social Organisation of the Kondhs: Some Preliminary Observations’. Indian Anthropologist 19.1/2:31–51.
Saxena, N.C., Parasuraman, S., Kant, P., & Baviskar, A. 2010. ‘Report of the four-member committee for investigation into the proposal submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for Bauxite Mining in Niyamgiri. Unpublished Report submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.
Interviews conducted with women from the Dongariya Kondh community and employees of the Dongariya Kondh Development Agency November 8–14, 2017.
Data available with the Dongariya Kondh Development Agency.