The Dongariya Kondh women embroider Kapdagondas for their family members, lovers and themselves. The Kapdagonda, they say, is an expression of love. Women usually gather in the evenings behind their homes and embroider together. A Kapdagonda may take anything between 15 days to six months to embroider. If a woman embroiders all day for two weeks straight, then she can complete it, depending on her skill. Not all women embroider every day though; they usually embroider as and when they have time. Nor do all women know embroidering; some do, some don't, and there is no compulsion for each of them to learn the art.
Kapdagondas are shawl-like pieces of cloth used by the Dongariya Kondhs during festivals and weddings. Popularly sold as shawls or stoles, Kapdagondas are used by Dongariya Kondh women in three-piece sets – wrapped around the waist, slung and tied across the neck, with another piece taken like a stole around the neck. The men wear it wrapped around the waist and some might also take it around the neck like a stole.
The Dongariya Kondhs live a life that is deeply connected with the mountains they live in, the forests and the crops they cultivate. They subsist on these crops and depend on them for a living. Their religious life finds connection with their economic life – they worship Niyam Raja, the mountain God, who is worshipped during all festivals and for whom animal sacrifices are made. Dharini Pennu is the Earth Goddess, or Mother Goddess, to whom a temple is dedicated at the centre of every Dongariya Kondh village. Motifs that are embroidered on the Kapdagondas are all connected to the environment and with the religious beliefs of the Dongariya Kondhas, both of which are intrinsically connected to each other. The motifs on the Kapdagondas represent the mountains the community lives and farms on, the crops they cultivate, the instruments they use in the forests and animal sacrifice made during festivals. The temple walls, on the outside and the inside, are painted with some of the same motifs embroidered on the Kapdagondas, usually triangles and diagonal lines in yellow and red. The same motifs are also painted on the walls of homes. All of this, women from the community say, is done to please the gods and make them happy.
Dongariya Kondh women who embroider Kapdagondas buy the cloth at the weekly market, along with thread in red, green, yellow and dark brown. Altogether, this costs about Rs 300. Only one man from the Domb community continues to weave this cloth and this has been a cause for concern among organisations who work with the Dongariya Kondhs on selling Kapdagondas. This cotton cloth, which usually comes with a strip of pale orange woven down the middle, the thread and a katri (a hair ornament shaped like a dagger) is all the women use to embroider Kapdagondas.
Figure One. A half-finished Kapdagonda, with thread and a katri.
Motifs and Design
Motifs embroidered on Kapdagondas are the same; variations occur in design, but the motifs don't change. For example, a triangular motif may be embroidered bigger on one shawl and smaller on the other, or there might be variations in the circles embroidered on the Kapdagondas. However, the motifs remain the same because each of them represents something specific, and the women do not come up with new motifs every time they embroider a Kapdagonda. They follow a similar pattern and embroider the same motifs but may make minor changes in design according to taste.
Figure Two. A partly embroidered Kapdagonda.
Linga: The triangle in horizontal red (netru) and dark brown (kadi) stands for the mountains that the Dongariya Kondhs live in and worship. Called Linga, it denotes the mountain God, Niyam Raja, that the Dongariya Kondha community worships. This triangle is horizontally embroidered in lines of red or dark brown. The dark brown (kadi) signifies the soil that the community cultivates.
Figure Three. A row of lingas embroidered at the top of the Kapdagonda and a row of kralis lining the bottom.
Krali: The triangle in all red (netru) denotes an axe as well as blood. Axes are useful not only in the forests but also during Meriyaparba, a harvest festival believed to bring prosperity and which is literally translated as ‘buffalo festival’ because a buffalo is sacrificed to Niyam Raja. Animal sacrifice is common during other festivals as well. The krali is in red to denote the blood of the buffalo when it is sacrificed.
Akka: The larger triangles in yellow and red denote leaves. These are not leaves of a particular species, but signify leaves in general. Yellow (hinga) is seen conspicuously on Kapdagondas because the Dongariya Kondhas cultivate and sell turmeric in large quantities. It is also one of the few ingredients they use to season food.
Kairi: The diagonal lines in red, yellow and green symbolise farms. The Dongariya Kodhas cultivate a variety of fruits and crops, including pineapple, orange, mangoes, jackfruit, bananas, ginger and turmeric. They not only subsist on cultivation but also make a living out of it.
Kanaka: The circle in red with an outline in green stands for the eyes. This circle can be in different colours and is usually placed between a row of akkas (the triangles that symbolize leaves). Eyes are crucial to embroidery and hence form part of the motifs on the Kapdagondas.
Figure Four. The row of large triangles in red and yellow are the akka, with kanakas in between, while the rows of smaller diagonally embroidered green and yellow lines above and below the akkas are the kairis.
A Kapdagonda begins with the women cutting the thread into lengths that are easier to embroider with. The women wind the thread around their toes or thighs and cut the thread to workable lengths using a katri. The women may start embroidering from either end of the Kapdagonda, and embroider one row of motifs at a time. Done in satin stitch, it usually starts with a line of diagonally embroidered red, green and yellow lines, after which another row of motifs follows. After each row is embroidered, the women tug at the cloth, straightening that row of embroidery. All loose threads are snipped off with a katri after each row of motifs is completed. This process continues until the Kapdagonda is covered from one end to the other.
The Dongariya Kondh women used natural colours to dye white thread until coloured thread became available in the markets. The practice of dyeing apparently does continue in some Dongariya Kondh villages higher up in the hills, but most women now buy coloured thread available at the weekly market because it is convenient and saves time, while dyeing is time consuming. Even the oldest Dongariya Kondh women spoken to, who were about 60, did not recollect having ever dyed thread or the process of dyeing at all. To give a sketchy picture of the process of dyeing, red soil (geru mati), black soil and surama mati (soil mixed with graphite powder) are used to colour the thread. Budhi haldi, turmeric especially cultivated to dye cloth because the colour does not fade, was also used, and the colours were mixed with fluid from banana trees to make the dye. The Dongariya Kondh women still use soot that they scrape from the bottom of a pot after cooking as colour when they draw on the walls of temples and their houses.
Interviews conducted with women from the Dongariya Kondh community and employees of the Dongariya Kondh Development Agency, November 8–14, 2017.