Most of us probably don’t think about the everyday clothes that we wear beyond how it suits the weather, what mood we are in, and if we are going out for a special occasion. In India clothing says a lot about your social status, which caste you belong to, which region you come from, and even religious beliefs. For the majority of women in India the sari has been the popular choice for countless generations. Made of cotton, silk or factory blends and the 5 to 7 yards (4.5 to 6.5 meters) of fabric that make up a sari are wrapped on the body in countless ways depending on where the wearer lives.
One of the most notable differences to the sari is seen in the Banjara people. The Banjara, also known as the Lambadi, are a nomadic people living predominantly in the state of Rajasthan. Their origins are lost in the mists of time, but the word ‘Banjara’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘vanchar,’ van means forest and char means wanderers. The Banjara are also ethnically related to the European Romany gypsies, who migrated from India in the 11th century.
The Banjara are noted for their wonderful textiles which are made exclusively by women. A woman will typically wear a skirt, blouse and shawl, all handmade and richly decorated. Banjara textiles are all about the signalling and maintenance of identity. Accompanying the clothes are numerous bangles to each arm, anklets and strings of necklaces hung with numerous silver Hindu amulets. Each element is correlated to regional origin and marital status; male attire is blandly non-distinctive by comparison. The most notable feature of these textiles, apart from the vibrant colours and intricate embroidery, is the inclusion of mirrors to the front and back.
Banjara embroidery does not boast the figured motifs found in the needlework throughout much of India. There are no flowers or carefully stitched paisley patterns, and with very few exceptions, there are no animals, either. Instead, the Banjara create elaborate designs using simple shapes and line work. Outlines of circles, rectangles, zigzags, and squares are carefully stitched onto cloth and filled in with even more stitching. In some of the more elaborate textiles produced by the Banjara, nearly every inch of the surface is covered in stitching.
Noticeable are small imperfections in the embroidery. While these might look like careless mistakes or poor planning, in reality these bits are very purposefully placed. The Banjara believe that perfect cloth encourages hubris, and hubris is punished by divine forces.
The dazzling mirrors synonymous with their attractive clothes have a logical reason behind them. They acted as reflectors of sunlight to dangerous animals and were used to scare them away when the women were tending to the flocks or gathering food. They also have a spiritual significance, being used to deflect the baleful influence of the evil eye. Women also use tattoos to protect them from the evil eye, and they also help identify people from the community.
At Buxton Museum and Art Gallery we have a beautiful Banjara blouse that is decorated with buttons and large mirror discs. The embroidery is extremely fine and is coloured using natural dyes. This formed part of the Derbyshire School Library Service and is now going to be transferred to the Oriental Museum in Durham as part of an Esmee Fairbairn funded project. At Durham it will form part of the permanent display looking at the global transmission of ideas and culture along the Silk Road.