The identity of Kondh textile is distinctive compared to other needlecrafts of Odisha. Dongria Kondh textile represents the social and cultural context of gender as well as their relation with the material culture. In examining the role of gender in the making of handcrafted tradition, this article focuses how the myths and legends associated with the textiles narrate the story of Niyamgiri hills of creation (Fig. 1). The ethnographic material presented here, travelling across time and space, encompasses varied expression of ‘representation and symbolism’ of the kapdagonda (textiles in the local kui dialect) and Niyamgiri.
These groups of Adivasi live in the Niyamgiri hills of Kandhmal district of Odisha, practising slash and burn farming for sustenance for several generations. Dongria Kondhs are basically agriculturists and among their community it is the women who primarily contribute towards agriculture. They consider themselves close to nature and their association with Niyamgiri is similar to the notion of ‘people understanding of their environment as their parent’.1 Kondhs look towards the nature as their giver, Niyamgiri thus as
the creator, protector obliges kondh to follow his rules or ‘niyam ku niyam’ and satisfy him with Meriah Purba-human sacrifice.2 According to them, it is the Niyam Raja who created the customs, the god and goddess, the river and the vegetation. Hence, the Niyamgiri hills where they live are subject to the mercy of Niyam Raja and still belong to Him. They follow what He said and follow the rules made by Him. After the abolition of the act of human sacrifice, Kondh began to practise the Meria ritual to please Niyam Raja by sacrificing a male buffalo to the Jhakeri kudi (Gram Devi or village-goddess) (Fig. 2). She is the Village-Goddess created by the Niyam Raja who protects the villagers from the evil eyes. This explains how the myths are integrated into the society. This article will now discuss how the strong beliefs of the Kondh are associated with their kapagonda or textiles made by the Kondh women.
Kondh women and Textiles
Whilst living in the hills of Niyamgiri, Kondh women devote most of their time in cultivation as it is their prime source of sustenance. As discussed earlier, their relation with nature is such that agriculture is imperative, thus, making of textiles is secondary after their daily household activities. Moreover, it is only during the leisure hours, either in a dormitory or during relaxed hours in the field that Kondh women practice their traditional craft. It is interesting to note how Kondh women in the midst of agricultural and household activities render the beautiful textile encompassing several years of narratives together bound to the thread.
Bold and beautiful Dongria Kondh women look magnificent with the white kapdagonda covering their body minus the back enhanced with silver and beaded ornaments. Most of them cover their back with the shawl—traditionally embroidered by the Kondh women. However, this textile is now replaced by the locally purchased towels to a large extent. Kondh women’s everyday routine begins early in the morning, wearing the traditional Kapdagnda (short length running fabric similar to sari) (Fig. 3) to the field, carrying the materials along with them. Usually their hair bun is the place where they carefully fix their suji (needle) along with the suta (thread) plus multiple hairpins and flowers for decoration. In addition to this, they keep katuri (small sickle-shaped tool) (Figs 4-5) as an adornment of hair and a necessary tool for cutting threads. Whether it is textile or agriculture, Kondhs still practise the indigenous methods, thus pursuing the tradition of their ancestors.
This tradition of making shawl is practised in the villages of Khajuri, Hundijali, Kurli, adrakuma, and other surrounding villages and is limited to the older generation. Very few among the younger generations are keen on learning the craft because the intricacy of pattern needs both skill and patience. Travelling across time and space, the art of making kapdagonda passed on from one generation to other carrying on the threads of tradition. In this passage of time, Kondhs have retained their tradition as it their legacy that they have received from their ancestors. Thus, while living in the dormitory young Kondh girls learn the tradition and the craftsmanship from their seniors till they are betrothed or married. The skilled work of kapdagonda illustrates varied expression of gender in relation to material culture, a sensory process of blending and assorting material together, crafting within their limitation of time and place. The following section will now discuss how Kondh women have been rendering the symbolic meaning and representation of Niyamgiri onto the fabric.
Enhanced with symbolic motifs and patterns this textile is made for occasional purposes only such as for their beloved and rituals. An ‘act of exchange of textile’3 from the unmarried Dhangiri (Kondh girl) to her Dhangara (Kondh man) as a sign of bonding and love means positive gesture and future relationship. This textile, which cannot be easily separated from the person4 carrying social messages, life stories or biographies,5 is an exemplary of art and symbolism in the social process of creation.
Embroidery of Kapdagonda involves indigenous methods for which Kondh women collect the base fabric from the Jhigri village near Bissam Cuttack woven by the underprivileged community and the suta or threads for embroidery are procured from the local Chatikona haat bazaar. This hand woven, off-white thick and coarse textured fabric is enhanced with bold geometrical patterns and colours. The design and patterns are not traced or drawn; they count the threads in order to construct the symmetrical geometrical motifs that appear similar on the reverse side of the fabric as well. Sometime threads in the horizontal or weft direction are loosened or replaced with multicoloured threads to achieve keri— diagonal lines (Figs 4-5). The field research indicates that these geometrical patterns embroidered on the shawl are the representation of the Niyamgiri hill. As discussed earlier, Kondhs association with Niyamgiri hills is such that it reflects in textile as well as in paintings (Jhakeri Kudi wall painting—Fig .2). Moreover, the triangular motifs called as Khandua are created with floating threads that symbolize the abode of Jhakeri Kudi and the circular pattern-kanka rendered with buttonhole stitches represents the eyes of Jhakeri Kudi in order to protect them from the evil eyes. Thus, motifs of Kapdagonda portray the story of Niyamgiri hills of creation (Fig. 6).
The Dongria Kondh textile illustrates cultural and social context of kapdagonada, particularly the role of gender in relation to material culture and the narratives. It is not only an exemplary of art but also a ‘symbolic representation’ of their identity.
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