Unpretentious, sturdy, and filled with earthy verve, Toda embroidery is etched in the social fabric of Tamil Nadu. This embroidery is an enigmatic and elegant art form practised by the Todas, a pastoral, tribal community that resides amidst the rumbling hills of Nilgiri.
Like any other tribal community, the Todas draw much of their inspiration from nature, and as a result, the motifs used in the embroidery are a nod to local flowers (such as pugur), animals (buffaloes, rabbits and their ears), farming nuances, and myriad other elements of nature. Folklore and religious songs, too, find a place in a traditionally stitched Toda shawl. This type of embroidery is typically found on shawls and cloaks, known as poothkuli. Colloquially known as ‘pukhoor’, the embroidery is usually worked by women of the tribe, and men accompany them too.
What is particularly remarkable is that the Todas lead their lives as an intimate, close-knit community, a social streak that reflects rather immensely on the handiwork itself. Essentially characterised by the usage of red and black (with the occasional blue) threads, worked together with intricacy and harmony on a white cloth, the embroidery, quite unsurprisingly, achieved its rightful Geographical Indication (GI) status in 2012.
The motifs that make up the embroidery are so fine that to the untrained eye, it may seem like they are merging into the cloth as if they were an entire weave by themselves. The embroidery is conventionally performed on a thick, rugged white cloth, with black and red woollen threads. The cloth usually measures five metres in length and around a metre in width, with two panels created on either sides, which are eventually stitched with one another. A principle that this style follows is for the embroidery to be done within bands, and not outside them. The number of bands, however, may vary. These bands are placed approximately six inches apart and red and black threads are used on the alternate bands. On one end of the cloth the number of bands that are stitched are usually three, with two consisting of red threads and one consisting black. Karnol is the name of the embroidery done on the left part of the fabric, whereas the right part is known as karthal. The thread count is key for the embroidery to yield clean, impeccable, and detailed geometric motifs. The whole process is carried out by a darning stitch needle.
In Toda embroidery, it seems that every stitch has a story to tell, a meaning that is waiting to be conveyed—for instance, it is believed that the black of the embroidery represents the goings-on of the netherworld, the red, the essence of the earth, while the white signifies empyrean elements. While fabrics adorned with Toda embroidery are religiously worn by the elderly of the tribe, the younger generations now wear it only during festivities or ceremonial occasions.
As of 2015, nearly 2,000 Todas lived across 65 villages burrowed in the Nilgiri hills. Poovadevi is one member of the tribe, who, earnestly imparts knowledge of the embroidery to a larger audience.
Today, Toda embroidery is widely practised by enterprising women of the tribe, who, using their age-old skills and finesse, have not only been able to generate income but also garner recognition and appreciation from the world over for their unparalleled art. In recent times, Toda embroidery finds itself incorporated in many spheres such as lifestyle (table cloths, cushions, mats, bedspreads, etc.) fashion (shawls, tunics, dupattas, skirts, bags, and more), the arts—and in some cases, even Christmas decorations. In fact, many Government and nongovernmental institutions, designers and experts are endeavouring to revive this art form but the true impact might only come about if there is a repositioning of the embroidery as a relevant, modern-day rendition of its past.