Shanta Bai, a Lambani tribal woman from Sandur in Bellary district of Karnataka, is no ordinary woman. She is one of the governing members of the Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra, a local society that has been instrumental in reviving the traditional crafts of the Lambani tribe in association with Dastkar, a New Delhi-based NGO promoting tribal and folk arts and crafts. The Lambanis are known for their distinctive embroidery work.
Shanta Bai has been doing embroidery for 21 years now. She says the craft has been her road to emancipation in the feudal and male-dominated society she grew up in. Dastkar chairperson Laila Tyabji describes Shanta Bai as talented, feisty and incredibly bright, someone who rebelled against social norms at the age of 18 by walking out of a bad marriage and then having a child out of wedlock.
“We were always very poor. My mother gave birth to 11 children. Only six of them are still alive,” she says. “Most people from my community worked in the mines, or as construction or farm labour.”
As a child, she remembers, she would often watch her mother and aunts do Lambani embroidery on their own clothes. But it was seen only as a hobby. Everyone in her family and neighbourhood used to tell her that she was only expected to do housework in the future. She married when she turned 18. “My in-laws made me do hard labour on the farms. I walked out of the marriage as I used to be quite unhappy and depressed during those years,” she says.
Later, she signed up for crafts training at the Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra, where she was paid Rs 300 a month. “I worked hard from 9 am to 6 pm every day, learning to do embroidery,” she recalls.
Wondering why embroidery wasn’t considered a form of art, she began exploring the possibilities of turning it into a dignified source of livelihood. “We were taught the value of our own work. I was amazed. I learnt that urban people and foreigners like to display artefacts in their homes. Our dupattas would be their wall hangings,” she says. “A sense of symmetry comes naturally to us, but the products of our labour and skill can be beautiful art to someone else, who would be happy to pay for them.”
In 2001, at the age of 25, Shanta Bai won the National Master Craftsperson Award for her creation, a 5ft x 3ft embroidered wall hanging.
When the rains fail, the Lambanis go to other villages to cut sugarcane. But unlike the other villagers, Shanta Bai has enough on her plate, with a regular demand for her embroidery work. So she doesn’t have to leave her village because of hunger.
“My craft is my religion and god,” she says. She wants her teenage son to become a designer and take the Lambani route to excel in life.