According to the International Work group of Indigenous Affairs there are 104 million indigenous people in India or approximately 8.5 % of the total population. They are organized around 705 officially recognized ethnic groups (termed by the constitution as Scheduled Tribes or Adivasis).
There is a historical overlap between their geographies and the Indian forests which have seen an intricate evolution of livelihood and economic exchanges with indigenous communities for centuries. The forests would not have survived without them and they would not have survived without the forests.
Members of the adivasi communities continue to be part of modern India but are increasingly getting alienated from their traditional forest based habitats. Some of them are doing their best to integrate forest based traditions with contemporary economic aspirations and need more support and recognition in their endeavours.
The Fellowship program believes that no global or regional initiative can be truly sustainable unless it is accompanied by strong, locally grounded and independently run activities. This is particularly true for indigenous communities who need access to their local habitat and increased support to integrate traditional and modern systems in their quest for livelihoods. Such moves also ensure that sustainable environmental practices get integrated into the mainstream economy - a goal desired by all, given the stressed environment we live in today.
The MAH Fellowship has a long-term vision to develop a network of intricate, locally managed projects that connect to regional, national and global businesses in a manner in which they will always have the final word while maintaining strong control on their environment, habitat and resources. We believe that without such strong, locally managed practices, regional, national and global businesses will never be able to truly achieve environmental and sustainable goals.
The fellowship program makes a humble launch this year with two fellows. As the enterprise grows so will the program. At present the fellows are selected by our team that works closely on the ground in the regions of Nasik and Kinwat (State of Maharashtra).
Our first fellows are Nikita Rathod who has just graduated as an architect. This year, she is working with women from her community the (Banjaras) who are interested in developing a modern business around the traditional embroidery which the community is known for. Our second candidate is Ashok Devram Rathod (no relation) who belongs to the Konkna community of northern Maharashtra. He is an entrepreneur working with photo and videography. He is keen on documenting the mahua landscape over one year as part of his fellowship program while simultaneously developing a plan of action for a local facility that aims to develop initiatives around the collection, processing and distribution of mahua flowers in his village.
Our fellows explored different parts of Maharashtra in the month of November, meeting organizations and understanding the local craft. [ In the adjoining photograph, a group of women from the Banjara community gathered to discuss their daughter's wedding]. In November, Ashok Rathod carried out field explorations in the Bhormal, a village in Nashik district of Maharashtra, where he witnessed an off-season baring of a Mahua tree. He met and interviewed the farmers of this tree to know more about this occurrence. Ashok also researched Air Potato, a wild vine locally known as karande. Together with his brother Vasant, Ashok also visited the local district offices in Surgana to meet with officials to understand various cooperative schemes. They met with a district officer at the Van Dhan Yojana Kendra (Tribal Department) to learn about government policies and subsidies for tribal forests.
Our second fellow Nikita Rathod spent the month researching various tribal empowerment start-ups and NGOs, particularly Banjanara projects in Central India. She collected and analysed secondary information on various business models. Following this, she travelled to Beed district for a case study on ‘Peno’ an organization that works with Gormati women and platforms their traditional embroidery and artefacts. She also interviewed Vijaya Pawar, the founder of ‘Peno’. While in Beed, Nikita visited prominent local landmarks and architectural sites to understand local design elements, patterns and motifs.
In December, our fellows continued to journey around Maharashtra's villages in search of different ways to make liquor from Mahua flowers and learn more about indigenous craftsmanship. [In the adjacent photo, Ashok is interacting with Malgonda village residents.] Ashok continues to explore new villages in order to gain a better understanding of the various species of Mahua trees. He went to the Malgoanda Village in Surgana Taluka in December and met with Rajaram Sitad, a local farmer, who took him on a tour of his farm and introduced him to the various crops he grows. There were two unusual Mahua trees among Rajaram's 40 Mahua trees, which are night bloomers referred to as 'Dhakad' in the local language. Ashok also conducted interviews with a few other residents of the same hamlet in order to gain a better understanding of the alcohol production process. He looked at the various ingredients e.g. Jaggery and dry red chili powder used in combination with Mahua flowers to make the alcohol, as well as how different methods of production affect the taste of the final product.
Nikita Rathod, our second fellow, spent her month learning more about the PENO Foundation's activities. She also visited a small village called Babi Tanda in Beed district during the same trip. There she met Ms. Vijaya Pawar who took her around the foundation's many manufacturing units and demonstrated how different goods are made. Ms. Pawar explained to her the complexities of labor and product management in a locally based community empowerment organization. Nikita spent a lot of time in the manufacturing unit learning about the various machinery that are used as well as the manufacturing costs of each product. Along with block printing and oxidized jewellery making, Nikita also learned about Azo dyes.
After her Beed visit, Nikita continued her local craft exploration in Goa. During her stay, visited the Department of Handicrafts, Textile and Coir. Carpentry, coirs, needlework, pottery, ceramics, and handloom were among the various local crafts she investigated. She learned about the weekly coir workshop in Panjim, which had recently been discontinued. Now, only the coir artist's work is on display in the local studio. After these two trips, Nikita has a better knowledge of how things function in the local crafts sector. She plans to continue researching more such business setups in the future to better understand the challenges they face in the competitive market.
In the month of January, our fellows continued their research in various parts of Maharashtra and Goa. Ashok went to Pimpalsod, a village in the Surganataluka. He met Mahadu Sukar Khotre, a farmer and local figure, there. Mr. Kotre had an interesting life, working odd jobs, teaching in the local school, and eventually becoming the Chaiman of the 'tribal Forest Worker Society.' He also served as the Sarpanch (Village Head) for five years. He enjoys farming and grows a variety of crops such as rice, nagli, and pulses. He also has 29 Mauha trees, which yield 3 to 4 tons of Mauha flowers each year. Ashok had an in-depth discussion with Mr. Khotre about farming economics, local agriculture practices, and various types of local vegetables such as Kurudu, Kvali, Shevla, Tera, and Loti, to name a few.
Nikita expanded her research by travelling to Goa and visiting the Department of Handicrafts, Textiles, and Coir in Panjim. She learned about the newly drafted 'Goa Integrated Skill Development Scheme-2014,'which will train local youths, young widowed women, and school dropouts from the state's rural areas in various handicrafts, textiles, and coir trades. She met the institution's manager, Mr. Madhav Shiva Chari. Mr. Chari showed her the various products on display in the visitor's shop and told her about their various sources. Morjim's Coco art was one such supplier. Mr. Sonu Shetgaonkar and his wife, Mrs. Sonali Shetgaonkar, own and operate the Coco art studio. They discussed the various materials used in their handicrafts to make jute products, embroidery, pottery, etc.
In February, our fellow visited Maharashtra's villages in search of different ways to understand the long-existing tradition of drinking the Mahua drink. Ashok Rathod carried out field explorations in Vadmal, a village in Nashik district of Maharashtra. Ashok interviewed Mr. Suresh Gawande, a resident of the village who practices, farming and cattle rearing as an occupation. Along with a small section of Mahua plantations, Mr. Ganwande also grows nachani (finger millet), rice, tur dal, and urad dal. Interestingly, Mr. Suresh mentions that the tradition of drinking Mahua in his family has been handed down generations. This home-prepared Mahua drink has become an essential part of their diurnal life and often accompanies his evening meal.
The above images show the Mahua making process from Separating and soaking them in different pots to bottling and having them ready for distribution.
In the month of March, Ashok met with Parshuram Hari Rathod, a 49-year-old resident of Karanjal Su in Surgana Taluka and documented traditional tribal weddings of his children. Parshuram is well-versed in Ayurveda and has an ayurvedic medicine business in Nashik city. He knows exactly how to use different plants and herbs. He uses the burnt bark of a Mahua tree to heal old wounds. Parshuram lives between his village and Nashik city. In the village, Parshuram lives with his wife and three children- two sons and a daughter. For the engagement, around 6 liters of Mahua liquor was ordered a Dagunya village in Gujarat. For the wedding, over 200 liters of Mahua was consumed by the villagers. Ashok is still discovering the cultural and medical significance of Mahua, which is embedded in the traditions of numerous tribes in central India.
For the month of March, our colleague Nikita delved deeper into the production process, focusing on the embroidered aspect. The research focused on various forms of needlework and the techniques used to manufacture them. She attempted to distinguish between hand embroidery and machine embroidery in terms of the process, socio-cultural and religious significance, sentimental values, time of production, economics, and demand in various market platforms.
The study showed a high demand for ethnic products while also questioning the manufacturing process. While having a machine embroidery line for mass production has numerous advantages, it diminishes the cultural relevance of handwork. Nikita will continue to experiment with diverse methods of production while trying to balance the traditional and modern approaches.
This month, our fellow researcher Ashok visited a little community in Surgana Taluka named Borigavtha. His research on Mauha production has taken him to many of Maharashtra's most isolated locations, allowing him to meet people from all walks of life who rely on the Mauha flowers. The narrative of Mahadu Fufane and his enormous family is one of a kind. Ashok spent a week with the family to learn about their way of life. Mahadu has customers from nearby villages such as Gondhalmal and his own Borigavtha. They come to Mahadu's residence to sample the liquor, and the business thrives on word of mouth. Mahadu's wife brews Mauha liquor at home and assists her husband with farm work. Ashok spent time in Borigavtha learning about the process of producing Mauha liquor on such a local scale. Mahadu and his wife described how they employ jaggery in their liquor, as well as the ease with which they may obtain raw materials from neighboring markets and woodlands. Ashok has met with numerous small-scale home-based manufacturers during the last six months. Although the ingredients and supplements vary from one manufacturer to the next, the fundamental process remains the same.
Nikita's documentation journey continues, and the project is taking her to new and intriguing places in quest of additional Banjara community settlements where people still practice their traditional crafts. In April, she visited Yellamma Thanda, a small town in Hyderabad. Nikita researched the village's demographics in order to comprehend the socioeconomic dynamics and how they affect the practice of Banjara craft. Yellamma Thanda women are also involved in other activities including farming, running small businesses, and serving as government officials. The community, nevertheless, has a rich cultural foundation. All of the festivals are celebrated collaboratively by the community, and women actively participate in the preparation and ceremonies. Nikita spoke with Kethavath Laxmi Bai, a Banjara embroidery designer who is at the vanguard of empowering women in Yellamma Thanda. Laxmi Bai provided a brief history of the village, the ways in which they conduct business, and the craft tradition, as well as her future aspirations for business expansion.
In the month of May, Nikita delved deeper into the cultural and theological importance of the stitching patterns and methods. She went back over her study from the previous six months and linked the connections. Mirror craftsmanship is very important in the Banjara tribe. According to some accounts, they were installed on the clothes to reflect light on animals in the wild, and their clothing served as a diversion for their protection. Many older women have reported that the clothing has provided them with medicinal advantages. Like the stitching patterns of the Banjara clothing, the jewelry has unique medical significance. Older ladies from one of the villages informed Nikita that certain decorations had varied effects on various areas of the body. Some jewelry raises blood pressure while others stimulate acupuncture sites.
In the same month, Ashok visited his home town Srugana to explore the drinking culture. He met with his old friends and new locals and had long chats with them about the tradition of making liquor at home and how it is an entire family participates in the process. These families are proud of the booze they make at home. This trip back home allowed him to reflect on the study he had done over the previous six months. He learned about the many methods of producing Mahua. But all of the settlements had one thing in common: the brewing spirit. Regardless of age, career, or marital status, all family members participate in not just brewing Mahua but also in embracing the custom.
Our fellow, Nikita traveled around the country over the past eight months, meeting with several Banjara communities to learn about their way of life, ancient traditions, and well-preserved Banjara embroidery technique. Last month, Nikita chose to take a break after visiting the villagers, various institutions, and community leaders to reflect on her findings. Nikita has spent the last month studying academic history as chronicled by various experts. This investigation leads her to Prof. Motiraj Rathod's book "Ancient History of Gor Banjara". Prof. Rathod's extensive research on tribal communities is an excellent starting point for delving further into the history and origins of the Bajara community. Nikita's study has provided her with enough information to draw the links between histories, traditions, socioeconomic fabric, culture, and political governance. In the next weeks, she will undergo traditional Banjara embroidery workshops in the village of Yellama Tanda.
This month, Ashok stayed in Surgana to focus on water-related issues in the taluka. For a long time, the region of 15-16 thousand people has been suffering from a serious lack of drinking water. Water shortage becomes particularly acute in the months of April, May, and June. The town president, often known as the ‘mukhya’, is in charge of the water systems. Ashok got a chance to interview the local leader - Mr. Bharat Laxaman Waghmare. Bharat, who was born and raised in Surgana, has spent the last several years serving as the Nagar president of the Nagar Panchayat Samiti (Notified Area Council). Mr. Waghmare discussed how deteriorating infrastructure exacerbates the problem of water shortage. Along with the well, the town has a 10,000-liter water tank that supplies water to all village areas. Every alternate day, each alleyway receives 45 minutes of water.
After visiting his hometown, Ashok decided to delve more into the district's water challenges. Dandichibari, Kukudmunda, Ubarnpada, Vadpada, Ambadhad, and Pangarne were some of the villages he visited. Surprisingly, these communities had fewer water management difficulties, yet the residents were just as concerned. Ashok visited many community leaders and individuals who helped him better understand the situation on the ground. He spent most of his time in Dhandichibari, where he observed that many community women walk to a natural water spring every day to gather water. This natural spring provides water to villagers and also the animals in the surrounding region. Moving forward, Ashok hopes to connect the current ground challenges with mauha production and its implications on livelihood.
This month, Ashok's older brother Vasant Rathod joined the MAH fellowship team to investigate various aspects of mauha manufacturing. Vasant is a social worker who operates an NGO in Surgana Taluka named 'Aadarsh Foundation.' This month, he conducted a study on the mauha leaves, fruit, and other items manufactured from them. The mauha flower and fruit are both valuable to the community. Vasant found the oil manufacturing methods for mauha seeds. The oil extracted from the Mauha fruit seed is mostly used in cooking and as a moisturizer during the winter months. Tolbi, Tolbyan, Tolbel, and Mohatya are the vernacular names for the seeds of the mahua fruit. Proteins, phosphorus, and potassium are all important components present in the mauha fruit oil. One type of oil known as thepa is used in the meals of domestic animals such as cows to help them produce more milk. Snakes and rats are scared away by the smoke produced by the fruit oil. Vasant also visited various industrial sites in Surgana to understand about the extraction of mauha fruit oil.
Through July, Nikita spent more time at the Yellamma Tanda where she learnt some new techniques of embroidery and handloom work, namely the Makhi Nakhra, Jhin Jhini, Jalan and Jali work. The women Nikita spent time with and also helped, were preparing products for a bi-annual exhibition called the Aakruthi Vastra held by the Crafts Council of Telangana which is a nonprofit organization working towards revitalizing local crafts.
Nikita engaging in handicrafts activities at the Yellama Thanda
Ashok on the other hand, continued his research in the Surgana district of Maharashtra, where he conducted interviews of local traders to understand what had caused the availability of Mahua flowers to drop from 25-30,000 tonnes per annum previously to 6-7000 tonnes per annum in the last two years. He found that in the year 2021, many of the village merchants who bought and sold the Mahua flower did not do so because of the widespread of the coroa virus.
Ashok interviewing shopkeepers on their trade activities in the Mahua flower
This August, Ashok visited a village called Raghatvir located at about 35km from the Surgana Taluka in Maharashtra. He spent time with some of the 13 self help groups that work under the Raghatvir Gram Panchayat. He learnt about the making and using of Mahua Dheeps wherein the mahua flowers are dried and compressed to make a crusty pellet, formed in quantities of 1, 5, 10 or 25 kilos. These pellets are often mixed with animal fodder to enhance their milk production or for good health.
Through August, Nikita spent a few more days at the Yellamma thanda which was alive and buzzing in preparation of the Teej festival celebrated by women there. She also visited the town of Devarkonda in the Nalgonda district, located at a distance of 60km from Hyderabad where she experienced a Banjara local market called Rangris and bought handicrafts such as the kodi, dandi and ghumgra. Later in the month she also had the opportunity to attend a tribal function at the DSS bhavan in Hyderabad, where students from Banjara communities were commemorated for their academic accomplishments.
Left: Lady Preparing for Teej at Yellamma Thanda, Right: tribal function at DSS Bhavan
Following up on his enquiry in August, Ashok spent more time over September documenting the therapeutic and economical applications of parts of the Mahua tree other than its flower. He met with Mr Murlidhar Dhoom in the Vadmal village of Maharashtra, who told him about the making of the Patrawali (a leaf plate made from Mahua tree leaves) and the use of the Mahua bark in making medicinal ash for healing wounds. The Patrawali is made by dipping the leaves in hot water and then stringing them together in a circular shape, while the medicinal ash is made by collecting Mahua bark wood before sunrise, and burning it on a cooking stove till disintegrated.
The leaf from the Mah tree which is then soaked in hot water and the tied together to make a plate.
On the left is a leather bag from Dharavi while on the right is a leather bag from Gujarat.
In September, Nikitha looked at the leather industry through a crafts lens and documented a few of its traditional forms across western India. She found that the camel leather, used and embroidered on in Gujarat, was far superior in quality to that of Dharavi’s leather, which, despite being the largest leather market in the world, had to its merit only its affordable pricing. She found that the camel leather from Gujarat was not only extremely durable, but also had a high tensile strength making it very strong and supple, as well as a ten times higher density of fibres per cm sq that made it stiffer than other leathers.
In October both Ashok and Nikita mulled over the upcoming exhibition that would mark the end of their fellowship program. This event, to be held at the end of November, would be an opportunity for them to display their learnings and their respective business plans for the future to members of the Mah Spirit network. Ashok took this opportunity to tie loose ends and further conversations with his collaborators on what it would take to set up his own Mahua oil pressing plant. Nikita, unfortunately suffered an injury at this time, due to which she was forced to take some time off from the field.
This was the month of the culminating event which took place at the urbz office in Dharavi, Mumbai on the 28th of November. Members of the Mah Spirit team were present for the same along with advisors and friends like Samidha Patil, Bhau Korde, Bharat Gangurde, Simran Gill and Shardul Patil. Ashok presented his manufactured Mahua oil along with a photo book of his fellowship and a calendar marked with the Mahua plant’s flowering cycle over a year. Nikita presented her embroidery designs and the products she had manufactured based on the same, which consisted of bags, shawls, coasters and other such articles.