TEXTILES OF THE BANJARA: CLOTH AND CULTURE OF A WANDERING TRIBE (by Charlotte Kwon and Tim McLaughlin; Thames & Hudson, rrp £29.95). Reviewed by Nigel Barley in the October 2016 issue of The World of Interiors
The Banjara are a semi-nomadic people of India whose huge baggage trains of thousands of bullocks once served the Mogul armies and the British after them with commendable even-handedness. Yet, as this well-researched and beautiful book shows, there is so much more to them than this. The first section is a subtle but concise exposition of their role through the developing history of India and the Raj, which invested them with romantic myths but which finally fell out of love with them as a 'criminal tribe'. The complex interactions of ideas of race, caste and tribe are brilliantly teased out and documented.
Today the Banjara are scattered across India under a plethora of religions, names and occupations. Modern myths link them to European Roma, who have the same gift for adaptability and maintained separateness. Nor are they entirely unknown to fashionistas, for their beautiful textiles and jewellery are the source of those elaborate appliqués, incorporating mirror fragments, that haunt Indian restaurants, and the 'gypsy chic' embroidered skirts favoured by hippies in the 1960s and 70s. These are the matter of the main part of the book.
Not surprisingly, Banjara textiles are all about the signalling and maintenance of identity. Women still wear largely traditional dress of rich, vibrant embroidery and jewellery, each element correlated to regional origin and marital status; male attire is blandly non-distinctive by comparison. The authors show how Banjara female dress has become politicized and controversial in much the same way as Muslim women's dress, being seen as a mark of both cultural strength and oppression.
What follows is pretty much a classic, material culture catalogue with analyses of style, stitching design, technique and classifications of product - everything from bullock-horn decorations to fancy bags - and all given a human face by biographies of individual artists. Textiles are depicted in various stages of completion to demonstrate process, and canonical works are drawn from a mixture of old and contemporary collections to show a Iiving tradition undergoing change and adaptation, incorporating new techniques and addressing new markets. The book is generously illustrated with gorgeous photographs that show objects both in isolation and as worn. The strength of The Textiles of the Banjara lies overwhelmingly in the way it has brought together the insights of personal fieldwork experience and private collections in a book that goes beyond the academic to tell a tale both accessible and moving. • NIGEL BARLEY is an anthropologist