Hearts, Hands, and Imaginations

Lila Handicrafts preserves the art of Ralli quilts

Surendar Valasai is the chief executive officer of Lilia Handicrafts, an NGO which helps to preserve the beloved folk art of Ralli quilts. These textiles are some of the most stunning fabrics that are primarily produced throughout the Indus region of India and Pakistan. Surendar's admiration for this artistry dates back to when he was a child and would watch the women of his village pour their hearts, hands, and imaginations into the crafting of these fine textiles. 

Surendar story is a touching one: he was born into a family of folk artists from the Meghwar caste, one of the lowest social statuses according to the Hindu ranking system. He explains, “Untouchability, caste discrimination, and human inequality were simply routine in our lives. We were extremely poor, but I was constantly surrounded by the most talented of folk artists. Although the women were often hungry, they continued to create beautiful things.”

Surendar’s father was a mason and unable to pay for his education beyond the age of twelve, because he had ten other mouths to feed. Surendar states, “I found a proof-reading job in a small local English Daily Sindh Express. As soon as my English skills improved, I was promoted to become a news editor. In the 1990s, I was one of the few who had access to the internet in Pakistan. While surfing the web, I started searching for websites which sold the folk art of handmade Ralli textiles and quilts. One thing led to the next and eventually, I received a response from Tricia Stoddard, author of book Ralli Quilts: Traditional Textiles of Pakistan & India. This connection opened doors and eventually led to the formation of Lila Handicrafts, which is run primarily by women artisans. Surendar adds, “Lila Handicrafts has become a partnership of sorts between artisans. This is the first venture of indigenous artisans and their families, as a way to initiate production and marketing of textiles crafts from the Sindh province."

Ralli is derived from the local word ralanna which means to 'mix or 'connect'. Rallis are made primarily in the southern provinces of Pakistan including Sindh, Baluchistan, and in the Cholistan desert on the southern border of Punjab, as well as in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. These textiles are used both as dowries and for personal use, including bed and floor coverings, storage bags, and as protection from the harsh weather. The bed coverings can take as long as 180 hours to create. Traditionally, the quilts were a measure of one's status.  

Rallis are quite distinct and memorable in their unique symbolism. These quilts and ancient motifs date back the 15th century. The majority of the patterns are based off of a geometric grid but some designs incorporate circles, flowers, and stars. The women do not use a pattern, but all items stem from their imaginations. The textiles were traditionally made from scraps of cotton fabric dyed to the desired color. The most common colors used are white, black, red, and yellow or orange with green, dark blue, or purple. The bottoms are generally made out of old shawls and other discarded textiles.

The basic styles fall into three categories including the patchwork, applique, and embroidered techniques. Patchwork quilts are made from a piece of cloth, which has been torn into squares and triangles, and then stitched together. The applique is made from intricate cut-out patterns and featured in a variety of shapes. The embroidered quilts are comprised of elaborate stitches which form patterns on a solid colored fabric. The most distinguishable characteristic is the diagonal placement of repetitive block-like shapes which are embellished with mirrors, tassels, shells, etc.

Pakkoh embroidery is another style of textile produced by the Medghwar and Soha Rajput communities and also sold via Lila Handicrafts. The word pakkoh means 'solid', as this technique contains a dense variation of two sided button-hole stitches which gives the embroidery a raised appearance. "Mirrors are used frequently along with the Bakhiyo- a detailed stitch which look like ants walking in a row. The original design is drawn free hand, then transferred to the cloth with a stencil. The motifs used in this Pakkoh style are both geometric and floral and both cotton and silk is used."

In 2014, from February 1-4, Lila Handicrafts will be attending Artisan Resource @ NY NOW, a production-sourcing venue for overseas artisan enterprises, offering export pricing and terms. They will be featuring not only their Ralli quilts, but a variety of embroidered cushions and bed covers, table runners, handbags, tapestries, and shawls. Surendar adds, “We are excited to attend this show and it is our goal to be able to provide steady work for over 1,00 women,0 year round."

For more info, please visit- http://www.lilahandicrafts.com

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