Somehow, one can recognize a thing of unique beauty and construction in a few short glances. The depth of color, the unique design, the texture, the physical presence of the thing that makes you come closer and closer and closer. This was the feeling I had when I first passed by the display of Gongadi blankets organized by the NGO Anthra who works with herders, weavers and designers in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. I tried not to admit my fascination, not wanting to bring another “thing” into my home. But I couldn’t keep myself away from them and soon was in deep conversation with the blankets and with a British designer, and an Indian veterinarian Yes, it was an odd set of ingredients that went into making this divine creation.
Anthra’s work is primarily to revive, rehabilitate and promote sustainable livestock management practices and agriculture practices. Their work in the Telangana region was to help save an endangered breed of sheep the Deccani, indigenous to this region of India. The small, naturally black sheep were being sold for their meat and wool. As long as there was a thriving local wool market, the sheep was valuable for both its wool and meat utility. With the collapse of the local wool market, the Deccani lost out to other purely meat sheep breeds, because of their size, which generated lower incomes. Attempts to cross breed the sheep with other, larger meat sheep breeds, was turning into a disaster for the animals ore hairy. Anthra was called in to help revitalize the sheep breed and this is where it gets interesting.and for the local herders and community members who relied on them, as the cross-bred lost its wool and became more hairy. Anthra was called in to help revitalize the sheep breed and this is where it gets interesting.
During the course of their work in the community, they learned out about traditional blankets that were once woven from the sheep’s wool which are beautiful, natural shades of rich black and shades of ash-grey, brown, white, beige. The color of the wool is a unique and special aspect of these animals and of the products created from their wool. The process of listening and unearthing information, history, practices of the people in Telangana makes this strange veterinary project a great example of true craft revival. Anthra, as an NGO equipped with highly educated and trained professionals could have gone into the community and gave the local people their information and advice on how to revive the sheep and earn a livelihood. However, Anthra’s workers tried to understand the place, the people, the histories and the practices that made this place what it is. Their work then shifted and changed as they realized that the sheep had a use other than being raised for slaughter and that the local economy could be boosted by reviving the knowledge, skills and energies of local artisans.
What we have now is the painstaking result of rehabilitating the sheep from the brink of extinction, unearthing and reviving traditional weaving practices, introducing and innovating designs and motifs, and the development of admirers and appreciators of the product the wider world. The community has been reconnected to their own smarts, skills and ways of life while being able to navigate the market demands of the 21st century. They are no longer slaves to the market but active participants in creating avenues of income and value creation for themselves and for future generations.