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“Herding sheep is our dharma rather than a mere occupation, entrusted upon us by the divine.”
Integral to the lives of the sheep pastoralists and communities in their ecosystem is the Gongadi, an iconic blanket, handspun and woven from the black wool of the indigenous Deccani sheep. It is the woolly prism through which one understands the life-world of the decani shepherds. The Gongadis are a unique mix of the everyday and the unique ~ shepherds carry the black Gongadi on their right shoulder, priests carry it on their right, and the deities reside within its folds ~ each made distinct by the patterns of the Kada (hand woven border) and the Suncha (tassels). In southern Karnataka, the rich coarse wool has traditionally inspired an exquisite three dimensional prayer flag called the ‘Jhanda’, intricately woven with a double shaft. And throughout this sheep terrain, the art of felting wool continues to thrive in specialized villages of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, amongst special felting communities.
While the deccani sheep wool continues to remain the sacred fibre which blesses the communities through all their life cycle rituals, the famed deccani sheep, its wool and the shepherd are all in decline. The fading flocks of the deccani are losing value to the more meaty sheep breeds, and its wool culture waits to be nourished once again.
A handful of committed organizations are doing precisely that. Mitan, led by Gopi Krishna, is a legendary organization, known for its ability to delve deep into the life and livelihood of pastoralists and the craftspeople, empower the craft traditions with inventive designs, and remain authentic to the local fibres, skills and techniques. Mitan has enabled artisans to develop a brand-new collection of desi oon bags & accessories for the Living Lightly exhibition. Treading in Mitan's footsteps is the amazing trio of young designers. Clad in stylish woollen footwear, this trio has formed a social enterprise called Earthen Tunes which has designed a niche range of resilient desi oon shoes for farmers and pastoralists, also available in this online exhibition. The deccani wool story of Telangana cannot be told without mentioning the pioneering work of Anthra and DGMPS and their ongoing efforts to revive the gongadi craft, the local wool economy, and advocacy for conservation of the deccani sheep.