The tradition nearly disappeared along with the Deccani sheep but has since seen a revival.

Reviving the Ba Ba Black Sheep of Telangana the yarn of the Gongadi blanketSiddamma
news Culture Saturday, January 07, 2017 - 18:22

Siddamma sits on a small wooden stool and takes a handful of carded wool. While her left hand holds the wool, she turns the kaduru, the spindle, which is placed on her right thigh, perfectly twisting the wool with her fingers and turning it into yarn.

Siddamma doesn't know how old she is but she knows her craft. She is among the spinners and weavers of the Gongadi, a traditional woolen blanket from Telangana, which is handspun from the wool of the black Deccani sheep breed.

“It takes 30 days to make one Gongadi blanket, and 21 days to complete the spinning process for it. It’s a matter of patience and hard work,” Siddamma says.

Previously, it was the Kuruma community which used to weave the Gongadi exclusively but over the years, others too have entered the profession. Any auspicious event, ceremony or religious ritual was considered incomplete without a Gongadi in the Kuruma community.

(Siddamma, spinning the wool in Gongadi exhibition)

But the black Deccani sheep, which provides the wool that goes into the making of the blanket, was under threat at one point.

“The breed rapidly diluted after mid-nineties, when a government policy introduced a heavier and faster growing hairy, non-wool Nellore breed of sheep, originating from coastal Andhra. Interbreeding between these two varieties resulted in the drastic disappearance of this local breed,” says Sai Gonda, another weaver of the Gongadi.

After the breed became scarce, there was a gradual loss of people’s knowledge and skills which led to the near extinction of the wool craft. The Gongadi nearly disappeared along with the 'Nalla Gorre' or Deccani sheep.

However, the ancient tradition has been revived, over the course of a decade, by the efforts of the sheep-rearing community through the collective ‘Deccani Gorrela Mekala Pempakamdarla Sangham’ (DGMPS). The DGMPS is a member of the Food Sovereignty Alliance-India, which recently conducted an exhibition in Begumpet to showcase the tradition.

(History of Gongadi)

“DGMPS is a sangam for conserving the Deccani sheep breed. Once the animal is gone, the cultural aspect of Gongadi and the oral farmer storytelling tradition, oggukatha, will also die with time,” opines Krupa, a member of the DGMPS.

Sai Gonda says that he has been in the profession of weaving the Gongadi since he was 15 year old.

“This is our family business. Before me, my father and grandfather used to be in the same profession,” he says.

But he had to change his profession during the mid-nineties when there were no Deccani sheep available.

“Not just me, almost the whole community migrated to cities for alternate jobs. I was in Hyderabad during that time, selling ice-cream,” he recalls.

Gongadi saw a revival in 2008, 12 years after its near disappearance. Sai Gonda was able to come back to his craft, finally home to where his heart lies.

He points out that the making of the Gongadi demands creativity and patience.

(Gongadi blankets)

“The process is slow but the outcome is unique. One of the unique characteristics of the Gongadi blanket is that it doesn’t fade but gets darker eventually. It's long lasting because it is hand spun...this makes it strong,” he observes.

Other than blankets, the weavers also make yoga mats, bedsheets, and carpets based on orders.

There are 600 families involved in Gongadi weaving in three districts of Telangana - Medak, Sangareddy and Siddipet.

“Earlier this tradition was limited to the Kuruma community, but now, after Gongadi was revived, it broke all caste barriers. Every caste and community is now involved in this profession,” says Krupa of DGMPS.

Though the Deccani sheep is no longer scarce, the Gongadi weavers fear that that the next generation may not carry forward the tradition.

“There are 600 families involved in this profession, out of which 150 women specialise in spinning and there are seven Kada (border) makers, but the greatest difficulty is to pass on this tradition to the younger generation,” says Sai Gonda.

Shiva, his 18-year-old son, has been learning the basics of the craft for the past one year but Sai Gonda is still troubled.

“This generation doesn't have patience, it is hard to teach them. However, the sangam is helping the younger generation to be a part of this tradition and learn it,” says Sai Gonda.