The Banjara (sometimes called Lambani or Lambada) are a semi-nomadic people who reside mostly in Southern and Middle India. They are thought to be descended from the Roma who migrated through the mountains of Afghanistan and settled in the deserts of Rajasthan. Since the 14th century, the Banjaras have gradually travelled down to the south as they worked for the Moghuls transporting provisions and trading goods. They travelled with large herds of bullocks and carts, buying and selling sugar, salt, grain, and perfumes. Their habit of living in isolated groups away from others, which was a characteristic of their nomadic days, still persists.
As with many "tribal" groups, especially those with a nomadic heritage, there is a modern tendency to either isolate or assimilate. The Banjara women, however, are holding steadfast to their ancient mode of dress, which is perhaps the most colourful and elaborate of any tribal group in India. It is their dress and chunky jewelry that set them apart from all others. As with much embroidery that originates in the desert regions of Rajasthan, theirs is elaborately embroidered and studded with mirrors. A variety of materials – silver, brass, some gold, cowries, ivory, animal bone and even plastic – are used in the making of a Banjara wardrobe. The numerous cowries that the Banjara tribal women wear are very auspicious as they represent Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity.
The work of the Maiwa Foundation consists primarily in placing traditional artisans in charge of their own economic and cultural future. The objective is to encourage an infrastructure where the artisans have a good sense of the value of their work in a global market, such that they can control the price and direction of their work. This is beneficial in that it encourages traditional work, but also in that it provides an alternative to wage-labour. At times the foundation makes direct grants to individuals, groups, and co-operatives.
Over the past four years Maiwa Handprints has made several exploratory trips to connect with the Banjara people, to document embroidery styles, and to determine if individuals or groups are amenable to perfecting traditional designs and motifs for potential trade. Personality, tribal dynamics, and clarity of vision are all equally important in establishing viable self-sufficiency. Results have been positive to the point where the Maiwa Foundation is now prepared to invest in the support of an initial Banjara embroidery project.