Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tribal Belly Dance Jewelry Essentials - Part I

Costuming for tribal belly dance has always been a delight to the eye, with a plethora of different colors and textures combining to make a detailed and interesting whole.  Part of that delight is of course big chunky fabulous tribal jewelry!  If you are new to the dance, or are building your tribal jewelry dowry, this series of blogs will give you some ideas of what might work as 'essential' pieces.  There are a few types of jewelry that tribal dancers seem to keep coming back to, over and over again.  Pieces that have a defining tribal look, are most often used in tribal dance costuming, are affordable for new dancers or are versatile enough to use for years make these the Essentials.

Number one on the list is the Kuchi Choker.  These large pieces originated with the Kuchi nomads of  the Afghanistan/Pakistan border areas and can be told by the articulated choker band that either ties or buttons around the neck and dangles along the bottom edge.  They also will have colorful glass (now sometimes plastic) jewels either on the band, the dangles or both.  Band and dangles are made of metal and can be adorned with chains, bells, coins or other small bits.

There are three 'grades' as I call them, of Kuchi choker.  First are the old, authentic, tribally used pieces.  These are the old, worn, dirty, heavy pieces that actually have been worn in their originating country and have somehow, through sale or trade, ended up with a vendor of tribal goods.  Older pieces tend to be much more colorful than newer pieces with lots of glass jewels and beading.  These will usually have dirty fabric backers, bits of string tied to them, beadwork that is coming apart, and missing bits or jewels.

Old colorful Kuchi choker

These pieces can be made of high grade silver, mixed metals, or any combination.  Some of the older pieces are not the most convenient pieces to wear!  They can be so large and heavy as to be cumbersome and the dangles can sometimes form a bib that covers the entire chest.  Authentic old pieces are super (and by super, I mean extremely!) hard to find these days.  If you do find one, and can afford it, grab it while you can because like most other cultural arts, these beautiful pieces are disappearing very quickly.

Tribally used Kuchi choker
The second grade of Kuchi choker comes in two varieties.  These are the newer pieces, made in the traditional style, by traditional jewelry makers, in the originating country or by displaced refugees.  These are not hard to find but the quality varies by quite a lot.  Most tribal jewelry dealers will have these in stock at any given time.  Some can be as hefty and well-made as the old pieces and these are still good substantial chokers even though they are newer.  Traditional jewelry makers still earn their living by creating these pieces, and many are actually used by tribal women today.  That's why you will find slightly newer pieces that show dirt and wear.  As with the older pieces, they have been traded or sold and have then found their way to us. These are authentic pieces and will be future treasures.  They are usually made of mixed metals.  These pieces can be a bit expensive.

New Kuchi choker
Some new pieces are very lightweight, but don't dismiss these out of hand.  These chokers can be pretty and can still serve a purpose because there are many dancers who cannot wear a very heavy necklace or don't like to have a large heavy piece of jewelry around their throat.  These may very well be just the thing to add that tribal look without a lot of poundage weighing you down.  Most tribal vendors will have some of these in stock.  When purchasing, look for good quality construction.   These lightweight pieces tend to shed dangles at an alarming rate, so make sure that they are all secure.  Sometimes the S hooks just need to be adjusted.  The price for these pieces can sometimes rival that of a heavier new piece but should NOT be the same price as that charged for an older piece.

The third grade of choker is not really a Kuchi choker at all.  It is a cheap reproduction, often made in both a silver and a gold color, is lightweight, of inferior cast metal and has either plastic or enameled jewels instead of the more traditional glass.  These usually have a cheap chain and hook closure at the back of the band and have very lightweight dangles.  A lot of vendors who usually specialize in cabaret costuming and jewelry often carry these chokers.  Very few vendors who specialize in tribal jewelry will stock this type of choker.  These pieces do have the appearance of a Kuchi choker (from far away!) but are much less detailed and break easily.  These pieces are usually made in India.  Yes, they are less expensive than a genuine Kuchi choker, but as they say, you get what you pay for.

It was my intention to break this 'Essentials' series into four posts, but I can see right away from the amount of information that I have amassed on the subject of Kuchi chokers alone that four posts will not even begin to cover what I consider the essential pieces of tribal jewelry for dance costuming.  So I will just stop here on this subject and break the remaining information into as many or few posts as will cover it without making any one post too long.  (I also realize that I am kind of long winded, so I will try to contain myself!)

For further information on jewelry for tribal belly dance, see this video by FCBD, or check out the Tribal Bible or From Turban to Toe Ring which both have sections on tribal jewelry.

Here is a link to my own page detailing the rich history of Kuchi jewelry.

For a selection of Kuchi chokers for sale, please see The Red Camel's Kuchi chokers page.

If you'd like a quick overview of tribal costuming, so you have at least a minimum understanding of the basic costume pieces used in tribal dance, please see this article by Sharon Moore or do an internet search for tribal belly dance costuming.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Nepali Tharu Jewelry

Tharu kanthshri necklace

In learning about the types of jewelry that I've come across in my adventures with The Red Camel, the jewelry of the Tharu people is some of the least well-known and because of that is some of the most interesting.  Initially I knew next to nothing about this jewelry and the culture it comes from.  So I began to look for information.  Here's what I found.  I hope you enjoy reading about it and the photos of the pieces from The Red Camel's collection.

The Tharu have an interesting and recently somewhat sad history.  They have origins in Rajasthan in northwestern India and claim that they fled eastward from the Mogul invasion in the 16th century.  They settled in the forested and fertile strip of land called the Terai at the foot of the Himalayas in Nepal and northeastern India.  There they hunted and fished, but mostly made their living by agricultural means.  The swamps and forests of the area kept them isolated for hundreds of years.  In the 1950's the eradication of malaria allowed many other peoples to enter the area occupied by the Tharu, and they were pushed further and further into poverty, ending up as bonded laborers to wealthier and more literate groups.  Because of their economic situation, daughters were often sold, either in marriage or as laborers and this still sometimes occurs, although there are now organizations and social programs working to end the practice and improve the economic status of Tharu families.  Arranged marriages are still common, and are often set up while both mothers are still pregnant!  The Tharu are subdivided into several groups and cover a large geographic area.  They are mostly Hindu, but a significant portion are Buddhist.  They speak several languages which are variations of Urdu, Awadhi, and other local languages.

Among the Tharu almost all their personal items, from clothing to household goods are handmade and reflect an eye for beauty.  They make their own cooking pots, baskets, fishing nets and homes.  Their clothing is colorful and beautifully embroidered, each woman making her own dresses in a unique design.   Bright colors are also seen in the pompoms and tassels worn for festivals.  Blouses or vests with the fronts covered in silver Indian rupees are also a part of decorative dress and are handed down as heirlooms from mother to daughter.

Their jewelry is often large and bold and is worn in quantity.  Jewelry can be adorned with either geometric or organic patterns and perhaps a little of both.  Historically made of silver, their adornment is now more and more often mixed metals.  Tharu jewelry pieces show influences from many other cultures, including Middle Eastern, Indian and Southeast Asian.

Among the Tharu almost any part of the body that can be covered in jewelry, is.  Headpieces called ali bands consist of a large round central pendant that sits against the forehead with side bands and sometimes a middle chain and has small dangling bells along the bottom edge.  These pieces remind me of the headpieces found among the Kuchi in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the design is very similar.  There is also a long metal band made of small interlocking links and adorned with larger flat dangles that is worn along the front edge of a scarf or headcovering.  This is a long band that runs from side to side across the top of the forehead.  The flat dangles hang just over the forehead and look quite lovely against their brightly colored scarves.

Jimile 'earrings' consist of a small triangular pendant with long chain dangles ending in small flat pendants worn at the sides of the temples.  Another type commonly seen are large round pieces, also affixed at the temples with hanging chains and pendants.   Both of these 'earring' types are probably attached to the headpiece or scarf or are suspended over the head by a cord.  Some Tharu have stretched ear piercings and wear starburst or flower shaped earrings that are quite large in size.  These can be heavy and are sometimes attached over the top of the head by a cord to take the weight off the ears.

Tharu ear plugs

Most women have a nose piercing and wear either a small ring or stud, but larger round flat plate-types are also common.  These are sometimes decorated with a jewel in the center.

Necklaces are usually large and are sometimes very heavy.  In addition to being used on clothing, coins decorate jewelry as well.  Necklaces of Nepali or Indian coins are worn by both men and women and are sometimes quite ornate.

Tharu coin necklace

 Kanthshri necklaces, worn by the Rana Tharu, are very large, consisting of many separate pieces strung together on cotton cord and closing with a coin button and loop.  These typically look quite spiky and tribal.  A photo of a kanthshri necklace is shown at the top of this post.

Necklaces of chain are seen quite often.  Either multiple chains hanging between two triangular terminals or a larger pendant suspended on chains.  Both types are worn frequently.

Another type of necklace is the hansli, which is a rigid metal torque (a one-piece necklace that looks like a "C" with an opening at the back).  These traditionally have geometric patterns engraved in them and can be slender and lightweight or thick and very heavy.  Amulet necklaces on braided or knotted cord are sometimes worn by women and children as a talisman against evil spirits.  The pendants on these necklaces look very much like bullet casings, (although they aren't, they are simply sheets of metal rolled into a tube) with bits of bone, tooth or wood in one end and a small loop on the other.

Small amulets from a Tharu necklace

Among the most beautiful of Tharu pieces are the taunk necklaces.  These large gorgeous pieces consist of a crescent shaped  piece of metal, usually with a floral design and sometimes with cutouts, worn at the front of the neck.  Lots of round dangles, usually made of wirework, are attached at the bottom edge.  Two arms on hinges are attached at the ends of the crescent and swing open to put the necklace on.  They then swing closed and are secured by a ring or hook in the back.

Taunk necklace with wirework dangles and hinged opening

Tharu bracelets are piled on.  Bangles, cuffs and upper arm bands are worn one over the other and came in almost every type imaginable.  Multiple simple thin bangles made of metal or other materials (some can be very colorful) are stacked up the wrists.  Cuffs can be large or small, thin or thick, made of multiple components strung on cord or plain silver bands.  Large hollow bracelets with a chased floral design are a popular choice.  Upper arm bands too, are made in every design under the sun.  One popular style consists of a sheet of metal, cut into a mostly round shape (actually it more resembles a flower shape), then curved to fit around the upper arm.  A design is usually stamped or etched into the metal.  It is tied to the upper arm with cords attached at each side.  I'll try to find a photo of one of these armbands.

There are two types of ankle adornment typically worn by women.  One type is large and fairly simple in design.  These look like sheets of metal formed into a cylinder and fastened around the lower leg, just above the ankle.  I think they look fairly uncomfortable, but they seem to be worn by a lot of Tharu women, even on an everyday basis.  These may be permanently attached, although I don't know this for certain.  The second type of ankle bracelet are the chain types that are also seen in many areas of India.  These can be simple or intricate, but most consist of some type of metal link formed into a continuous chain, either with or without bells or other small pendants and are worn lower on the ankle, draped across the top of the foot.

Researching jewelry of the Tharu people took me down multiple rabbit holes.  Their history is fairly straightforward and many sources for it can be found.  Researching their jewelry on the other hand, like researching the jewelry of any other lesser-known group, turned up a lot of conflicting tales.  Adding to the confusion there always seems to be 3 different names for each piece, all of which can be correct in a specific place or circumstance.   Here I have combined my own knowledge of the jewelry pieces I have personally seen or had in my possession with the knowledge of my contacts that have dealt with ethnic jewelry over the years and tidbits gleaned from looking at travel photos, books and other sources I could scratch up.

Below I've listed a couple of web sites you can visit to learn a little more about the Tharu.  Please enjoy!

Blog entry with lots of jewelry photos:

To find beautiful Tharu pieces for sale, please visit The Red Camel's Nepali Jewelry page: