It was once the symbol of social identity and worn by warrior tribes of Nagaland. The Tsungkotepsu, the most famous of all Naga shawls, has gone through quite a few transformations. It’s abstract monochromes have given way to bright and attractive colours. And the shawl’s centrepiece, the white band, instead of being painted with colour extracted from burnt bamboo leaves, now has a standardised pattern of embroidery.
But even in its most modern form, the Tsungkotepsu retains its most ancient symbols — the figures of a lion, tiger, bull or a moon. Emblazoned at the centre of the piece, these symbols, in keeping with tradition of the headhunters, represent an individual’s achievement within the community.
It is these motifs that drew Delhi-based artist Ruchika Negi to do a project on Tsungkotepsu. Negi has collaborated with filmmaker Amit Mahanti and Nagaland visual artist Jimmy Chishi on the collaborative project — comprising a documentary and a book — that sees the “warrior’s shawl” as a marker of Nagaland’s social trajectory.
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“Nagaland has essentially an oral cultural history. When we started looking at the folk motifs, we realised they form a larger language of communication, which belongs to a common Naga cosmology,” says Negi.
Funded by the Indian Foundation for the Arts, the project aims to re-examine the cultural identity of Nagaland. Negi and his collaborators take into consideration the complexities of the Northeastern state, its idiosyncrasies and their ritualistic acts. “When the missionaries came to Nagaland, they started seeing traditions like head-hunting as pagan acts. But through this project, we wanted to understand the tribal way of life,” says Negi.
Another aspect that interested Negi was Tsungkotepsu’s negotiation with modernity. Even today, in its homogenised form, it is a popular costume of Naga cultural heritage worn by elderly village men on special occasions. The film and the book are expected to be ready by September.