Back in 1964, when Bhupen Hazarika chose a Khasi love story for his fourth Assamese film Pratidhwani, he composed and sang, as a duet with Talat Mehmood, a song that described the traditional Khasi jainsem as a piece of cloth woven from lightning.
“O’ akash, mor logorik tumi jano dekhisa?/
Teonr jainsem-khani bijulire bowa/
Ronga onth-juri mou-re bolowa/
Tumi jano mon korisa?”
(O Sky, have you ever seen my girlfriend?/ Her jainsem is woven of lightning/ (Her) red lips smeared with honey/ Have you really noticed that?)
Fifty-three years later, a Khasi woman, Tailin Lyngdoh, wearing the beautiful jainsem, was thrown out of the dining hall of the elite Delhi Golf Club, allegedly because some club employees thought her attire resembled that of a “maid”.
Union minister Kiren Rijiju, MP from Arunachal Pradesh and the BJP’s prominent Northeastern face, decried the “clear case of racial discrimination” and the club’s “elitist mindset”, and asked Delhi Police to take appropriate action. Lyngdoh and her employer, Nivedita Barthakur-Sondhi — both of whom had been invited to the June 25 lunch that Lyngdoh was forced to leave — subsequently demanded the club review its policies. The club, on its part, said while “the incident could have been avoided”, it was “unfortunate that an undesirable attempt is being made to give the incident political and cultural overtones”.
So, what exactly is the jainsem — the traditional attire that Lyngdoh said she had worn without problems in London and Abu Dhabi, but which the club’s employees allegedly found “maid-like”, and “Nepali-like”?
A jainsem is made out of a piece of cloth that is typically 2.75 m or 3 m in length, and which is cut into two equal pieces to create a garment that Khasi women wear with a blouse and skirt. The length of the jainsem depends on either the height of the woman wearing it, or on her choice of whether to keep it down to her ankles or just below her knees.
For the Khasi women who wear it, the jainsem is not a ceremonial dress; rather, it is regular, everyday wear. “It is simple to make, easy to wear and not very costly in comparison to the traditional ceremonial dresses,” said Agnes Kharshiing, a Shillong-based social activist.
A jainsem can be made of silk, polyester or other fabric, and almost all jainsems have intricate embroidery along their lower edge. Hundreds of women find employment in sewing and embroidering them, Kharshiing said.
While the first piece of a jainsem is wrapped around the body from the left, with a brooch holding its two ends together over the wearer’s right shoulder, the other piece comes from under the left arm, and the two ends are fastened over the left shoulder.
Each piece of cloth has a pocket on the inside, which comes in handy for Khasi women who comprise an overwhelming majority of businesspeople in the hill state — starting from the kong (‘Sister’ or ‘Madam’ in the local language) who goes around selling tea, biscuits, cakes and kwai (betelnut and leaf) in government offices, to the roadside shopkeeper, to those who, until a couple of years ago, exported coal worth lakhs to Bangladesh.
In Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, it is common to see women wearing a jainsem to work. Whether she is a government officer or a schoolteacher, a roadside shopkeeper or a wholesaler at Iewduh, the largest women-run market in the heart of the state capital, Khasi women wear jainsems.
Incidentally, the first woman head of the Union Public Service Commission (1992-1996), Rose Millian Bathew, was a Khasi who always attended office and appeared in public functions in the national capital proudly wearing a jainsem. (The current chairman of the UPSC, Prof David R Syiemlieh, too, happens to be a Khasi.)
Like the two-piece mekhela-chador for the Assamese woman, the jainsem is a part of the identity of the enterprising women of the matrilineal Khasi society. On special occasions, jainsems made of muga and paat, the two silks of Assam, are also worn. However, the dress that Khasi women wear more commonly during festivals, weddings and other ceremonies is the dhara, which, unlike the jainsem, is a one-piece garment.
The costume worn at traditional Khasi dances comprises ka jingpim shad, a cloth draped from waist to ankle; ka sopti mukmor, a full-sleeve blouse with lacework at the neck; and ka dhara rong ksiar, two rectangular pieces of cloth embroidered with gold thread, pinned crosswise at the shoulders, overlapping each other.
The Khasis, along with their sub-tribes Bhois and Wars, and the Jaintias, belong to the Proto-Australoid Monkhmer race, and refer to themselves collectively as the Hynniewtrep people. The Garos, who comprise the other half of the tribal people of Meghalaya, too, are matrilineal, but belong to the Tibeto-Burman race.