A mélange of azure, yellow, red and white. Colours signifying daily chores and survival mechanisms. Swathes of sericulture moulding timeless Muga and bamboo silk in red and gold. Limitless exuberance of ‘Mekhela Chador’ and heritage dresses that are cherished and preserved for their individuality and identity. Such eclectic ensemble is going to be the star attraction this National Handloom Day, being commemorated in Guwahati, today. With a focus to promote indigenous creations and to provide a further push to art and culture from this part of the country, marking the anniversary of Swadeshi movement, launched on August 7, 1905. Celebrations this year intend to showcase handlooms, and crafts from north east states, through fashion shows and exhibitions. A movie on north east handlooms directed by Shri Muzaffar Ali, will also be screened to disseminate important messages on textiles, looms and other tales of heritage weaves.
Weaving, dyeing, knitting and stitching are important social and economic activities of people in this side of the country, whose living is marred with constraints and realities of natural resources and difficult terrains. Yet, their endurance and talent are exhibited through beautiful carpets, knitwear, basketry and silk looms. Such is the potpourri of handlooms and crafts; a beautiful glossary of cultural expressions of the people of north east.
This Handloom Day, here’s looking at vintage repository, belonging to an important epicenter of avant-garde tradition and acumen. (This is not an exhaustive list)
Muga silk and Mekhela Chador, Assam
This naturally golden, yellowish radiating silk is native to regions in the Brahmaputra valley. Known as Muga, it is one of the Geographical Indications from the state (meaning being native to the region) and is celebrated for its elegance and rawness. Across the banks of Brahmaputra in Sualkochi, families engage in sericulture and produce fabulous Eri, Pat and Muga silk weaves and crafts. The speciality of Muga is that it gets shinier with every wash, preserving and enhancing durability of its silk. With every wash, these weaves look newer, richer and more colourful! One popular trendsetter of Muga and other silks is the ‘Mekhela Chador’, the traditional attire of Assamese women. Mekhela Chador is the heritage wear of women during dances and ceremonies. On the Chador, ethnic embroidery of Japi and Kaziranga wildlife, are woven in red, green and golden. The latter also known as ‘Rhino’ embroidery, is emblematic of identity and cultural symbolism embellished on eternal textiles with messages on wildlife conservation and preservation.
Japi handiwork, Assam
Traditionally, Japi is a headgear made of bamboo, cane and local ‘Tokou Pat’ or palm leaf. These are used as a mark of honour to felicitate guests. Intricate patterns are hand woven. Typically, a Japi is conical emerging out of a circular disc and is decorated with red, green coloured threads, sequins or mirrors. These ornately decked up conical hats are called ‘Sorudaya Japi, while the more ordinary Japi is used by farmers and tea workers as umbrellas. jewellery. Neck pieces, earrings and rings are given shapes of Japi and worn by women during festivals and occasions. These designs also find refuge in Eri and Muga silk sari borders.
Karbi weaves, Assam
Karbi tribe of the Karbi Anglong district specialise in weaving traditional dresses known as ‘Pinicamflak’ for women and ‘Choy-an’ and ‘Rekong ke er’ for men. Similar patterns are also seen on sling bags in popular reds, blacks and blues that are popular choices among urban connoisseurs of handicraft.
Bilan-abi and Sherdukpen, Arunachal Pradesh
Indigenous Arunachali Mishmi, Adi, Apatani people are adept at weaving and experimenting with weaving stripes, geometric patterns, rhombus and diamond shaped embroidery. ‘Adi’ tribe for instance, uses plain stripes in red, black white or yellow. Similarly, ‘Apatani’ tribe weaves are also a combination of lines and geometric patterns. Then there is the intricate ‘Mishmi’ tribe pattern with straight lines with rhombus shaped patterns carved all over. ‘Singhpo’ women also engage in traditional loom weaving and
dyeing. One popular product is the ‘Bilan-abi’, a type of Arunachali skirt made with red, blue and white patterns in vertical bands
Similarly ‘Sherdukpen’ bag knitting is very popular among women. These traditional dresses are usually complimented with Arunachali jewellery made of turquoise blue, yellow, green and white beads. Popular designs are also called ‘Bilangabi’ that uses red, blue, black and white glass beads.
Shawls and cocoon jewellery, Manipur
Manipur’s rich tradition of dance has popularised heritage dresses, shawls and silk jewellery. The ‘Tangkhul’ tribe has several kinds of hand woven cloths and shawls that are predominantly red in colour. A traditional attire is known as ‘Innaphi, cotton saris and sarongs known as ‘Phanek’ and ‘Haopheisoi are other vintage clothing from here. Additionally, light weight cocoon craft earrings are gaining attention from Manipur. These beautiful hand-made by products of silk extraction are also available at the ‘Panthoibi Manipur Handicrafts Emporium’ in Delhi. Once silk extraction is complete, these cocoons
are dyed and recycled into colourful earrings and jewellery.
Khasi Dhara, Meghalaya
Sericulture and weaving are important cottage industries in Meghalaya making these the backbone of rural economy. Indigenous tribe of Khasi is famous for their traditional ‘Khasi Dhara’ or ‘Jainsem worn on special occasions. The heritage dresses are made of Mulberry yarns in various colours and border patterns. Dhara is hand woven and women of the ‘Ri Bhoi’ district specialize in weaving ‘Eri’ silks keeping these timeless handlooms alive. A special technique of dyeing is used using vegetable colors once the fabric is woven on traditional floor looms, thus making the entire process indigenous and authentic. Another traditional wear called ‘Dakmanda’ is the attire of Garo women.
Puanchei and Puandum wear, Mizoram
‘Thenzawl’ in Mizoram was named the Handloom city in 2014, owing to the rich and colourful textile hub that it is. In addition to bamboo basketry and weaving, Mizo people have colourful attractions that make this place an epicenter for handloom development. Customary attires such as ‘Puanchei’ and ‘Puandum’ worn during festivals are made of black, red and white shades. ‘Kawrechi’ is a form of traditional blouse worn by Mizo girls. The ‘Puan’ is made of silks and have embroidery on it. Traditional attire of women to be worn on their wedding is called ‘Puon Pie’.
Warrior shawls, Nagaland
Elaborate motifs in black, blue, red, green, white and yellow are woven into warm Naga shawls, mufflers and stoles. In fact, the famous Angami shawls are also popularly known as the ‘warrior shawls’ of Nagaland. Typical geometric pattern on borders render these creations a typical avant-garde appeal. A unique feature of these weaves is that three pieces are woven separately and stitched together. Historically and much before the advent of woollen apparel, Naga shawls were made of threads extracted from tree barks. Out of the several many weaves crafted by Naga tribes, the ‘Chang’ Naga shawls are all
the rage. These have also been proposed to be included under Geographical Indication status from the state. Some popular shawls from the state are Tsungkotepsu, Angami, Supong, Rongkhim, Tsungrem Khim and others.
Lepcha weaves, Sikkim
Lepcha weaves or ‘thara’ are traditionally small in width and woven in vertical looms. In addition to traditional dresses, ‘thara’ weaves are used for making bedspreads, bags, belts, curtains, cushion covers, table mats etc. Carpet weaving practiced by the Bhutia tribe and Angora knitwear are also popular in the state. Sikkimese expressions and heavily inspired from Tangkha paintings and Buddhist iconography.
Bamboo silk weaves, Tripura
Bamboo is an integral part of the social eco-system of north east especially Agartala, Tripura. Almost every family in the state engages in bamboo and cane crafts. Realising its economic potential, Tripura Bamboo Mission was started with a view to integrate livelihoods, economics and culture. Handcrafted bamboo furniture, baskets, bags, lamp shades, tea sets – the creativity is limitless, when it comes to weaving bamboo fibre, so much so that bamboo silk is another pretty compilation of people’s imagination and skill. The fibre of bamboo is first soaked in water for days together, and then used in the loom to produce textiles. Embroidery is then crafted on these silks to make them colourful. Bamboo earrings and neck pieces are the by-products of this process.
From cultural revivalism to Make in India
While dependence on natural resources as a way to secure livelihoods signifies harmonious ties with nature, it also demonstrates endurance of people combating infrastructural challenges and survival realities amidst conflict. Because of these factors that lead to scarce economic development, governments have overtime pursued policies from ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’. Additionally, Ministry of Development of the North Eastern region (MoDONER) has been instituted toward conserving heritage and promoting development. Similarly, Make in Northeast is one way to promote handlooms and
handicrafts under the aegis of ‘Make in India’.
Craft fairs like Kalakumbh, Melas at Dilli Haat and Dastakar are important methods of mainstreaming these lesser known crafts with urban markets. One challenge that artists from this part of the country face is the language and communication barrier. Additionally, there is the problem of market linkages. Permanent showrooms at Baba Khadak Singh Marg in Delhi such as Pragjyotika from Assam, and Purbasha from Tripura, along with Purbhashree Handloom and Handicrafts Corporation, are important steps toward promotion of these timeless gems from the northeast.
(Swasti Pachauri is a social sector professional. Views expressed are personal.)