On October 5, 2017, 37-year-old Theyie Keditsu from Kohima posted her first photograph on Instagram. In it, she is seen wearing an elegant emerald Mekhala—a traditional Naga sarong—intricately woven in turquoise thread. However, neither hearts nor hits followed.
The next month, at a local beauty pageant where she was a judge, Keditsu wore her mother’s “flashy black and gold Mekhala from the 1980s.” It grabbed eyeballs, but also spurred on a request. “Make your profile public, please?” someone had said.
And when she did, Keditsu’s post went on to get 131 likes. Slowly, as she diversified on the “different” ways to wear the ethnic skirt, she started getting messages and enquiries. The hearts doubled and the hits increased. The Instagram handle, @MekahalaMama, had started trending in the small state of Nagaland.
A few months before she started her now-viral handle, Keditsu, a professor of English at Kohima College, met a woman shopkeeper at the local supermarket, who said that young clientele for the Mekhala was fast disappearing. “The thought scared me, but also made me wonder — do young women find the Mekhala boring?” Keditsu says.
When she started teaching at the Kohima College, Keditsu would wear a Mekhala to work often. “A colleague once told me that I was too young to wear Mekhalas,” she says.
Her everyday attire might have meant she “stuck out like a sore thumb” but Keditsu remained undaunted. “I wanted young women to believe that they—or anyone else for that matter—could pull off the Mekhala,” she says.
“I started my handle because I wanted to challenge the notion that Mekhalas are dowdy,” Keditsu says. The common perception about the garment is that it’s meant to be worn to church, at special occasions or for cultural functions. “Or that it’s expensive, and uncomfortable to wear,” she says.
An Angami girl (who loves indigenous textiles) can never have too many Lohe sets😁 Especially if she has daughters & neices, because these are the heirlooms women pass on to the next generation. I wore this set to my sister’s wedding. Till my neice (her daughter) is old enough to wear it, i am content with the joy of wrapping her up in my shawl as the last winds of winter make their parting visit. #angami #angaminaga #backstraploom #indigenous #heirloom #handwoven #indigenoustextiles #sundaywear #supportlocal #womensupportwomen #aunt #neice #alovesobeautiful #proudaunt #asibujewellery #silver #husbandphotographer
“None of that is true!” Today, Keditsu wears Mekhalas to work everyday, and calls it a “social experiment” of sorts. Before she steps out though, she is careful to click a picture and put it up — “a way to document my #ootd (outfit of the day),” she says.
Another hashtag she uses is #supportlocal. “The shopkeeper had also told me how local weavers are going out of business because of lack of demand,” she says, “Therefore, I also try to promote local designers, artists and craftspeople. I usually accessorize my outfits with jewellery made by homegrown talent.”
Mohawks and Mekhalas
The word ‘Mekhala’ is borrowed from the Assamese word ‘Mekhela’ used to describe the lower portion of the two-piece traditional Assamese dress, the Mekhela Chador.
Nagaland has over 16 tribes and Mekhala designs vary across them in terms of colours, patterns and motifs. “With traditional Mekhalas and shawls it is possible to tell the tribe or village by the design of the cloth. The form of the Mekhala is usually the same across all tribes. Most tribes have a short Mekhala (4/5ft by 2/5ft), and a longer, more commonly worn one which is 4/5ft by 3/4ft,” she says.
However, the reason Keditsu’s Mekhalas stand out is because of her spunky sense of style. In some posts, she even teams her Mekhala with a mohawk. “If I can mix traditional with contemporary funky, it might push other women to as well,” she says.
Not a Paid Promotional Space
According to Keditsu, at one point of time, Mekhalas were worn by all women and across all age groups. Now it’s become the go-to attire only for special occasions. 30-year-old Nengneithem Hengna, who owns Runway Nagaland that sells handcrafted traditional jewellery and handloom, says, “These days many youngsters are embracing their culture and going back to traditional textiles,” adding that she was drawn to Keditsu’s account because of “the phenomenal everyday documentation of Nagaland’s textiles and culture.”
“You have performers like the Tetseo Sisters who have played a significant role in reviving folk music as well as promoting our textiles. Apart from them, many tribal womens’ groups have brought out publications that document the textiles of their tribes. This is essential in educating younger generations about our textiles and their meanings,” explains Keditsu.
Contemporary Mauve poly mekhala with a floral embroidered tulle blouse & an undyed khadi lambswool shawl. Accessorised with @lorenzas_by_nzano earrings #makerepeatwearcool #handwoven #backstraploom #workingmom #momsoldclothes #oldisgold #fashionsustainability #workwear #springflorals #handmadejewellery #supportlocal #womensupportwomen #mauve #shadesofpurple
In little over nine months, Keditsu has managed to amass more than 4,000 followers on Instagram. She admits that many have approached her with business propositions. “Many non-Nagas write to me asking me to sell Mekhalas. But this deviates from my mission. There are already plenty of weavers and stores that sell and promote ‘Made in Nagaland’ items. I am happy to make introductions and facilitate exchanges but in no way will my account turn into a paid promotional space.”
The author is a Guwahati-based journalist who tweets at @without_sans.