The Story Of North-East India’s Rich Fabric Culture

 Assam Silk Saree (Courtesy: Giftideaz)
India’s North-Eastern sisters, a group of states including Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Sikkim, indeed happen to be a part of the union of India, but seem to be out of focus from a lot of the mainstream development. However, this has not changed the fact, that part of India happens to be a zone of great legacies including those related to fabrics and handloom. This is an honest effort in the direction of exploring this legacy, of varied fabrics and handloom, indigenous to this region of India. 

 In the world of Silk

Manipur Silk (Courtesy: epao)
If you have been buying and using Indian silk, there are maximum chances that the silk originates from the North-East part of the country. Mulberry, Muga and Endi silks are the most common known varieties. Meghalaya (known for it’s Endi, Mulberry, and Muga Silks), Manipur (produces nearly 100% of India’s Oak Tasar, apart from the varieties mentioned), and Assam (85% of the global Muga silk, 62% of India’s Endi silk) are some of the leaders when it comes to production. However, Nagaland (known for it’s skilled labor force for the industry) carries a legacy related to the fabric varieties. Tripura, other than being famous for Mulberry silk production, holds perhaps the greatest promise for export of the fabric. The strong co-operatives and Womens’ group activities are a part the state’s strength as well.
Mizoram happens to be the 2nd highest silk producer in the sister states, and holds a very ripe set of conditions for commercial exploitation. Speaking of Arunachal Pradesh, is also known for producing a large gamut of specialty silk varieties, and the fertile lands bordering Assam, is suited very well for mechanization and farming of silk. On a more creative spectrum, the distinct tribes in the state lend creative touches to the fabric varieties in terms of design. One example is the Ahimsa Silk, more commonly known as Indi Silk, is a soft fabric which seems to get a better sheen with each wash. It is made using a special spinning yarn by Taokri a drop spindle, and various products are made from it. In fact it is a very integral part of the Bodo natives of Assam. Sikkim on the other hand, does have a link with the world of silk, but draws equal affinity with cane craft and bamboo, and is known for carpet weaving at Makha, and candle making in Namchi. 

 Designer Yana Ngoba

Womens’ empowerment in the world of weaving

One of the most prominent aspects of the North-East weaving and handloom industry is that, it is dominated by the women who indulge in the craft. Monpas and Shardukpens of Kemang, the Mishmis and Khamtis of Lohit, are all specific examples of various North-Eastern tribes, but have a common aspect; only women from these tribes indulge in the craft of weaving. Even the rest of the country predominantly has men involved in the craft, some North-East tribals have cultural beliefs that men might loose their virility if they indulge in this affiminate art and craft form.

Examples of women empowerment go beyond the traditional rules and customs of the local area. Zuboni Humtsoe, a Naga woman is one such example, who turned adverse situations into a story of success, by creating a venture by selling Nunshiba Dolls. These dolls made from fabrics, were inspired in design from the Japanese dolls, which Zuboni would see as an enthusiast of art, fashion, and photography. Marketed under the brand of ‘Precious Me Love’ or PML, it was a set of adverse circumstances which made Zuboni come up with the idea of commercially making these dolls, while helping the local populace earn a living, and also reducing the carbon footprint of her commercial activities. She taught herself about the art and started this venture from the Rs.3,500 she received as a part of a scholarship, during her studies. Not just this, PML also stands-out to be an ‘all-woman’ venture, where apart from Zuboni herself, all her employees happen to be women candidates. 

 Village woman who was once a weaver herself

The legacy of empowered women go a little further beyond. One such prominent case was that of Chirom Indira from Imphal in Manipur, who had been selected in 2015 for a National Award by the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India. On the advice of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the 7th of August, 2015, the occasion being National Handloom Day, national awards are now being awarded to individuals like Indira, who have excelled at promoting and developing the handloom industry in India, especially the North-East of the country. Her accolades don’t end here either; She is a member of All India Handloom Board (AIHB), MoT, Secretary of All Manipur Handloom Exports Development Entrepreneurs Consortium (AMANHEDEC), Secretary of Look North East Women Development Association, and also the Executive member of Handloom Promotion Council, Manipur. 

Modern Industrialization against a traditional culture

While modernized industrial development is generally linked to overall development and expansion of reach for any market, the traditional arts typically seem to be at odds. This is more so evident in the case of handloom or traditional loin loom creations. As designer Yana Ngoba explains, Some 30 odd years back, loin loom/handloom was found in every household of our state; in fact; in the whole of the Northeast. Every girl was handed down the art of weaving by her mother or female elders in the family. But due to the advent of industrialization, weaving by using the loin loom has taken a backseat.  But equally in a vocal manner, Yana is  quick to point out that the the designing and creativity of the former times is still unmatched; the intricate and fine work of the murals is still the forte of those weavers or artists, who use the traditional handloom or loin loom equipment to create their masterpieces. Yana emphasizes with conviction, that there is little substitute for the ancient time-proven traditional methods.

Yana Ngoba always had keen interest in promoting the traditional arts from her state, and the North-East in general. She has already done so nationally for a decade and internationally for 4 1/2 years, and the reception was hopefully encouraging, which still eggs her on.  

Creativity in Bamboo & Cane

Bamboo Furniture from Assam (Courtesy: canecraftandalliedindustries)
If you are buying a creative and rather vibrantly tray, lamp shades, tools, or any cane or bamboo product, there is a pretty decent chance, it was the real handiwork of the craftsmen from India’s North-East. Crafting various products from bamboo and cane, have their roots in the cultural depiction of various tribes in the region, especially from Nagaland, and also being a mainstay of the local economy of the region. Due to the level of skill and designing aesthetics, they are popular enough to be exported not just throughout the country, but also outside it.

Assam for example, is known for several kinds of bamboo products such as some of their houses, baskets, mats, hats, handicrafts like toys and dolls, and even musical instruments. Shapes and sizes of these baskets determine the purpose of use; conical baskets are specifically carrying baskets. If the shape is square, then it is a storage basket. A most prominent product of Assam, is the bamboo hat or Jhapi, followed by others such as Chalani, Dikula, Kula, Khoralu, Doon, and Dhol. Arunachal Pradesh on the other hand, is known for it’s tribal arts, which are very distinct in their color, form, and design. The arts, mainly dominated by men, include a plethora of practical utility products, such as smoking pipes, bridges, houses, baskets, knives, trays, etc. Some of the more prominent articles Barsi, open-weaved basket or Rothak and Pathu are rectangular pouches made of bamboo from Arunachal Pradesh.

The folklore

Like most traditional arts and crafts, there is folklore associated with the North-Eastern fabric and handloom industry as well.

In Arunachal Pradesh for that matter, a legend among the Galo tribe says, that the art of weaving was learnt through a dream, which involved goddess Podi Barbi. There is a song which narrates a full-story of how cotton is grown, plucked, spun, and woven with cotton yarn in a loom. The song is performed with a dance by the village girls, which also narrates how the olden days were without cotton growth, and people did not have enough clothes to wear, and eventually how cotton itself started getting cultivated.

Yana is someone who seems well versed with the legends from other areas as well. Here she narrates one that is connected to Assam, where she narrates Karbis from Assam at the beginning used bark of trees to cover their bodies. Seeing their plight goddess Sintu brought cotton seeds from heaven and gave them to the people. Selangdi, a woman invented the art of spinning yarn from the cotton flowers. Rimsipi another women invented the art of weaving. After that a very creative woman named Dihun founded the art of colouring the yarns with flower, roots, seeds etc. making beautiful coloured designs on clothes. She is referred to as ‘ser’ meaning gold and immortalized as Serdihun, the patron of weaving. Till today the ritual is performed even now praying for Serdihun’s blessings to rid the weavers from body pains.    

The way things stand now

There are a few names which are gaining prominence in the world of Fashion like Yana Ngoba, Asa Kazingmei, and Nabam Akaa who are indeed creating a mark in the world of of fashion. Yana Ngooba herself, along with her friends has been hosting the North-East India Fashion Week, which has already crossed the 3rd edition running. Weavers and craftsmen, along with other important shareholders use it as a medium to showcase their creativity, and perhaps directly or indirectly address their concerns. The prime focus obviously, is to tap on the commercial viability other than grabbing the attention of the world towards the limitless and unique aesthetics of the North-East fashion and handloom.         



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