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Jayanta Kumar Sarma
Date of Publish: 2016-12-08

Reflection of nature inspired motif and design in the traditional textile practices of North East India

 

North Eastern part of India with its biological and ethnic diversity nurtures diverse cultural systems, where nature-based orientation, perception and behaviour are reflected vividly in different cultural practices. These cultural diversities are well organised in unity and divided into two fundamental aspects -- a body of artefacts and a system of customs. However, in the context of indigenous ethnic groups of North East India, the traditional textile products represent the artefacts aspects and as it is also the part of customs. 

Photo- Jayanta Kumar Sarma

It is noteworthy that all historically developed patterns in textile are becoming a symbolic identity of different communities. The textile products also represent the aesthetics characteristics, in case of textile appreciation of ‘colour and form’ which are the two important components. Colours are thought of as substances that are independent of historical dimensions. This is linked to the idea gathered from nature. In reality, exposure and experiences with nature develop impression and idea in mind which are reflected in textiles. 

In case of colour, viz.  red, black, yellow and white, are prominent in the textile products of most of the hill tribes of North East India. Usually, black is the base colour where designs are developed by the combination of other colours. Black is considered as authoritative and powerful which conjures strong emotions. It may also represents darkness of night and absence of individualism and resemble with emptiness. This emptiness is filled with colour, like white, red and yellow, as reflected in the common practices. White reflects purity, cleanliness and neutrality. Red is considered as something energized, accumulation of red indicates accrual of more energy, and it is personified in system of customary interpretation.  Yellow represents optimism, enlightenment and happiness.

Photo- Jayanta Kumar Sarma

All these colours are common in textile product of the hill tribes like different Naga group, Hmar, Kuki, Singhpho, Karbi etc. Darkness of night in the hills, reflection of white in sky, red of fire and the prime source of energy and light, blossoming yellow in the surrounding are important aspects of design over black backdrop. However, some variations are there, like in the case of Angami Naga’s Red Shawl (which is also common among the other Naga groups) and Tangkhul Naga and also in the case of Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh.

 

Photo- Jayanta Kumar Sarma

Among Angami Nagas, they have a shawl with red base and a white patches in the middle portion. It reflects sources of energy, purity and neutrality which is designated for the knowledgeable people of the community as per customary practices. So, as per traditional institutions when one is wearing this shawl he/she needs to behave in gentle manner. On the other hand Monpa community adopted a varied hues of red colour as the base in their traditional dresses of women, men jackets which is the reflection of the colour of the leaf of high altitudinal trees (around 7000 to 12000feet) in dry winter season.

However, in case of plain tribes, like Bodos of Brahmaputra valley, two basic colours are reflected as base colour in their traditional dresses, viz. green and yellow. Green perceived as the colour of nature, interestingly green occupies more space of the spectrum visible to human eyes. On the other hand, yellow represents the hope and happiness. It is noteworthy that Bodos are the one of the indigenous ethnic groups who live in the plains and have expertise on paddy cultivation. So they are always in the midst of paddy fields and the varied colour of paddy fields, i.e. green and yellow mirrored in their traditional dresses.

Photo- Jayanta Kumar Sarma

In case of many communities, green is considered as the symbol of maturity. Therefore, usually, among such communities traditionally green colour is used as base colour in the dresses worn by the married persons, like Khamtis of Arunachal Pradesh and Mishing community of Assam. There are exceptional symbolic uses of colour mimicked from nature, as in the case of Rainbow shawl of Sema Naga, where, colour of rainbow is adopted in the design of the shawl. They use separate designs with the same colour combination for men and women respectively.

Photo- Jayanta Kumar Sarma

It is noteworthy that, among Sema naga there is an ethical norm involved with this particular design, when one person is wearing this shwal he or she needs to behave politely, avoid any in-toxic consummation, telling lie, quarrelling with others. Therefore, this particular design is used only in auspicious occasions like marriage, festivals, etc. There is a practice of using a shawl with combination of black and blue colour among the Lotha Nagas.  This particular design is for the elderly male, having more physical strength. So it is for the strongest elderly male of the community. There is an institutions to have this particular shawl -- one has to carry a stone from hills to his home and install the stone in front of the house. After that a ritual is performed in presence of the community when ritualistically handprint of the person is put on the rock. Then the community offers the particular shawl to him. Here, the colour of the black indicates absence of selfishness and blue is the representation of the character of trustworthiness, dependability and commitment. On the other hand, there is another shawl with combination of white and blue among Lotha Nagas. Here white is the base colour designed with blue stripes. This is also used by elderly male person of the community and is a representation of purity, neutrality, dependability and commitment in combination, an ethical concern for every elderly person.

Photo- Jayanta Kumar Sarma 

Moreover, common forms of textile designs embody motives which reflect the characteristics of symbols. Such motives can be classified as geometric, realistic or natural, abstracts and stylized. In case of the textile design of North Eastern Region of India, geometric and realistic or natural design are very prominent  but there are some examples of abstract design and stylized design evolved in cases of cultural transformation and assimilation only.

Usually geometric forms as line, triangle and circle are commonly observed. Lines are prominent in the margin area to frame a boundary, followed by other motives. Usually simulation of animal forms is observed in many designs, as in the case of Monpa, Morom Naga, and Bodos etc.

Photo- Jayanta Kumar Sarma

In case Monpas, they adopt the shape of animals like yak, hill birds, pony that are part of their life. Morom Nagas who are mainly inhabitant of Senapati district of Manipur, have adopted shapes of elephant, birds in their designs. Such designs follow some geometric forms to create a uniformity with other geometric forms which is in combination of the total design. Many a times, eye of an animal is considered as the symbol of source of positivity, peace and prosperity in design like Yak eye in Monpa design and Pigeon eye in Bodo design. Similarly, different floral shapes are also adopted in designs like fern leaves in Bodo design and circular arrangement of flower petal. Interestingly, in Monpa design there is a significant use of different hues of blue on red backdrop in their dress design, which is the imprint of high altitudinal blue flowers overt in shrubs and herbs during dry winter periods.  

Photo- Jayanta Kumar Sarma

Sometime, design also represents culturally embedded   customary practices. For example, Karbi community uses a particular ‘chadar’ used to welcome the new bride when she comes to groom’s house after the marriage. This ‘chadar’ is called as ‘Inkia Namang’. This is designed with different flora and fauna, prominently deer, monkey, jungle fowl, fish, fern, taro leaf etc.  The cultural practices symbolically reflect the beliefs that new bride will bring prosperity to the groom’s family and this prosperity is linked to flora and fauna of the eco-system where they live in, means - if this flora and fauna grows well, ecosystem will be protected and sustainability maintained.

Photo- Jayanta Kumar Sarma

Above mentioned are some examples only. Many other designs and forms are in vogue among the indigenous ethnic groups in their traditional textile practices. It is the reflection of the richness of the cultural system of the region, how cultural framework is perceived in nature around them and how such imprints are carried in their handloom products. These designs also reflect the repository of creativity and indigenous knowledge of the communities of the region.

There is a need for documentation of all these designs with appropriate cataloguing and interpretation. Such information may help in planning and renovation of handloom practices of the region in the perspectives of growing demands for environment sensitive designs and products in contemporary fashion world. 

Jayanta Kumar Sarma

( Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and  he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial farm and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM. He can be reached at jksbeltola@gmail.com )

 

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