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Raphael Warjri
Date of Publish: 2016-05-17

The Khasi Visual Art Tradition


The hallmark that emerges from the knowledge to create is the original entity of the creator which is different from another person with the same or similar aptitude- known as Art. The hallmark or distinctive brand of a particular individual is called 'matti', 'mat' is the short syllable for 'khmat' meaning front and 'ti' is the short syllable for 'kti' meaning hand in Khasi. Knowledge or to know means 'tip' and create means 'thaw' in Khasi language; hence 'mattithaw' or 'mattipthaw' means an object created with knowledge and executed by hand that stimulate in front of the people is an experience, which denotes art in Khasi. It could be the literary writing skill, music and dance performing skill, painting and sculpturing skill or any such creative talent. Therefore, Art is the unique and exclusive style, character or identity of the work created by the writer, poet, artist and every innovative person. Art signifies the emotional and material product created by the artist. The whole world with all its components are the intangible or spiritual and tangible or material products of the Creator, God Almighty in Khasi terminology.

 Khasi belief prohibited the act of creating images and such action by a person is termed as taboo, because it is considered an the sole prerogative of God, the Creator. Therefore, the images of ancestors, divine entities or anything that is revered in society or mankind is forbidden to make with artificial means. Any image making matter is perceived as a dummy of the original image; like the scarecrow to chase away birds and animals from the agricultural fields, and the mask which is used in fanfare for fun and amusement. This is the basic reason that during the funeral ceremony all the structures of certain forms are destroyed before the final rituals of cremation: even the hearse that is used to carry the corpse to the crematicial means. Any image making matter is perceived as a dummy of the original image; like the scarecrow to chase away birds and animals from the agricultural fields, and the mask which is used in fanfare for fun and amusement. This is the basic reason that during the funeral ceremony all the structures of certain forms are destroyed before the final rituals of cremation: even the hearse that is used to carry the corpse to the cremation pyre has to be destroyed before the body is incinerated. During the Behdeiñkhlam ceremony of the Pnar people in the Pnar or Jaintia region, all the colourful towering structures are dismantled and dumped into a ditch. Perhaps this customs is akin to other Asian cultures. On the one hand it is similar to the the Durga Puja festival of the Hindu custom where idols are immersed in the river and dissolved thereafter; and on the other hand during the Muharram of Islam, the tazias are immersed in the river after the religious procession. The only difference is that Hindus revere and worship the idols, while the Muslims do not hold any significance to the structures; and the Khasis do not give any regard to the structures, and it is forbidden to worship these structures.

 The monolith, ossuary and all other stone structures of the Khasis does not have any carving image on them. In weaving also, there are no images apart from simple pattern designs on the hem. Even bamboo crafts are without any design because the plaits are stressing more on the functional convenience of the article. Therefore, aesthetics among the Khasis are functional and utilitarian in nature. For that matter, there are no traces of visible folk art inherited from the ancestors. Khasis consider that life in the world is temporary and believed that God has provided with complete beauty in the surrounding environment, which might not be necessary for man to engage in the imitation process. Khasi philosophy revealed that the permanent abode is the home of God and that is why the mortal body may decompose but the soul will stay at the threshold to the abode of God, literally referring in Khasi as bam kwai ha dwar U Blei or eaten betel nut at the doorstep to the abode of God. Why eating betel nut? – Khasi custom consider sharing betel nut as the symbol of great honour to greet and welcome the guests, to celebrate a conversation of goodwill around the hearth.

According to the Khasi myth, Biskorom is revered as the chief deity for creativity and through his divine disciples known as the twelve masons or 'khatar kamar' and nine masons or 'khyndai kamar' engaged in the making and manufacturing of material structures for human utility. The entire process of the work is believed to have taken place at a place called Rangjyrteh and from there on, it is handed over to the people to sustain the tradition. Rangjyrteh is an ancient settlement with traces of an established iron industry. There are remnants of specific foundry demarcated from one another, with each foundry consisting of all the components for iron smelting like the kiln and the manger with fossilised iron ore  spreading all around the area. Therefore, Rangjyrteh located near Sohra (Cherrapunjee) is the ancient professional and occupational establishment of artists, architects, engineers, artisans including each and every skilled craftsperson. Perhaps, the chief deity for creativity Biskorom is the same Hindu God Viswakarma. Essentially, the Khasi folk technology for iron, bamboo and wooden tools and structures originated from Rangjyrteh.

In the present context, the contemporary art expression is emerging and prevailing to reveal Khasi thoughts. One artistic expression is the fixing of animal antlers at the top portion of the front door, the main entrance to the hut or the house. The popular trend is the deer antlers that related with the customary community hunting expedition. The traditional hunting expedition is being considered after chanting prayers to God seeking divine sanction.

Khasi custom forbid creation of images and considered a taboo, therefore the artistic urge is indicated through the expression at the façade and the top portion of the front entrance to the house. The other portion of the house is meant for convenience of utility and function for the inhabitants. The roof and the walls are meant to protect from wind and rain, the windows are meant to attract light and allow circulation of air, the staircase and the door to be able to access the house, and so on and so forth. However, the façade is a frame that is not required for any function for the inhabitants and this space is a prominent display area for the original artistic creativity of the owner or the builder. In the similar manner, the top frontal entrance is the ideal space for the exhibition of the symbol of victory and good fortune for the family.

The tradition of hanging the antler at the upper threshold of the ethnic hut is being followed with the same purpose at the modern house. The transition is accepted and evolved a new tradition, even in the sophisticated cemented buildings. Some artists portray elements of Khasi identity in their artworks in such spaces. After the introduction of the architecture known as Assam-type, the façade of the house became the display area for the builder or the house owner to create images of their personal choice. Eminent local architect, Aiban Shngaiñ Mawkhroh stated that the creative pursuit of the house owner or the builder is depicted prominently at the façade of every house in Khasi region. Further, he confirmed that the similar trend and pattern is repeating in the present  days cement concrete buildings.

Dr Desmond L Kharmawphlang, an eminent poet , folklorist , cultural scholar  and Professor in  the Department of Creative & Cultural  Studies, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong, expressed that image creation is found on weaving, rituals and some other daily chores and occasionally during festival and ceremony. However, all these images are not visible to the masses and could not penetrate into the society. As it appear in the present juncture, especially when compared with neighbouring ethnic races or even the whole world; there is a conjecture that the visual art tradition is either lost or it has never been in existence in the Khasi society

Khasi thought considered talent as God gifted attribute, while the trick or craftsmanship is human skill and ability. Talent is pure, clean, sacred and divine; while trick and craftsmanship is a wise and calculative action, it is human and temporal. Art deriving out of gifted original talent can be distinguish from the art deriving out of innovative trick and craftsmanship. Talent is absolute intellectual element, while trick and craftsmanship involves elements of intellectual and application capability. Both are creative impulses motivated by the skill and ability to use the personal aptitude. These two terms creative talent and creative trick or craftsmanship are comparable with each other as being genuine against imitative, original against imaginative, productive against sterile, beneficial against futility, static against dynamic. However both attributes can grow and attain certain amount of quality and perfection through consistent usage and regular practice. Literature, Visual Arts and Performing Arts are the primary components of creative expression commonly called art, although it is more often referred to pictorial term. However the term art has been ascribed to various other skillful action, which are more of application rather than intellectual ability. It is interesting to observe that new modes of such creative arts and various visual art forms are evolving now since  last two three decades of the eighties and nineties thereby ushering in a new departure in the visual cultural tradition of the Khasi.

Raphael Warjri 

(Raphael Warjri  is a painter, writer,  film-maker and a theatre personality based in Shillong. He was conferred Green Warrior Award by ISB&M, Kolkata; Excellence Award by Rotary Club of Orchid City, Shillong 2011, and Avenues Youth Icon Award 2012.)





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