Banuo Haralu, a Naga weaver and seller, had caught glimpses of fake-looking Naga shawls before but one day she decided to probe further. Along with a friend, she visited nine shops at Marwari Patti in Dimapur selling ‘fake’ Naga shawls. The quality was poor, the price was cheap and the designs an absurd shock. ‘They are like bosta (sack) material!’ said an agitated Haralu at a meeting of loin loom (back-strap) weavers who were alarmed by the burgeoning of cheap imitations of the heritage piece of clothing.
Sonnie Kath, who works with a body of weavers under the banner Exotic Echo Society, addressed the meeting, ‘Naga textiles have a remarkable heritage enmeshed in a system of hand spinning, dyeing, warping, weaving, and incorporating bead work and design. But if we were to give in to crass commercialization, the community loses ownership over the design and the produce all at once. Loin loom weaving was once fundamental to the lives of Naga women, but due to modern influences, the younger generation is not aware of our textile heritage’. Sitting around her in a semi-circle, the weavers quietly nod their approval.
Most of the shawls at Marwari Patti sell for Rs 500-600 and are supplied from various parts of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. The designs, the weavers say, are mostly from the Ao, Lotha and Chakhesang tribes, though not completely so; only certain motifs like spears appear on the shawls. The Sumi and Angami weaves have escaped mass duplication through community intervention. ‘Someone who knows nothing about Naga culture has designed these shawls,’ maintains Haralu.
The women making these shawls are known to be from poor backgrounds, working hard on their only market skill—the loin loom—passed on through generations; they get a minimal part of the profit. Some of the shop owners at Marwari Patti told Haralu and her weaver-entrepreneur friend that some women forcibly bring their produce to the shops. This could not be ascertained by them as women who support such economies remain faceless. Traditional Naga shawls entail a pattern of story-telling and form the literature of any given age/gender/clan/village/tribe. Haphazard plagiarism leads to the loss of this cultural heritage and the narratives that extrapolate culture.
Loom’s Labour Lost
Elsewhere, at handloom emporiums in New Delhi, for instance, weavers are consistently reprimanded, notably by Indian army personnel who have served in the Northeast, for the ‘high pricing’ of Naga weaves. ‘We get these shawls for free in Nagaland. Even if not, we can get good shawls for Rs 200-500 in exchange for a bottle of rum. Why do you have to charge so much?’ one weaver was reprehensibly asked by an officer at an emporium. She promptly shooed him out from the store.
‘On several occasions, I have seen the shawls being used as carpets and bedcovers,’ laments Haralu. Each shawl is carefully designed and woven with bent backs over the loom for hours on end, with careful stitching together of the woven pieces at the end. ‘Each of our weaves has significance—our ancestors earned them,’ notes Kath. Head hunters’ and feast givers’ textiles were coveted fabric that symbolised prestige and showed their power among the tribes—on the floor, they do not belong.
Preserving a Way of Life
G Swu, who has been in the business for many years now, observes, ‘Very few Naga women and young girls want to learn weaving these days. The ease of opting for the culture of second hand easy-wash-and-wear clothing is all too familiar’. To cater to demands, particularly from outside Nagaland, she has no option but to hire non Naga women. ‘We Naga people are dying with the art, struggling even with our traditional loin loom, forget about working on the shuttle (semi-mechanised) loom,’ she states. This, however, need not be the case. The Government of Nagaland should prioritize supporting and promoting the cause of small weavers. ‘This is what Article 371-A is for. Without government support, our rich heritage will be co-opted by market forces (unfair pricing, mass production, quality degradation, plagiarism) for commercial gains and we will lose our identity as well as rights,’ concludes Kath. The weaver’s collective organization is a step in the right direction.
Written By: Ananya Dasgupta
This article first appeared in the August 2016 Issue of Eclectic Northeast