[Gist of Kurushetra April 2021] Art and Crafts of Northeast India

Mains Paper 3: Economy
Prelims level: Not much
Mains level: Art and Crafts of Northeast India

Introduction:

• The North-eastern region of India bears a huge testimony to the country’s colourful tradition and heritage.

• The seven states of the region is home to over 160 major Scheduled Tribes and over 400 other tribal and sub-tribal communities and groups, each having its own distinct and unique cultural tradition, replete with a rich history and folklore.

• Moreover, members of each tribe and community are born artisans, producing a wide range of art and craft products befitting their respective traditions.

Handloom:

• Every indigenous community of this region whether in the hills or in the plains, has its own range of handloom textiles, each also depicting the distinct identity of the tribe or community. While women of the tribal communities use the loinloom, others use the handloom to produce a wide range of textiles. The fabrics woven for women also come in different colour combinations for different communities, some made of cotton, some of muga (golden silk), endi (warm silk) and some others of paat (white silk).

• In Assam, Assamese women weave the three-piece mekhela-chador and riha, while Bodo women produce the brilliant dokhona-jwmgra and aronai. Women of the Rabha community on the other hand weave khambung and riphan, while Mishing women produce sumpa and galuk, to name a few.

Bamboo and Cane:

• North-east’s artistic communities also have a wide range of handicraft products, mostly manufactured of bamboo, cane and reed. The Northeast is home to at least 90 species of bamboos, of which 41 are endemic to the region.

• Almost every community in the Northeast has workmanship of high order as far as bamboo and cane products are concerned. Be it the Adi, Apatani, Sherdukpen, Tangsa or Khamti tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, or the Reang, Jamatia, Noatia or Uchai tribe of Tripura, making farm baskets, carrying baskets, grain holders, winning fans, drying trays, fishing traps, food containers, hand-fans, mats, bird and animal cages, field-hats and food plates from bamboo, or chairs, stools, tables, cots, belts, anklets, toys, hats and headgears, etc. of cane is almost part of daily life.

Woodcraft:

• Besides bamboo and cane, the North-eastern region also abounds in a wide variety of trees that provide raw-material to the communities to make various items out of wood. Wood-carving is popular across the region, and products range from human figures, replicas of birds and animals, door frames and furniture etc.

• Wood carving or woodcraft is particularly notable among the tribal communities of Nagaland. Every Naga village has a highly decorative wooden gateway, while each village house is a piece of master woodwork. Carvings denoting various traditional symbols of different tribes can be seen all over. Additionally, most Naga kitchenware and tableware are also made of wood.

• Different Naga tribes like Ao, Konyak, Sangtam, Phom, Chang, Khiamniungam and Yimchunger, also make amazing log-drums-carved out of solid pieces of logs – as part of their community tradition. The log-drum, hollowed out from a single tree trunk, is sometimes up to 12 metres long and three metres in circumference. In the past, log-drums were used for war-purposes – to warn against an approach enemy. Log-drums are also used to announce a festival or a death in the community, as also to raise an alarm when a fire breaks out.

• In Arunachal Pradesh also, wood carving varies from tribe to tribe. The Sherdukpen and Monpa artisans produce a variety of door and window frames, boxes and wooden saddles, apart from beautifully painted household items like bowls, cups, plates and saucers. The magnificent wooden masks produced by the Monpa, Sherdukpen, Memba and Khamba tribes, used in ceremonial dances are really eye-cathing. Wood carving of the Khamti, Wancho, and Tangsa communities on the other hand depicts human figures, as also replicas of birds and animals, apart from various daily-use items. The Khamtis, being Buddhists by faith, also make beautiful images of various deities.

Masks:

• As in most indigenous communities the world over, indigenous communities of North-eastern India also manufacture and use a variety of masks in their rituals and festivals. Masks are also associated with various indigenous religious faiths and beliefs. In Assam, mask-making is particularly concentrated in the Satra institutions – Vaishnavite monasteries- in Majuli, the world’s largest inhabited river island.

• Artisans, mostly monks, use bamboo, cane, clay, cloth, jute, coir and paper pulp to make masks, which are integral part of traditional bhawona performance. Various deities, demons, birds, animals, reptiles and some mythological characters are represented through these masks. The Monpas and Sherdukpens of Arunachal Pradesh use a wide range of masks in their traditional and ritual dances and festivals. These are made of handmade paper, cloth, fur, feathers, bamboo and cane.

Jewellery:

• Jewellery is said to be a mirror of a community’s culture and tradition. Different communities of the North-east too make their own traditional jewellery. In Assam, traditional gold and silver jewellery has a special place in marriage ceremonies, as also part a dancing girl’s attire during Rongali bihu. Traditional Assamese ornaments include dugdugi, jonbiri, dholbiri, lokaparo, golpata, kerumoni, thuriya, bana, gamkharu, muthikharu, jethipoti, to name a few.

Brass and Bell Metal:

• In Assam, two places-Sarthebari and Hajo are traditional centres for manufacturing various brass and bell-metal products. These include household utensils, as also ceremonial items like sarai, (a platter or tray) and bhog-jara (water vessel with a spout). They also make bhor-taal (large cymbals) used during prayers in the naam-ghar and Satra, while smaller cymbals are musical instruments used with bihu and oja-pali songs. Huge gongs and singing bowls manufactured in Assam go out to Buddhist monasteries in across the Himalayan region.

Pottery:

• Pottery, especially based on clay, is more common in the plains of Assam, Manipur and Tripura, though tribal communities in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram too manufacture a variety of pottery with their limited clay resources.
In Assam, one category of potters use the wheel for making various kinds of earthen utensils, while another category work without the wheel. Such wheel-less pottery villages exist particularly in thecMajuli island. There are numerous kumar-gaonsc(potter-villages) across Assam where pottery is the principal means of livelihood. In Dhubri (western Assam), a cluster of villages has specialised in manufacturing fascinating terracotta and pottery items. While tubs, pots and pitchers are common, they also manufacture a wide range of clay toys depicting dolls, animals, and idols of gods and goddesses, which have a global attraction. Several villages in western Tripura too have a rich tradition of manufacturing various pottery products, which include toys and decorative items, apart from the earthen diya.

Conclusion:

• However, it has to be kept in mind that most of the above-mentioned art and crafts have been facing stiff competition from machine-made products, whether manufactured elsewhere in the country or outside India. Traditional artisans are increasingly facing a tough time, especially with production cost rising every passing day, while majority customers look for low-priced items. Therefore, the first step is to preserve these traditions from becoming extinct.

• Secondly, there is a need to integrate the traditional technique with modern art form. Many of the art and craft products produced traditionally can be promoted as souvenirs, decorative items and collector’s items alongside tourism, the greenest and most environment-friendly industry. The Prime Minister’s clarion call for India to become AatmaNirbhar can probably also focus on the traditional art and crafts sector of the North-eastern region, so that such a rich heritage does not get wiped away due to so-called modernisation.

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