Reign of the Goddess: A Textile becomes her sacred abode

Mataji no chandarvo dedicated to Goddess Meladi, Block printed and painted on cloth, Lt. 127; Wd. 102 cm, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Purchased by Archana Shastri in Ahmedabad in 1978. Photograph by Renu Dhiman.
Mataji no chandarvo dedicated to Goddess Meladi, Block printed and painted on cloth, Lt. 127; Wd. 102 cm, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Purchased by Archana Shastri in Ahmedabad in 1978. Photograph by Renu Dhiman.

The Sabarmati River that runs through the bustling city of Ahmedabad, nourishes many textile traditions which are still practiced and adored. In the central most part of the city, resides the Vaghris, who paint and create a wonderful ritual cloth, called the Mataji no chandarvo or Mata ni pachhedi. As the name suggests, these ritual cloths with the imagery of the Goddess along with other related legends serve as a portable shrine; a backdrop and canopy (also popularly referred to as chandani) during the festivities of the nine auspicious nights called the navratri.  The Vaghri communities were nomadic in nature; hence a portable shrine was a practical solution to their lifestyle. In olden times, restrictions of them entering the temples by the upper castes also led to the creation of these sacred textiles. In a way, it was creating their own sanctuary for their beloved Goddesses. The rituals and sacrifices that were performed, invited the Goddess to dwell on the cloth which becomes divine by her presence, now cannot be touched or looked upon by a mortal.

Wooden blocks belonging to Satishbhai Chitara's family and workshop in Khanpur, Ahmedabad. Dated: July 2019.
Wooden blocks belonging to Satishbhai Chitara’s family and workshop in Khanpur, Ahmedabad. Dated: July 2019.

After following various steps of preparing the cloth, the images over the cloth were primarily block printed and then colours were filled by hand. The wooden blocks for these textiles were made in Pethapur, presently located in the Gandhinagar district, approximately 35 kilometers from Ahmedabad city. The block-makers of Pethapur are renowned far and wide for supplying intricately carved wooden blocks to printers in Ahmedabad and other parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The wood, referred to as sag (also sometimes called teak)[i] is procured from the local forest and stored in the house to be later chiseled into blocks of various sizes. The surface of the wood blocks is smoothen using sand paper and other leveling tools. Then, the design created in paper is transferred onto the prepared surface of the block, which is brought to life by the expert chiseling work of the craftsman. One of the celebrated master block-maker was Shilpguru Maneklal Gajjar from Pethapur who was also the last surviving specialist on the designs of the famous block printed saudagiri textiles exported to Thailand roughly between the years, 1850 to 1940. He maintained a meticulous record of the designs along with impressions of blocks, names of printers, traders’ logo and label, etc, that were handed over to him by his ancestors, which once in a while, he delightedly shared with textile enthusiasts visiting him. The saudagiri designs often comprised small geometric and floral patterns covering the entire surface of the field. The structure of the pattern is a rhombic grid which was elaborated with stylized leaf and floral forms, sometimes with flower in the centre of the rhombus or rhombic-shaped motifs placed in the grid.[ii] The designs and the patterns were dictated heavily by the current tastes and market demands in Thailand, as these textiles were solely for the purpose of trade with the kingdom. At times, the aesthetics in these textiles also slipped into the local textiles such as the chandarvo textiles, made for the Goddess. The textile below probably was used as a canopy for a small portable shrine dedicated to Goddess Bahuchara, with her vahana, the rooster forming the repeat motif along the undulating floral creeper in the border.

Chandani (Canopy), block print, 20th century, Lt. 226; Wd. 127 cm, probably Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Courtesy: Sushmit.
Chandani (Canopy), block print, 20th century, Lt. 226; Wd. 127 cm, probably Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Courtesy: Sushmit.

The cloth used for these textiles is mostly a cotton mill-made fabric. Although, various processes are professionally employed to prepare the cloth, the women of the household, often lent a helping hand of soaking the cloth in a tub filled with solution made of myrobalan (harda), water, soda and castor oil. This process helps in the fixing of the colours and the eventual dying of the cloth. The block print and the hand sketches are generally done by the male artists. The filling of the colours especially red, is done by the women of the household with the use of a brush.

The old shrine cloths made in Ahmedabad, followed a certain format and pattern in the layout. The central part was occupied by the Goddess for whom the cloth was commissioned and dedicated for. She can be also accompanied by other goddesses depicted in smaller scale occupying the registers on the side and below. The borders are done entirely by blocks. Sometimes two Goddesses can be depicted in the same cloth in the same scale positioned next to each other. Certain registers would have flower-garland bearing ladies (malins), musicians and other devotees venerating the Goddess. The black goat brought for sacrifice is also shown, being dragged by a man towards the divine mother. The sun and the moon are depicted on the corners above, sun having a moustache and the moon without a moustache. Popular gods such as Lord Ganesh, is depicted seated on a throne. Mythological characters from the epic Ramayana, such as Rama and Sita are also painted. The legend of the king who turns into a two headed deer and his seven daughters into fish on a pond is also shown frequently.

There are few main Goddesses for whom these shrine cloths are made. Ambika, who rides a lion or tiger, Bahuchara rides a rooster, Vihat prefers a black buffalo and Meladi is mounted on a black goat. Other Goddesses such as Khodiyar (her vahana is a crocodile), Momai (rides a dromedary), Vaduchi Ma, (depicted seated on a throne), Shikotar (sails on a boat) and Gel Mata (rides a composite animal called gajasinha similar to a chimera)[iii] are painted on commission or special request. Two other Goddesses worshipped for similar purpose and slowly becoming popular in the chandarvo textiles, are Hadkai who rides a mad, saliva dropping dog (worshipped for cure of rabies) and Shitala whose vahana is a donkey (worshipped for various poxes and skin aliments).

The above study of this tradition of textile is limited to only the ones made in the city of Ahmedabad. There are variations of the same, with more colourful ones made in Jambusar in Bharuch and Bhingrad in Saurashtra. Over the years, hybridization of this tradition has started with wall hanging format, much smaller in size are made, for selling them in high end urban stores and fairs. They are extremely expensive compared to the earlier block printed repertoire due to the fact that they are entirely hand-drawn by the use of a kalam (pen made of a twig). The use of a kalam has also given much freedom in the layout of the theme and has infused a lyrical movement to the storyline whether it may be the swaying branches of the trees or be it the ferocity of the blood bath of the demons, the Goddess is slaying. New experiments are also not feared, in terms of using new striking colours that were earlier not available. These are all attempts to give the clientele fresh products and the continuation and survival of the craft. Product range also includes saris and dress materials with various figures painted on them.

Wall hanging dedicated to Bahuchara Mata, Hand-painted (2019), Lt. 37; Wd. 48 cm, Artist: Satishbhai Chitara, Ahmedabad.
Wall hanging dedicated to Bahuchara Mata, Hand-painted (2019), Lt. 37; Wd. 48 cm, Artist: Satishbhai Chitara, Ahmedabad.

The development of the riverfront area along the banks of the Sabarmati River has also put in new challenges to this tradition. Now to wash off the dyed textiles, they have to travel further down which increases the efforts and the cost of making these textiles. The original humble clientele who bought or commissioned these sacred cloths, solely for the purpose of worship, can no longer afford to buy them in their new rates. For them, screen printed options are produced in sharp lines and extremely bright colours. With all the challenges, the tradition of making these delightful shrine cloths will survive, in the hands of talented new generation of Vaghri artists. Probably like any other crafts today, in new avatars.

 

[i]  Katherine F. Hacker and Krista Jensen Turnbull, Courtyard, Bazaar, Temple: Traditions of Textile Expression in India, (Seattle: University of Washington, An exhibition organized by Costume and Textile Study Center, 12 June -25 July 1982), 51.

[ii]  Aditi Ranjan, “The Legend of Sabarmati’s Hand Block printed Textiles”, in Ahmedabad 600: Portraits of a City, eds, Suchitra Balasubramanyam and Sharmila Sagara, Marg Volume 63 No 2, December 2011, 112-113.

[iii] Eberhard Fischer, Jyotindra Jain and Haku Shah, Temple Tents for Goddesses in Gujarat, India. (New Delhi:  Niyogi Books, 2014), 155-191.

Other references:

Priya Devi, ed, The Master Weavers, Catalogue of Festival of India Exhibition, Britain: Royal College of Art, 1942.

Ranjan, Aditi and M.P. Ranjan, eds. Crafts of India: Handmade in India. New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporations, COHANDS, 2007.

Reign of the Goddess: A Textile becomes her sacred abode

The Circle of Divinity: The Ritual Saras of Bengal

Lakshmi-Narayan Sara, Lakshmi Sara and Mahisasurmardini Sara, West Bengal, painted terracotta, Dia. 29 cm, Purchased near Kalighat Temple, Calcutta (2019).
Lakshmi-Narayan Sara, Lakshmi Sara and Mahisasurmardini Sara, West Bengal, Painted terracotta, Dia. 29 cm, Purchased near Kalighat Temple, Calcutta (2019).

Few days after Durga puja, the street shops around the famous Kalighat temple in Calcutta are filled with beautifully painted shallow earthen dishes called saras. Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth is worshiped with these painted saras as idol, on a full moon night few days after Durga puja. These shallow earthen dishes are painted with the images of Goddess Lakshmi and other divinities on the obverse side (convex) to be sold to devotees who would install these images on the shrines of their respective homes.

The tradition of worshiping painted saras is basically from east Bengal, specifically in the areas of Dhaka, Faridpur and Barisal (now in Bangladesh). In the western side of undivided Bengal, for the purpose of worship, a pot (ghot), was used along with an earthen idol of Lakshmi. With the migration of artisans from the eastern side, the tradition of using painted saras during Lakshmi puja was adopted in the western side as well with major concentration in Nadia District as a centre of production and southern quarters of Calcutta. The market around Kalighat temple in southern Calcutta, where thousands of pilgrims who flock every day for worshiping the chief deity, Goddess Kali, buy these painted saras among many other articles on sale related to the temple.

These saras, also carry the images of other deities, worshipped during the auspicious days dedicated to them. For example, the Radha-Krishna sara, depicting the divine couple along with their attendants under a kadam tree, is prepared and sold for the occasion of jhulan purnima (around the birth celebration of lord Krishna).

Radha-Krishna Sara, West Bengal, Painted terracotta, Dia. 28 cm, Purchased near Kalighat Temple, Calcutta (2019).
Radha-Krishna Sara, West Bengal, Painted terracotta, Dia. 28 cm, Purchased near Kalighat Temple, Calcutta (2019).
The Circle of Divinity: The Ritual Saras of Bengal

The Spotted Skin: The Madurai Sungadi

Sungadi
Sungadi (Sari), wax resist dye, Lt. 5.5 metres, Weaver: Tmt. R. Jothimani, Purchased online from Co-optex, Photograph: Renu Dhiman

In the minds of the people, tie-dyed textiles popularly known as bandhani or bandhej is generally associated with the arid landscape of Western India, comprising the modern states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. The picture of a village belle fetching water in her pots, her head covered with a colourful bandhani odhani (head-cloth) fluttering in the strong desert breeze is often generated in one’s mind. It is difficult to associate a space beyond these areas, where tie-dyed textiles would exist. On the contrary, in the past, tie-dyed textiles were quite popular in the southern region of India with flourishing centres of production. There are paintings in the ‘company school’ tradition showing many communities from the southern states wearing tie-dyed fabrics.

The coastal belt of Southern India has a rich history of fine quality cotton textiles, which is quite often over-shadowed by the dazzling brocaded silks. The mastery of production of cotton textiles was a result of an influx of weavers from the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu that spans over hundreds of years. The local weaving groups of Tamil Nadu are the Kaikolars and Saliyars who primarily weave a coarse count cotton. The refinement of weaving fine count cotton textiles came with the migration of Kannada Devangas from Karnataka. In the sector of silk textiles, the weaving technology was enhanced only with the flowing in of weavers from Andhra Pradesh and majorly due to the exodus of Saurashtrians, known as Pattunulkars, meaning one who weaves silks.[i] Today, with the silk textiles becoming a more lucrative trade article, more and more cotton weaving groups are shifting towards silk weaving, although the mastery of silk weaving is still held strong by the Saurashtrian settlers.

In 1866, John Forbes Watson had painstakingly compiled an eighteen volume book, called, “The Textile Manufactures of India” which contains 700 invaluable samples from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. In the Volume V and IX, titled as, ‘Garment Pieces for Women’ and ‘Muslins, Silk and Other Piece Goods’ respectively, he has documented samples labeled as spotted and printed muslins.[ii] These samples are clearly of the tie-dyed repertoire and interestingly, they were produced in centres such as Cuddapah, Madras and Trichinopoly. Unfortunately, none of these centres today, produce tie-dyed textiles.

Today, the only centre in Tamil Nadu, which produces tie-dyed textiles, especially saris, is the temple city of Madurai. The Saurashtrian settlers based in Madurai have preserved this craft till date and continue producing a tie-dyed sari called the sungadi. The reason for their migration is not certain, but it is said that they were invited to settle in Madurai, by Tirumal Nayak, who ruled Madurai from 1623 to 1659.[iii]  Another version of the story narrates their exodus during the eleventh century to escape the onslaught of the invading armies from the north especially those belonging to Mahmud of Ghazni. They probably moved southwards and reached Madurai via Maharashtra and Vijayanagar. As mentioned earlier, along with the knowledge of weaving silk, they brought with them the alluring textile tradition of tie-dyed cloths to be worn as saris and turban to the Southern region.

Sungadi or sungudi, is the patterning of the cotton sari with ringed dots that are achieved by tie-dyed technique. The tie-resist (pulli katturadhu)[iv] is employed to pattern the field of the sari while the border and pallav (the terminal end of the sari) is dyed in a bolder contrasting colour using wooden clamps for resist, called katta katradhu[v]. The border in the traditional sungadis often has a narrow woven zari panel with either rudraksha or annapakshi (wish fulfilling bird/swan) motifs. It is said that the Saurashtrians of Madurai maintained a close contact with the bandhani craftsmen in Gujarat and only the already knotted saris were dyed in Madurai.[vi] With lack of expert knot-tiers, complicated and intricate patterns were achieved by wax resist technique with the help of wooden blocks to stamp the motif laced in wax on to the fabric. They were later boiled in the desired dye for the wax to melt and reveal the intended pattern. In Madurai, women generally ties the knots but today, to cut down cost and meet market demands faster, the use of wax resist as well as screen print options are widely employed.

Sungadi, the name probably derived from the tie-dyed chunadi, a head-cloth worn in Northern India, became a daily wear sari for many women in Tamil Nadu. It is preferred due to its fine cotton and appropriate texture for the hot and humid weather. Although one can still buy an authentic Madurai sungadi, the future is not very bright with lot of cheap imitations.

Sungadi (Sari), tie-dye resist print, gifted by her brother from his first salary to Geeta Athreya in the 1970s.
Sungadi (Sari), tie-dye resist print, gifted by her brother from his first salary to Geeta Athreya in the 1970s.

 

[i] Martand Singh and Rta Kapur Chishti, Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond. (New Delhi: Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., 2010), 245.

[ii]  In Volume V, sample no. 197 (Madras) and sample no. 198 (Cuddapah); In Volume IX, sample no. 344 (Trichinopoly), sample no. 345 (Trichinopoly), sample no.346 (Madras), sample no. 347 (Madras), sample no. 348 (Madras), sample no. 349 (Madras), sample no. 350 (Cuddapah), Courtesy: www.tmoi.org.uk

[iii] Veronica Murphy and Rosemary Crill, Tie-dyed Textiles of India: Tradition and Trade. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1991), 107.

[iv] Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, eds., Crafts of India: Handmade in India. (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation, COHANDS, 2007), 328

[v] Ibid

[vi] Veronica Murphy and Rosemary Crill, 109

Other references:

John Forbes Watson. The Textile Manufactures and the Costume of the People of India. Varanasi: Indological Book House, 1982.

Krishna Nanditha. Living Traditions of India: Arts and Crafts of Tamil Nadu. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1992.

 

The Spotted Skin: The Madurai Sungadi

Sculpted Sound: The hypnotic lutes of the Santals

Dhodro banam (Stringed instrument), c.1970, Wood, Carved. Collection: Sushmit Sharma.
Dhodro banam (Stringed instrument), Santal, c.1970, Eastern India, Wood, Carved. Collection: Sushmit Sharma. Photograph by: Renu Dhiman.

Santals are a group of people who occupy certain areas of Bihar mostly Jharkhand, also spilling over to the neighboring states of Odisha and West Bengal. They are primarily a farming community growing mostly rice. Music and dance are an integral part of their life and culture, connecting to fertility and harvest. Of all their musical instruments, the dhodro banam is one of the most spectacular creations, in terms of design which heavily aided by the art and skill of sculpting. Like all the origin theories and myths of the Santals, this instrument too has a peculiar myth of origin. The story goes in this way that long ago in a village, seven brothers had a sister, who was cooking a meal one day for her brothers. While engrossed in her cooking she accidentally cuts her finger, from where a drop of blood falls on to the food. The food was perceived as very delicious and it made them wonder if a drop of blood makes it so tasty, her flesh might be even more delicious. At the spur of moment, a unanimous decision was taken to eat her up. The youngest of the brothers could not eat his portion, as she was his beloved sister, and decided to bury his share into a white ant-hill. From this spot a beautiful Champa tree grows and its branches whistled melodious music as the wind blew. A yogi passing by could not resist listening to it and broke a branch which he later converted into a dhodro banam, a musical instrument in anthropomorphic form.

The surviving examples are carved out of a hard wood, although the myth mentions the Champa tree which is a rather softer medium. Dr. Verrier Elwin, a noted anthropologist, in his book, The Tribal Art of Middle India, records that a heavy wood, specifically Grewia tiliaefolia was used for these instruments and the surface was darkened with oil. Carved on all sides, the sound box was covered with lizard (Land monitor) skin. The string mostly singular was made from the intestines of a goat.[i] The instrument was played held vertically with the help of a stringed bow.

With the nature of the form, the Santals believe the instrument is a human being (or the long lost sister with a tragic fate), and that, it possessed the power to connect the world with other supernatural realms. Even the sound that the instrument resonates was believed to be a voice of a human being. These instruments were mostly in anthropomorphic form with pronounced head, neck and a torso. There are certain examples with limbs as well. The top of the head of the instrument is decorated with delightful themes such as dancing village belles, drummers, couple with a child, or animal forms, all ingeniously carved. One of the most iconic one, is in the National Museum, New Delhi, from the collection of Dr. Verrier Elwin, depicting an automobile being crossed by a gentleman in horseback.

This instrument according to Dr Verrier Elwin was often used by travelling ascetics and yogis. He also added that the instrument would be cremated along with them, but with presence of many old examples, in various collections of the world, there might have been exceptions.[ii] With changing times, the popularity of these instruments is vanishing. Although, few still survive who practice the art of making these fantastic instruments, trying to keep the tradition alive. But the glorious days of the dhodro banam are long gone.

With the rituals associated with these objects, abandoned or changing with time, most of them are becoming mute artefacts in showcases of museums or collectors. This change is inevitable and probably it is the journey of every object before reaching its last stage. An abstract idea designed to take a tangible form to fulfill a certain need or aspiration, after a certain point of time becomes an art object or relic. In spite of the irony linked to it, it still performs the function of delighting our eyes.

[i] Verrier Elwin, The Tribal Art of Middle India. (London: Oxford University Press: 1951), 134.

[ii] Johannes Beltz, Marie-Eve Celio-Scheurer et al, (eds), Cadence and Counterpoint: Documenting Santal Musical Traditions. (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2015), 46-47.

Other important reference:

The Lutes of the Santal by Bengt Fosshag, http://www.bengtfosshag.de/santal/

Sculpted Sound: The hypnotic lutes of the Santals

Bejeweled Sisters: Celebration of Gauri during Ganesh Chaturthi

Gauri heads
Jyeshta and Kanishta on the day of Gauri Avahan. Early 20th century. Metal. Collection: Sushmit.

A visit to any antique shop, one will certainly find within hoards of things laced in dust and age old patina, a metallic image (sometimes with reminiscence of paint) having a peculiar serpentine curled hair at the back. This serene image of a lady adorned profusely with jewellery, is of Goddess Gauri, very popular with art collectors.

Gauri, also known as Parvati is the mother of Lord Ganesh. In many cultures, the popular belief is that Gauri is the sister of Lord Ganesh, who comes in search of her brother during the time of Ganesh Chaturthi, the festival of Lord Ganesh. In Maharashtra, she comes in the form of two sisters, called Jyeshta and Kanishta during the festival.

Both the sisters, arrive on the third day of Ganesh Chaturthi, known as Gauri Avahan meaning the ‘arrival of the Goddess Gauri”. Married women of the household, would visit the markets to purchase the icons of Gauri. They are made in various materials such as clay, plaster of paris and metal, mainly brass. Many traditional families have their own Gauri heads, made of brass, which are passed on and worshiped from generations. These icons are brought to home ceremoniously with aarti (sanctification by holy fire) performed at the gate or doorsteps. The entire house is shown to the idols, where they are to stay during the visit to their beloved brother, Ganesh. Then, the icons are placed over a metal pot or an armature, decorating them with new saris, jewellery, flowers and garlands. Some households create these images with turmeric or a symbolic metal pot.

The fourth day is the day of Gauri puja, where the ladies of the household and neighbours gather to worship the divine guests, accompanied by songs, sweets/savories and games in the evening. Both the sisters are treated as daughters who are believed to be visiting their family bringing blessings and good fortune for the year to come.

The fifth day is Gauri visarjan, farewell of the goddesses. With rituals and pujas, the idols are dismantled and immersed in the water. The heirloom idols are kept away for the next year. The sari and the jewellery are distributed among the women of the household.

I am thankful to my friends, Mitali Despande and Tanay Pinglay for sharing their valuable knowledge on this wonderful tradition. A very happy Ganesh Chaturthi and Gauri Puja !

Bejeweled Sisters: Celebration of Gauri during Ganesh Chaturthi

Dance of the Devil: Magnificent Masks of Sri Lanka

Mask.
Naga Raksha mask, Poly-chrome wood, Purchased in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The island nation of Sri Lanka has many surprises, of which the outlandish wooden masks really captivate one’s attention with their big bulging eyes and vibrant colours. On my visit to this beautiful country in the winter month of December, 2014, I was told the tradition of making masks only goes back to 1800s. It is believed that the mask making tradition probably was a result of the influence of similar traditions from the neighbouring Malabar Coast of India. It is possible that the mask dance tradition could have been present in Sri Lanka even before that, but only in the later years became more prominent part of the culture. The Sri Lankan craftsmen did give it a unique form with intricate details and strong colours, incorporating local folk style and characters making it truly Sri Lankan. These masks today have become an important part of the Sri Lankan culture, whether in the form of dance ritual both religious and secular or simply cultural invoking the ancestors and spirits of nature.

Jpeg
Kolam Maduwa performer in Kandy Art centre, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The masks are believed to have power to ward off evil spirits and also heal sickness. In broader terms, there are basically three categories of masks. First category is the Raksha Mask, which play an important part in the dance performances of the Kolam Maduwa, a traditional folk play tradition where the characters wear masks. According to the popular legend, Sri Lanka was ruled by an ancient race called as Rakshasas. One of the famous kings, was Ravana of the epic Ramayana. Rakshasas literally meaning devils gave form to twenty-four (24) devils of which only few have survived in the form of characters physically manifested in the masks. Few of the popular Raksha masks are Naga Raksha in the form of cobras (for protection), Garuda or Gurulu Mask, in the form of the mythical composite bird vahana of Lord Vishnu, Mayura Raksha in the form of a peacock (for peace, love and happiness) and Ginijal Raksha in the form of fire (for energy and harmony).

mask puppet
Puppet depicting a Kolam Maduwa character of Naga Raksha, Papier Mache, Purchased in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Second category is the Sanni Mask, used for curing specific illness. There are at present eighteen (18) sanni masks. The sanni masks are not very elaborate and are smaller in size. They are generally in the form of a face making grotesque expressions. One of the raksha masks, Maha Kola, comprises the entire pantheon of eighteen sanni devils in one mask tied together by intertwined serpents. This mask is also assigned the same task of cleansing the sick.

The third category is the Kolam Mask used in the kolam play performances. These masks generally depict the characters of the play, which are generally from the folk tales showing secular characters such as kings and queens with elaborate head gears. There are other characters as well, of which one of the beloved depiction is of the serene faced Naga Kanya, a serpent demi god.

The masks are made of soft wood so that it is not only easy to carve but also lighter for the wearer. Kaduru a local soft wood is generally used along with other softer woods such as balsa. Pigments in high quality masks are natural, extracted from tree oils and barks but with increasing demands to be sold as souvenir products to incoming tourists, synthetic paints are also used. The main mask making clusters are along the southwest coastline of Sri Lanka, where one can directly buy from the craftsman.

Jpeg
Masks for sale @ Government store Laksala, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The text is completely from the knowledge gathered from various sources during the trip, any inaccurate information may be pardoned.

Dance of the Devil: Magnificent Masks of Sri Lanka

Elephants under the Starry Sky: The Embroidered Mantle of the Chakhesangs

A contemporary 'Elephant-cloth', cotton, embroidered (Machine), Lt. 212; Wd. 100 cm, gifted by Sentimongla Aier Ngullie. Model: Priyanka Bharadwaj. Photograph by Renu Dhiman
A contemporary ‘Elephant-cloth’, cotton, embroidered (machine), Lt. 212; Wd. 100 cm, Gifted by Sentimongla Aier Ngullie. Model: Priyanka Bharadwaj, Photograph by Renu Dhiman.

With a myriad of fascinating shawls and wrappers that belong to different Naga groups, one of the most alluring mantles is adorned by the Chakhesangs.  Popularly referred to as the ‘Elephant cloth’ (a name obtained because of the prominent elephants in the central field), was the privilege of only the wealthy members of the group. The vividly embroidered animals and birds that dominate this grayish-black textile immediately stand out from the rest of the textiles from this region, posing hundreds of questions about its origin and inspiration.

Weaving textiles is only done by women throughout the extensive Naga community, mostly using a back-strap or loin loom. It is considered a taboo to even touch the weaving implements by men. The only exception to this is the tüsngkotepsü, the warrior shawl of the Aos, where the central white band is painted by men. Both cotton and wild nettle are spun into yarns for various textiles and dyed with natural vegetable dyes. Although, bazaar dyes became popular from the 1920’s[i] because they offered several colour choices and in brighter shades. Embroidery is very rare in this region and earlier reference to embroidery by scholars on the subject, was basically describing the motifs achieved by supplementary wefts and not actual needle-work. Today, in various government run emporiums, there are examples of tüsngkotepsü, the Ao mantle, with the central band having embroidery either by hand or machine which is a recent innovation. Therefore, the embroidery in the ‘elephant cloth’ is a surprising exception and considered by many as not an indigenous technique of the region. Scholar, Marion Wettstein, writes that she was reported during her research that the earliest examples of this mantle were received as gifts from the Meitei rulers of Manipur.[ii] This explains the presence of embroidered elephants and horses, the royal animals of the Meitei rulers. The mantle was later adopted by the Chakhesangs and on its entirety together with the technique is now claimed indigenous to the group.[iii]

The Chakhesangs, formerly known as Eastern Angami, is an amalgamation of three groups, Chokri, Kheza and Sangtam, represented respectively in the three syllables ‘cha-khe-sang’. The group occupies a large geographical area not only in present day Nagaland but also neighbouring Manipur, which makes many other tribes and villages fall under the umbrella of Chakhesang. Therefore, due to the complex and multi-cultural nature of the group, there are several names for the same mantle. Hapidasa, chi-pi-kwhu/chipikwü, shaphi lanphi or khape kade sa are various names for the same mantle. The Maos, another Naga group also wears a variation of the mantle.

The back-strap loom allows only a limited width, due to which three or two lengths have to be joint together to achieve the desired size.  Over the surface, embroidery is done employing a flat stitch or Romanian stitch using red, green, yellow and white cotton or wool/acrylic threads. The embroidered motifs depicts horses for speed, elephants for strength, bison or buffalo for bravery, peacocks for beauty and constellations for the height of the sky.[iv] The production of this mantle has a deep connection with the tradition of ‘Feast of Merit’. In order establish oneself in the society, a member had to arrange three feasts at different stages for the benefit of the entire village. On the successful completion of each feast, the benefactor was accorded with ranks and honour, including the right to wear certain designated textile and adornment. The ‘elephant cloth’ is one such textile. Among the Chakhesangs, the privilege of wearing a shawl with chipikwü designs was awarded to only those who had given these three Feasts of Merit.[v] The mantle had to be embroidered during the course of the feast, wherein few women would join in to complete the task before dusk. Motifs accumulated with successive feasts and the offerings made in them.

'Elephant cloth' or Hapidasa, 20th century, Cotton; embroidered, Nagaland, Lt. 180; Wd. 117 cm. Collection: Sushmit. Photograph editing: Deepak Singh Negi.
‘Elephant cloth’ or Hapidasa, 20th century, Nagaland, Cotton; embroidered, Lt. 180; Wd. 117 cm. Collection: Sushmit. Photo edit by Deepak Singh Negi.

 

[i] Julian Jacobs, The Nagas: Hill Peoples of Northeast India, Society, Culture and the Colonial Encounter. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990), 44.

[ii] Marion Wettstein, Naga Textiles: Design, Technique, Meaning and Effect of a Local Craft Tradition in Northeast India. (Vienna: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2014), 106.

[iii] Aglaja Stirn and Peter van Ham, The Hidden World of the Naga: Living Traditions in the Northeast India and Burma. (New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2003), 159.

[iv] Akha Kaihrii Mao, “Meaning and Significance of the Traditional Moa-Naga Shawls,” in Objects: Identities: Meaning, Insider Perspectives from North East India, eds, Dharitri Narzary Chakravartty and Surajit Sarkar, (New Delhi: Ambedkar University, 2015), 68-72.

[v] Lotika Varadarajan, “Fabric and Tradition: Textiles of the Northeast”, Marg, A Magazine of the Arts, Volume 62, Number I, September 2010.

 

Other references:

Peter van Ham and Jamie Saul, Expedition Naga: Diaries from the Hills in Northeast India, 1921-1937, 2002-2006, New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2008.

tetsiosisters.blogspot.in/2011/12/chi-pi-kwhu-shawl-of-highest-honour-html

Elephants under the Starry Sky: The Embroidered Mantle of the Chakhesangs