Dolls representing a couple are a ubiquitous feature in almost all the indigenous doll set traditions of India. They can be just playthings for children enacting a happy household with a husband and wife or can become larger than life divine beings, for example, Gauri and Ishar in the grand Gangaur celebrations in Rajasthan. The Marapachi dolls known as Marapachi bommai (meaning wooden dolls) are one of such doll sets which has several functions. They can simply be mere toys for children, a blessing in the form of a gift to a new bride or an important idol on religious festivals. Always in a pair, male and female, these dolls are also called Raja-Rani dolls.
In the Southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, during the Navaraathri (nine nights) festival, these dolls play an important role in the Bommai Kolu (festival of dolls) celebrations. This is observed for nine days starting soon after the new moon of the Tamil month Purattaasi (September-October).[i] The members of the house would decorate richly coloured clay figurines in a stepped platform generally in odd numbers, between 5 to 11 steps. Each doll is carefully placed according to theme chosen by the family, representing Gods, mythical beings and sages. The Marapachi dolls which are also a part of these decorations will be dressed with clothes and jewellery for the occasion. Sometimes, one can identify the dolls belonging to a certain caste by the clothes they were adorned with.
The dolls were traditionally made of Red Sanders wood also known as Red Sandalwood but a substitute wood is used now as government imposed a ban on the widespread use of sandalwood.[ii] There were other wood also used for making these dolls which were considered having medicinal properties. Being used as playthings by children, the nibbling of the wood was believed to be harmless and in fact imperative in releasing medicinal juices into the body. Today, the use of other substitute wood and colour dyes to make it look dark has ended the medicinal properties of the traditional wood.
Most of these dolls are passed on from generation to generation by mothers, mother in laws or grandmothers and becomes a sentimental part of the family heirlooms. They are cleaned and taken out every year for the Bommai Kolu with joy and happiness.
[i] Nanditha Krishna. Living Traditions of India: Arts and Crafts of Tamil Nadu. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1992), 158.
[ii] Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, eds., Crafts of India: Handmade in India. (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation, COHANDS, 2007), 292.
The Bodos belong to a wide ethno-linguistic group known as the Bodo Kacharis. They are mostly concentrated in the plains of Assam in the districts along the Eastern Dooars, namely Kokrajhar and Goalpara spilling over to the neighbouring districts of Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. They are also found comparatively in smaller numbers in Sonitpur, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts of Assam. The Mechh community inhabiting the northern most part of West Bengal, known as Western Dooars, also belong to the same ethno-linguistic family of Bodo-Kacharis. Their journey started long ago, from a distant land supposedly somewhere between the uppers waters of the two great rivers of China, the Yangtse and the Yellow river Hwang He[i]and arrived in the plains of Assam through Tibet. With many other tribes who trace their origin to this group of people, it is believed that the Bodo Kacharis were among the first stocks of people who migrated to the plains of Assam and thus, considered her original inhabitants.
It will not be incorrect to say that every Bodo household has a loom. The symphony of the sounds from these looms that fills the air of a rather lazy afternoon is a magical experience for anyone who visits their villages. Bodo women are gifted weavers, making textiles not just for themselves but for the entire family. After finishing their daily chores, women sit on their looms to weave textiles primarily for domestic use and sometimes for sale to earn an extra income. Cotton forms the base for all textiles and in the olden days it was grown locally and spun at home. Today, cotton yarns are sourced from the market where it is readily available in various colours. Fortunately, unlike other tribes of Assam, commercial yarns such as acrylic and metallic lurex threads, have not yet made inroads into Bodo textiles although not completely absent. Sericulture revolves mainly around endi or eri, a wild woolly silk, which is reared and spun extensively. It is believed that the Bodos introduced the knowledge of silk rearing to the plains of Assam, bringing it with them when they migrated from the regions near China.
The dokhona forms the main part of the attire of a Bodo woman. It is a woven cotton textile, generally 3.25 metres in length to 1.4 metres in width (a size that can vary from loom to loom) and is draped tightly covering the breasts and the length reaching the ankles (shown in figure below). There are two types of traditional dokhonas, in both, the bright yellow forms the base colour of the field. In one style, there are stripes in hues of orange, red and green that run across the entire length of the textile and the other has intricate floral motifs arranged in a similar linear format. The linking of a floral motif to form a repeat is sometimes done in a way that the chain resembles a crab, which is called the khangkhrai or simply a crab motif. Apart from the traditional yellow, colours such as green and puce are popular, but with availability of mill dyed yarns today, the possibilities are infinite. Shades of deep maroon, blue and sea green are becoming common which were earlier not used and it will not be surprising to see shades like wine red and night blue. The dokhona is generally draped over a blouse but the younger generation can be seen experimenting with tight fitted knit (hosiery) or lace tops with various neck-lines.
While going out of the house for running errands or for a social call, a woman would gently drape a narrow stole like textile around her shoulders over the dokhona. This is known as jomgra. The jomgra is a delicate textile compared to the dokhona and is very intricately woven with motifs depicting ferns, flowers and rolling hills. Bright blood red, bottle green and night blue are the preferred colours and for daily use a white cotton jomgra with small motifs is preferred. These days, to meet the market demands, a lot of them are mass produced through power-looms using acrylic and polyester yarns. These are cheaper and readily available. During the bagurumba dance, the main folk dance of the Bodos, the jomgra is fanned out to the sides to resemble a beautiful fluttering butterfly.
Fali is a textile which can be equivalent to a towel, napkin or a handkerchief. In most communities across India, such textiles can be multi-functional, used as a shoulder cloth, a head-dress for protection against the sun or even as a loin cloth. In olden days, fali formed an important part of the Bodo man’s attire and different sizes had specific functions. Today, a plain green cotton fali with white narrow border also popularly called a gamusa, is used by most Bodo men as a loin cloth. They are generally woven in a size of 1.80 metres in length and 0.70 metres in width with variations of chequered designs in green. For a more formal occasion, the elders would wear a dhoti like drape called a gangrachi. It is a simple white cotton textile with contrasting colour forming the narrow borders.
A white shirt is worn for a formal occasion and a narrow shoulder cloth is draped around the neck called a golaban. Today, it is widely referred to as arnai. The arnai can also be put under the same umbrella umbrella as fali.[ii] Traditionally yellow and green were the preferred colours, although they are available in red and blue as well. The arnai has become the symbol of Bodo identity and are often gifted to friends, elders and dignitaries on an event as a token of respect and honour.
For keeping warm, a shawl like textile called endichi is worn. As indicated by the name, the endichi is woven using hand-spun eri yarns. Endichis can be coarse, a characteristic feature of hand-spun eri which lends the beauty to the textile. The woman’s endichi has bold floral motifs in bright green and red and the ones taken by men are devoid of any decoration.
There are other textiles too that are a part of the culture but this entry is only based on what was seen and learnt from the locals during a short visit to Manas National Park. It was evident that the designs and the structure of the textiles still remains the same, as they are dictated by a certain rule of maintaining an identity. But there are definitely new innovations and experimentation which have seeped in. This can be seen in the introduction of a new colour palette which was a result of easy access to dyed yarns from the market. New products which were earlier not a part of the traditional repertoire like waistcoats, bags, etc, are also being made today for selling them to outsiders. With the young generation moving to far off cities for education and employment, these are also taken as souvenirs for gifting or wearing on a more cultural occasion while being away from home. Innovations are also made to make certain traditional products more universal such as a jomgra for example, when made for an urban clientele who could use it as a stole for office or a day out; is created using eri and muga spun threads. The switch from the traditional bright colours to the muted breed colour of the silk automatically makes it neutral with more marketability options. It was also recorded that many products were referred by archaic names that were not originally used for those products. Such as the jomgra was pointed by the ladies who were selling them as ‘fali’. Although it is not an error, as fali can encompass a wide range of products under its name. Another example is the green fali also called gamusa which is used as a loin cloth by men referred to as ‘Bodoland’ with a shy smile, which can be a playful local construct. Yet, it is not a complete surprise, because this humble green lower drape over the years has become an identity for young Bodo men. A lower garment which was earlier only worn during daily activities is now elevated to the main attire of the Bodos. All of these, point out to the fact that living traditions are constantly evolving and maybe in the future, certain products will be known with a different name altogether. Still there is not a single doubt in mind that they will never cease to impress as long as these traditions are alive.
My heartfelt gratitude to the beautiful friendly aunties living near Manas National Park, who sold us these wonderful textiles and explaining us the importance and meaning behind each of them. I am also thankful for the step by step demonstration of draping a dokhona. Your smiles will always be remembered through these textiles!
[i] Labanya Mazumdar, Textile Tradition of Assam: An empirical study. (Guwahati: Bhabani Books, 2013), 5.
The intricately embroidered textiles that often dazzle the eye are quickly etched in the vision when one thinks of the arid stretch of Western India. These textiles which form the bridal trousseau and also for decoration of the household during auspicious days can take at least a quarter of a woman’s lifetime with her family and beloved aunts lending a guiding and helping hand. In most cases, the materials required for creating these textiles such as floss silk threads, zari (metal threads), mirrors, silk and a specific dyed cotton or silk would be accumulated over the years from their savings, making them some of the priceless objects that they would carry in to their new home. Therefore, for the everyday use clothing and textiles a search for an equally fabulous alternative that is merciful to the pocket and also faster to create, gave rise to “Rogani kaam”. This is how the ubiquitous popats (parrots) and the paniharins (water-pot bearing women) found in the textiles of the Ahir community come alive in the colourful prints of rogan. The art of rogan, has been practiced for nearly three hundred years and today survives in the hands of only two Khatri families; Khatri Abdul Gaffar Doud and Khatri Siddik Hasan, both living in the same village of Nirona, in Kachchh. In Persian, the word ‘rogan’ means oil, and through this link it is believed the craft came from Iran to Kachchh in India.
Rogan work is a technique of surface embellishment like printing that can be rightfully placed under the umbrella of hand-painted textiles. It starts by boiling castor seed oil (grown locally in the Kachchh region) for several hours to form a fluid with high viscosity called rogan. Powdered pigments are then added to this thick residue to obtain various colours required for the design. This coloured sticky paste, rogan, is now applied with the help of a metal stylus called kalam to draw motifs on to the surface of a textile. There is no tracing or drawing involved, hence, the dexterity and imagination of the artisan plays a vital role in executing a perfect design, in a way that the brief and creative idea in the mind of the artisan, spontaneously translates into the motifs on the cloth. The design drawn on one surface is then folded and pressed carefully, to transfer the design to the other, almost like a mirror image. This helps in shortening the time required for production. Mostly preferred to be done free hand in the traditional way with the help of a kalam, rogan can also be done by using metal-faced blocks, to print a fabric.[i] The thick paste which would otherwise clog the wooden blocks is avoided by using metal-faced blocks which can be cleaned easily without eroding the carved surface of the blocks. Like many other crafts that involve dyeing and printing, the fumes formed during the preparation of the paste can be sometimes hazardous to the artisan’s health.[ii]
Earlier, it was used for creating textiles such as dharaniyo/ochar (wall hanging), toran (door valence), chaniyo (skirt length) and so on for various local cattle herding communities who commissioned them. These traditional articles were produced strictly in the format dictated by the respective communities. Unfortunately, for a researcher, very few examples are available for study and the reason behind the paucity or absence of rogan in various museums and private collection could be because of the inherent qualities of the work itself which makes it difficult to survive. The sticky nature of the print becomes extremely difficult to store and maintain especially when it is kept in the reserve with other pieces. There is always a fear or possibility of damaging the others during certain months if the temperature is not controlled. Today, a new motif, “Tree of Life” has become immensely popular[iii], almost making it the sole identity of the work. Tree of life in wall hangings and similar articles are making way to urban homes as fine art, bought through exhibitions around the world. This could be the next lease of life for this gracefully ageing art-form.
[i] John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard. Indian Textiles. (New Delhi: Om Books International, 2008), 91.
[ii] Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, eds., Crafts of India: Handmade in India. (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation, COHANDS, 2007), 413.
[iii] The popularity of this motif and the awareness of the craft started gaining momentum after Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, gifted a rogan wall-hanging to US President Barack Obama during his visit to USA back in 2014.
Fozdar, Aditi Shukla, ed. A Glimpse into the Textile Traditions of Gujarat: From the collection at The House of MG. Ahmedabad: The House of MG, 2015.
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 laid upon them on 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.
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.
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 dyeing 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 production in wall hanging format, much smaller in size, 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 which can be the next step in the continuation and survival of the craft. Product range also includes saris and dress materials with various figures painted on them.
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. This is an evolution created by time and the efforts for survival. 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.
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.
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).
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.
[i] Martand Singh and Rta Kapur Chishti, Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond. (New Delhi: Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., 2010), 245.
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.
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 !
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.
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).
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.
The text is completely from the knowledge gathered from various sources during the trip, any inaccurate information may be pardoned.
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.
[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.
Peter van Ham and Jamie Saul, Expedition Naga: Diaries from the Hills in Northeast India, 1921-1937, 2002-2006, New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2008.