Commercialisation eroding Naga textiles

Commercialisation eroding Naga textiles

Unfair pricing, mass production, quality degradation, plagiarism plague loin loom weavers

Morung Express Feature
Dimapur | May 22


BH (all names abbreviated), a Naga weaver and seller, has been aware of this for a while, but one day, she and her friend decided to probe further. They visited nine shops at Marwari Patti selling “fake” and simplistic (Naga) shawls. The quality was poor, the price was cheap and the designs an absurd “cultureless” shock.


“They are like bosta (sack) material!” said an appalled and agitated BH at a meeting of loin loom (back-strap) weavers who have become alarmed by the trend of, what they call, the “cheap commercialisation” of Naga culture. The community loses ownership over the design and the produce all at once.


SK, who works with a body of weavers, observed that Naga textiles have “remarkable heritage” enmeshed in a system of hand spin, dyeing, warping, weaving, beads work and designs. Loin loom weaving was once fundamental to the artistic labour of Naga women, but “due to Christianity and modernisation the younger generation is not aware of our textile heritage,” said SK.


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 Ao, Lotha and Chakhesang, though not completely so; only certain motifs like spears are put 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,” maintained BH.


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.


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 BH that some women forcibly bring their produce to the shops. This could not be ascertained by BH as women who support such economies are generally faceless.


VIP: Loom’s labour lost
However, this is not the only effect of globalisation that weavers in Nagaland face. At handloom emporiums in New Delhi, weavers are consistently reprimanded, notably by Indian army personnel who have served in the North East, 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 told by an officer at an emporium. She promptly shooed them off from her store.


The trend of gifting intricately etched Naga weaves and crafts to ‘Very Important Persons’ has “degraded” the value and worth of both the culture and the labour involved. “On several occasions I have seen the shawls being used as carpets and bedcovers,” laments BH.


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. Why are we giving these away en masse to dignitaries?” wondered SK. Head hunters’ and feast givers’ textiles were coveted fabric that symbolised prestige and showed their power among the tribes.


It is not just the safe-guarding of culture the weavers are concerned by. It is the specification that worries them—quality, pricing, livelihood and wages, stolen identities are some among them. And, that not many Naga people are ready to weave anymore.


“Very few Naga women and young girls want to learn weaving these days. There is some part laziness, but also some part ease of going for the culture of second hand easy-wash-and-wear clothing,” noted GS who has been in the business of weaves for many years now.


To cater to demand, particularly from outside Nagaland, she has no option but to hire non Naga indigenous women who are ‘more efficient’ in producing myriad designs. “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 stated.


This, however, need not be the case. Interestingly, GS suggested that the very institutions that may be responsible for the disappearance of the art be asked to revive it. “The church and schools should take active part in encouraging young people to take up loin loom weaving,” she noted.


Naga people already have the upper edge on design. Through introduction of loin loom weaving in schools, students, who are unable to catch up with the current education system, can have a viable employment opportunity in the future, and generational knowledge can be passed on.


Besides, if more Naga people weave and supply larger quantities of better quality Naga weaves, the same can be made available in affordable prices to Naga people who do not weave at all anymore.


This is possible when the Government of Nagaland begins to take interest in 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,” said SK in conclusion, hoping that the issues of patenting and copyright will soon be addressed. The weaver’s meet was a starting point in the journey.