The What Series: What We Wear

Khetoho Enatoli Sema
Advocate-on-Record Supreme Court of India 

I recently had the privilege of attending the funeral and memorial of a courageous man. Someone whose family I know well, though I never knew much about the man himself. This has been a recurring experience in my just over four decades of existence here on Earth. Experiencing pangs of regret for not having engaged in conversations with or not having known the one whose funeral I am attending. My most lucid memory is of attending a funeral as a teenager one cold day in Zunheboto town; it was of Ashu Lukhashe Chishi. I recognized his son because he was a wealthy, famous and a politician. Little did I know that the real man was the one he called his father. Even being so young, I wondered why I had little knowledge of him when I should have known much. Just the fact that he coined the word oshikimthi, ‘thank you’ in the Sumi tongue, had been enough to blow me away. I remember being glumly envious of my elder brother, who had interacted with him more by virtue of being friends with his grandson. Ashu Lukhashe was the one man who had dared to challenge my teenage elder brother as to whether he had assurance of his salvation as a child of God when his life journey comes to an end. And when his politician son had remarked that he would pay him back for the money spent on his upbringing, Ashu Lukhashe had demanded that the payback be done in terms of the breast milk he had consumed from his mother. I safely presume that it was perhaps in a moment of heated conversation that such an exchange took place. Since then, I have heard numerous tales of dear Ashu Lukhashe from my father, but alas, I never got to interact in flesh and blood with the personality himself. 

Coming back to the funeral in question, what struck me was the narration of his dear wife, Meneleü Chandola nee Kevichusa, Aunty Mene, as we lovingly call her, of how her husband, a pure-bred Brahmin from erstwhile Uttar Pradesh, now Uttarakhand, became a Naga. As part of the memorial audience, I learnt from his son Tarani’s account that as a war and conflict-zone reporter, he was a rare journalist with the gift, talent, and grit to do what journalists were meant to do. His first visit to Nagaland was in 1955, and he went on to marry Aunty Mene in 1960. In 1964, he was asked to join the Naga peace talks and became a friend of the Nagas. B.K. Nehru, then Governor of the State of Nagaland, complained that Uncle Harish Chandola had become an advisor for the underground and should not be allowed to stay in Nagaland. He was told that he needed an ILP to access his own home. An ILP (Inner Line Permit) is a travel document introduced by the British to protect natives from outside invasion, which became part of the inheritance thrown at us when they hurriedly left the nation and our part of the world. So, any non-Naga, and by default a non-native, was required to report to the administration and could not enter protected areas unless issued a permit. A Naga family led by Gokieso Meyase, from Aunty Mene’s native village, Khonoma, unhesitatingly adopted him as a son of the Angami tribe, formally offering him their protection and that of the entire clan. Gokieso’s grandson Lhuvinyü Meyase sent a Vimho shawl all the way from the picturesque village perched on a hill to be placed on his father Harish Chandola’s mortal remains. This is a shawl worn only by a male who possesses a certain merit. In the past, this had to be a great warrior or someone who hosted a Feast of Merit. Now, it is worn by persons who have some stature in society. For Harish Chandola, this was a mark of respect for a life well-lived, a sign that he still belonged to Khonoma and would not be forgotten by his adoptive family. The shawl, which is woven sacrificially, painstakingly, and intricately over a backstrap loom, assumed a greater significance, far beyond being a labour of love. Representing a profounder meaning, for it had moved Aunty Mene deeply, enough for her to have shared this critical and precious part of Uncle Harish Chandola’s life as she bade him farewell here on Earth.

In her write-up ‘Gendered Representation and Social Significance: Sumi Weaving and Handloom Traditions’ published in the book Objects, Identities, Meanings: Insider Perspectives from North East India, published in 2015 by Ambedkar University, Delhi, the researcher Dr Lovitoli Jimo brings out a pertinent point: ‘a shawl (aphi) or wraparound (amini) is not just a piece of clothing to cover oneself from nature or to beautify oneself, but a symbol of identity and status that communicates various socio-cultural and political meanings and values’. It is further explained that the different symbols, designs and patterns woven into shawls and incorporated into wraps signified the social status earned by performing the avi (mithun/Bos frontalis) sacrifice, giving successive Feasts of Meritor taking enemies’ heads in war. According to her research, amongst the Sumi Naga tribe, the Asu Kuda Phi was a shawl of the warriors and the most revered shawl. Not even chiefs and powerful personalities of the village were eligible to wear this shawl unless they qualified themselves a warrior by taking an enemy’s head.

What our ancestors wore was art. A particular piece of clothing was worn because it was earned and the wearer was worthy of the beauty, the pattern and the design of that clothing, which came to be intrinsically associated with the person’s achievements and merit. The wearer qualified the clothing and not vice versa. Jimo notes that amongst the Sumi tribe, in the past, those who had not sacrificed an avi or feasted the village were not allowed to wear the Avi Kiyihie Phi, which literally translates to ‘the shawl of sacrifice and feasting with avi’. That those who attempted to wear the shawl without qualifying for it were ridiculed and laughed at. What they wore then transcended the tangible; it translated into social status, respect, honour and pride, creating a distinct elite club. Fashioning a class consciousness that was defined and determined by deeds that in the eyes of others were considered good and honourable. The basis of differentiation was integrity and character, causing the community to revere and accept such distinction without question. Our foremothers and forefathers wore pride, dignity and integrity, not Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Chanel.

This, however, does not in any manner challenge the brilliance of Gabrielle, who was raised in an orphanage in a remote village in central France. In an online work titled ‘From the Margins to the Core of Haute Couture: The Entrepreneurial Journey of Coco Chanel’, published by Cambridge University Press, Gino Cattani, Mariachiara Colucci and Simone Ferriani write that though ‘lacking a formal education and entering Parisian society as a mistress, she revolutionized the fashion industry by pioneering sportswear design and the use of textiles never seen before in haute couture dressmaking’. They note that her innovation was not simply to remove the corset from the silhouette she completely transformed the female silhouette: she shortened dresses, revealed ankles, freed the waistline, cut women’s hair and bronzed their skin. She introduced black into haute couture, which was previously worn only to signify bereavement, turning it into an elegant colour that women could wear at any time. Perhaps my desire for a Chanel comes from, if nothing else, the fact that she created a storm by disrupting every known rigid norm of haute couture and elite society in Paris, the epicentre of the arts at the time.

Each of the renowned fashion houses existing today in France has its own spell-binding and awe-inspiring history. Names that were founded by those who did not have the means but the grit, audacity and vision to seize the moment. Francesca Cartier Brickell, the great-granddaughter of the founder, in her book The Cartiers: The Untold Story, traces her family history and documents the birth, growth and emergence of the brand. She writes that the founder, Louis-Francois Cartier, longed to have a formal education. However, after a basic level of schooling, pressed by circumstances, he had to start as an apprentice at an early age in the jewellery trade. At the age of twenty-eight, he took the daring step of buying the workshop belonging to his employer, who wanted to move his business to a more fashionable part of Paris. Hence, in 1848, the brand Cartier was officially born, going on to witness the Russian Revolution and survive two World Wars and the Great Depression, before seeing further expansion by Louis-Francois’s three grandsons across five continents. This expansion included catering to the whims and fancies of the Maharaja of Patiala, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maharaja of Kapurthala in pre-independent India. In 1926 the Maharaja of Kapurthala is said to have commissioned Cartier, Paris, to make an emerald turban ornament comprising fifteen large emeralds from his own collection, which he wore to his golden jubilee the following year.

Louis Cartier, the eldest grandson of the founder, wanted to shake up the creative process and did not believe in hiring only trained jewellery designers. Instead, he populated his atelier with artistic experts from a host of fields. This team of inventors, as he called them, included lace makers, bronze sculptors, tapestry designers, architects, ironworkers and interior designers. Within a couple of years of Louis joining the family business, Cartier was starting to be known for its unique jewels. In 1914, with the declaration of World War I, a general mobilization was ordered amid a wave of patriotic fervour. Louis turned up at the Paris war office with his medical records, which showed that his right leg had been fractured in an accident six years earlier. He was, therefore, rendered incapable of fighting and was given a desk job in Bordeaux. Though his family thought that he was wasting his time in Bordeaux when he should have been looking after business interests that were expanding, it was during his stint in the military that the idea of Tank, one of the most iconic creations of the Cartier house was born. So, to me, to own a Tank is to own a piece of history and art. This, even if I am to completely disregard and rubbish what Cartier’s advertisement agency or social media platforms tell me about the watch and what it can do. How wearing one will uplift anybody is bewildering. The question is whether a thing or a rock can define, refine, elevate, or dilute any human being when each one of us has been stamped by the Creator in His resemblance the ultimate and only definition of our intrinsic worth. 

The disquiet, however, lies in the incidental emergence of a new class consciousness in Naga society, where the standard to qualify the wearer comes from doing what is wrong and disgraceful. Brandishing, and wearing unimaginable riches after having created an inequitable society through sheer abuse. The catastrophic consequence is that this class inbreeding a new hunger, awe and greed unknown to our ancestors. This craving inspiring the new generation reeks of something that is rotten when juxtaposed with the destiny of the Nagas, who were chosen and called to be an aroma. I distinctly remember feeling embarrassed as a college student for being picked up in a worn-down, soft-roofed government-owned white Gypsy at the Dimapur airport while fancy cars swarmed to receive others. And then, later, reprimanding myself by questioning where my worth lies. If I truly regarded my father and what he did, I ought to have proudly walked up to that Gypsy without shame. Something within me and beyond me underwent tectonic shift that day, both in my heart and in my mind. This is an on-going reminder for me: that our Provider, Validator and Judge is not from this planet.

What, then, will be the implication if the Nagas are called to apply the standards of our ancestors in modern-day society? Not everything from the past needs duplication. However, not everything needs to be discarded. What if there is a revival of the authentic Nagami pride by building on the foundation of a newfound identity as followers of the Light of the world? Where the old society order, of ridiculing the wrong and honouring the right, is restored. Cultivating a society where respect and development are earned and demanded and not sold or compromised respectively. Where both the seller and the buyer of self-respect are ex-communicated, and such a transaction publicly declared a nullity. I wonder if then there will be a day when a limited-edition jewel-encrusted Chopard worn by a wearer not worthy of it will start to look cheap and dirty.