Sumi Pegu’s dream-like yarn

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Sumi Pegu’s Loom. Photo Credit:author

Rini Barman

Every winter Sumi Pegu, a fifty year old Mising woman runs the single ply yarn into exquisite horizontal patterns. A narrow paddy field in Gohpur’s Mising-gaon (about 230 kms from Guwahati in Sonitpur District, Assam) leads me to her loom. If you walk some kilometres further, you can get a serene view of the hills of Arunachal. The sound of working looms takes over the chirrup of tiny local sparrows looking for some grains to chew. The grain providers, mostly neighbours of Sumi, have to tend to the poultry and pigs regularly. Their children go to the nearby primary schools and have picked up the dominant Assamese tongue fluently—yet, all through the year, there is someone or the other tending the fibres of the loom.

Formerly, Sumi’s children would weave using a back-strap loom (xoru-xaal) which is a dying practise— alive perhaps only among the state’s ethnic groups. They are taught the basics in their Mising language, which mellifluously they use to recall, remember and revive an entire ancestry. “I gave it to my daughter as a plaything, so she could wrap it around her waist. Once the fingers are stronger and the grab steadier, it makes her job easy at the future xaal”, Sumi says. Womenfolk in this village believe that the one who cannot weave among them may bring bad luck. A grandmother herself, Sumi has seen the Ege (lower garment worn from waist to ankle level with a minimum of two-three pleats) go through decades of changes in terms of designs, superstitions and thread quality.

The traditional Mising loom is a wonder made out of bamboo and tree wood—both these raw materials are sacred in a poignant way. When they show signs of wearing out after years of usage, they are not broken down to ignite the kitchen fire. Even the poorest of Mising houses will tell you that. Special care (like placing the loom constituents on top of the dhuasang-clay stove) is taken to drive termites away. “When we spin the yarn, it is considered inauspicious for small boys to cross it. It not only puts the thread at risk but tears off the wheel and we have to redo all over again”, she says before pointing at me.  “You see this hunchback? It is testimony to my dedication towards the most meticulous of designs. I regret I cannot go to the wild now to collect plants that were used to naturally dye our threads. The artificially dyed reels in the market are not to be trusted entirely”, she sulks.

Machines over all else

Over the last six-seven years or so, there has been a massive mechanisation of handloom in this village. The mass entry of mill-made Ege has gradually influenced the aesthetic appeal of fabrics. The signature Mising diamond pattern for instance, is getting indistinct and smaller. The butties, on the other hand are chaotically mixed with tree motifs and they no longer carry artistic finesse. Clothes that are transported to the urban areas with their ubiquitous synthetic assemble reveal these modifications very well. Sumi shares, “I am not competitive by nature, but the generation of my daughters-in-law are, they want to make a few more bucks. I really cannot blame them, as they sincerely manage the fields, household and the loom single-handedly. They hardly get any praise from their spouses”.

As Sumi plays around with the maku (weaver’s shuttle), her granddaughters try to help around the sang ghor.  “In the summers, young girls are seen rowing rice saplings and due to the humidity, weaving takes a backseat somehow. The ideal time begins end autumn, though we weave in every season. These fingers are so accustomed to the loom that they begin to hurt if unused”. Sumi’s grandchildren had inherited textile memories passed through orally retold stories. They tell me that the colours represent nature in the clothes their granny weaves. The geometrical designs come paired with a range of motifs—fish heads, animals, flowers, butterflies, trees, stars and others. “It does not matter whether you are working on zero ply or single ply—if your hands are efficiently experienced, you can ace the motifs. My own grandmother used to weave one Gasor (upper garment) a day, probably the pace is reduced when one has to multitask and has fewer hands to help”, shares Sumi.

The expiry of older designs and motifs is not simply because of the tribeswomen being overburdened with other work, but also due to the soft cultural appropriation by the dominant Assamese elites. It has created a cold war kind of situation over who owns the “authenticity” in this craft. “My Ege do not yet have the “silk mark”, so they probably won’t do very well in the market. But the silk has been reared from scratch by me and the motifs are distinctly Mising”, Sumi complains. Literary thinkers like Nilamani Phukan in his collection of essays (?) had mentioned that tribal motifs like diamond, triangle and square and the configuration of star/fern motifs into dominant Assamese weavers came through years of borrowing. Isn’t it ironic that once any dominant identity labels a particular textile as their own, the ‘other’ stories of the weavers, their ethnic evolution etc, recedes to the background?

Bodices, boundaries and tradition

There are differences in the way married and unmarried women among the Mising community dress up. According to Sumi, “The old ladies at home use Segreg to wrap around their busts. The girls who attained puberty wear finely textured Ku: Pobis to wrap around the body beneath the armpits covering the upper part of the body. Married women on the other hand pull the Ege till their breasts and tie a firm methoni.” Talking to Sumi informed me that when we mention the traditional wear of Assam as a “three piece” mekhala sador, the above mentioned nuances are forever lost. These inadequate translations, in their attempt to ease out meanings for the one outside the region end up causing semiotic damage. The supposed “three piece” of women’s wear has a long folk history.

Among the Koches/ Koch Rajbanshis in Assam, the traditional weave Patani used to be worn in Tin-Tekia format (3 parts/layers–Agran, headgear, Patani). The Riha which is now worn as a sador was initially a breast cloth, it had different types: boroi-loga, gariyali, gunakata etc. It is interesting how diverse forms of breast clothes were replaced by blouses and brassieres and marked as “traditional” “civil” components of attire by the upper caste women. I myself recall one such incident in Jalukbari, when a local fish-seller in her late 30s was donated blouses as she would not cover her breasts. The women were convinced they were doing something very noble and “bhadra” for the seller whom they perceived to be poor. When I asked her few years later, she went on to say how nobody in her native village ever wore blouses. She would tell, “It wasn’t a taboo at all in Belxor, Nalbari district. Even men wouldn’t bother us—be it public or private spaces. When I was nursing my children, it was rather helpful. I still am uncomfortable with blouses.”

Policing and standardising the “three-piece” as the traditional wear had its micro and macro context. Nandana Dutta in Questions of Identity in Assam (2012) makes careful note of one such example in Assam Engineering College in 2007. Speaker Ismail Hussain had made dangerous associations with one’s cultural affiliations and one’s attire. It was reminiscent of Assam Andolan days (1979-1985) when there was tremendous insistence for the females to adopt mekhala sador as daily wear. “It was declared and implemented by self-appointed leaders of protesting groups, especially those carrying out dharnas and strikes or taking part in processions”, Dutta writes. What happened as a result of this is its continued (secret) abuse in spaces like college hostels, primary schools and so on. My aunts who were born in the late 60s recall vividly how ragging sessions in their educational institutes would comprise of whether or not they know how to wrap the mekhala sador with propriety. The tribal students were worst hit as humiliating remarks were made on their preconceived “barbaric” ways of dressing up.

It was during the same time that mekhala sador draping rules (full sleeve red blouses) for female dancers of Bihu (a folk form) were laid out. Gradually, as these folk forms were standardised, they began to represent the dominant Assamese attire in all its rigidity. Around May 2017, this debate fuelled up yet again, when the State Govt employees were urged to wear traditional dress (mekhala sador for women and dhoti kurta for men) on third and first Saturdays every month. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal in the current BJP-led Govt had hoped that such a move might enhance the spirit of regionalism and unity. It was rightly opposed on the grounds of exclusion—as it limited traditional wear of so many ethnicities in the state to the mekhala sador. In the midst of these contentions, what was missing was the life of a handloom weaver. Her weaves become agents of the identity battle, but she is effectively erased from that discourse.

Evil Twins

 Gayatri Das, seller of mekhala sadors at Beltola thinks that the future of handlooms is very bleak. “The common people, who used to weave eons ago, have forsaken the looms for the dream of white collar jobs. The women now have to think economical viability first and foremost. When I was a kid, I remember my mother from Sirajuli would set the loom for two attires simultaneously. Among the final products, one would be hers and the other would be sold at Rs.1000 for example. This sustainable practise is no longer present, not even in rural areas”. Ms Das herself has to convince customers with half-truths about the weaves that they buy as traditional wear. “In my ten years of having met so many female buyers in Guwahati, only three have enquired about the raw materials of their clothing. Rest were in a rush and enamoured by the glittery threads that make up their mekhala-sador sets, which they finally chose”.

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Weaves of the Mising Tribe. Photo Credit:author

The politics of threads and lack of knowledge of the same has created a huge gap among the weavers, sellers and the buyers. While hand-woven cloth may speak of the tedious hours spinning the wheel, the duplicates replace them only because a class of the society choose to make accessories out of them. The craft then recedes to the background for the minute designs of creepers, flowers etc when imprinted with bulkier machine technology fails to create that magical effect. It is important to interrogate why hand-weaving isn’t empowered via local methods and readily replaced by a faster, capitalist mechanism. Rita Barua, an intermediary between the weavers and urban sellers from Gohpur says, “The problem lies in the inequity of distributing income here. As opposed to the popular notion that “middle men” eat up all money, I earn very negligible. To transport crafted goods is a hectic affair, and when floods hit, I alone have a lot to manage. During festivities, the pressure increases, and consequently, the weavers have to readily produce twice the number of sets. It leaves them little time to weave something of their own. Time is money”.

Rita also informs that plenty of things have changed post the notorious GST was imposed on handloom items recently. It might have been uplifted now, but the fears still gnaw weavers from the within. “Though I don’t know of any impactful protest against it in Assam, sellers of traditional items have developed innovative ways to resist. Many have taken down hoardings across the highway, it’s their bread and butter, let’s not forget”. Today, the Govt. showrooms also sell duplicates under the banner “traditional handloom”—it is a sign of major insecurity and shall put an end a very rich culture of weaving one’s identities.

Sumi as Hambreelmai: Will the erased weaver be heard?

From Gohpur’s Mising gaon to state funded art and crafts showrooms in Guwahati, handlooms clearly are a vulnerable industry today. As older motifs and stories about them keep falling from the weaves, one wonders if women like Sumi will be remembered in another decade. The folk memory of the Mishmi tribes of Arunachal Pradesh retells one such story—about their first weaver, Hambreelmai. “Hambreel” is, in Mishmi, a species of little fish, and it is said that the nature around her—butterflies, birds and fishes were so attracted to her weaving that when her loom broke, the broken parts metamorphosed into varied forms of life. Every single day, looms of weavers like Sumi and Hambreelmai are being replaced and wiped away in Gohpur. Some remain glorified in folk tales and legends while most are made to look pretty in glossy magazine covers so that businesses are lured into the region. In the words of Mrs. Pegu, “These photographers, they come and they go. My daughters are now accustomed to posing for them, though we never make the headlines of any local daily. The spinning wheel goes round and round, just the usual”.

(The author is a Guwahati-based researcher and independent writer).

Meghalaya Daughter Harolyne Koch Shadap wins the Miss Koch International title 2018

MKI 3Guwahati: Harolyne Koch Shadap from Meghalaya, India was crowned as the Miss Koch International(MKI) 2018 in the mega final of the event  which was held on 15th December in Dhulabari, Nepal. The moment was witnessed by hundreds of people from  both India and Nepal who gathered for the glitzy event of Saturday.

Horolyne Koch Shadap works as an Assistant Lecturer and is a Post graduate from North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Prior to winning the MKI title, she also won the title of MKI Meghalaya in the Meghalya Audition of the event. MKI is the first ever beauty pageant in South Asia which has brought together the Koches of the region in an international platform. The auditions of the event were organized in Assam, Meghalaya and West Bengal besides Nepal.

Pratima Singha from West Bengal, Indian became the first runners up and Sonali Rajbanshi from Jhapa, Nepal became the Second runners up in MKI 2018.

The MKI has been seen as the most important event and initiative in uniting the Koches of South Asia in the recent past. The koches (also known as Rajbanshi in some parts of South Asia) are considered as the largest ethnic group in South Asia.  The organizer of the MKI 20018 was Jhapa Media House Pvt. Ltd.

কোচ ৰাজবংশী সমাজত তামোল-পান(গুৱা-পান)

  • কৰবী সিংহ কোচ

জাতি এটাৰ কৃষ্টি , পৰম্পৰা , ৰীতি-নীতি ইত্যাদি ‌বোৰৰ মাজ‌তেই প্ৰতিফলিত হয় জাতিটোৰ সংস্কৃতি। উৎসৱ-পাৰ্বনৰ পৰা আদি কৰি জনজীৱনত প্ৰচলিত প্ৰত্যেকটো লোকাচাৰ ৰীতি-নীতিৰ আধাৰতে গঢ়ি উঠে এটা জাতিৰ সংস্কৃতি। জনগোষ্ঠীয় সংস্কৃতি পৰম্পৰাৰ ক্ষেত্ৰত ইতিহাস প্ৰসিদ্ধ কোচৰাজবংশীসকলোৰো এক সুকীয়া সংস্কৃতি বিদ্যমান। কোচৰাজবংশীসকলৰ মাজত প্ৰচলিত লোকাচাৰ পৰম্পৰা সমূহৰ এক অবিচ্ছেদ্য অংশ হল তামোল পান । কোচৰাজবংশী সকলৰ মাজত এই তামোল পানৰ বিশেষ গুৰুত্ব আছে। বিশেষকৈ অতিথি আদৰিবলৈ, পূজা পাৰ্বন , বিয়া আদি মাংগলিক অনুষ্ঠান সমূহত তামোল পাণ এক এৰাব নোৱাৰা অংগ। সেয়েই হয়তো কোচৰাজবংশী জনজীৱনত প্ৰত্যেক ঘৰৰ বাৰীতেই তামোল পাণৰ গছ দেখিবলৈ পোৱা যায় । কোচৰাজবংশীসকলে বাৰীত তামোল পানৰ গছ ৰোৱাটো এক প্ৰকাৰৰ নিয়ম বুলিও কব পৰা যায়। কোচৰাজবংশী সকলৰ মাজত তামোল পানক লৈ এনে ধৰণৰ প্ৰবাদ প্ৰচলন আছে… Continue reading “কোচ ৰাজবংশী সমাজত তামোল-পান(গুৱা-পান)”

BOOK REVIEW: Koch Rajbanshir Kamatapur: Xopon, Dithok ne Matho Itihas

BOOK COVERKoch Rajbanshir Kamatapur: Xopon, Dithok ne Matho Itihas  by Arup Jyoti Das, Guwahati, Assam, Blue Sparrow Books, 2015, 176 pp, ISBN: 9781630417505,  INR 395/-

Marami Bhakat: Northeast India is much known to the world for its various movements for social justice triggered by ethnic identity. These movements have often demanded recognition of historical region and homelands. Kamatapur Movement is one such movement, which seeks recognition of a historical region called Kamatapur in the form of a state (federal unit) in modern India comprising areas of North Bengal and Assam. This movement is mostly spearheaded by Koch Rajbanshi people of Assam and West Bengal.  In this book author Das has taken up this social issue of the Koch Rajbanshis, which has been mostly ignored by the current academic discourse. Das is very much aware of trans-border nature of the movement, its historical complexities and current political narratives.

The book is largely divided into three sections. Thefirst section deals particularly with Kamatapur Movement with its historical background. This section has eight chapter devoted various issues like historical background, social mobility of the Rajbanshis and many more. The 2nd section is collection of articles on recent political challenges of Kamatapur area and political crossing of various ethno politics of confronting groups.  The 3rd section of the book contains another set of articles which are related to Koch Rajbanshi, but not directly to the Kamatapur Movement.

The Introductory chapter of the book gives us an outline of the whole Kamatapur Movement and has successfully discussed the various stages and layers of the movement. The chapter has discussed the rise of the armed struggle of Kamatapur Liberation Organization and role of various civil society organizations and students bodies which are involved in this movement for self- determination of the Koch Rajbanshis. The writer argues in this chapter that the aspiration of the Koch Rajbanshi for a homeland is much old and it has its roots in the annexation of Cooch Behar State with West Bengal as a district.

The 2nd chapter is about the Koch Rajbanshi people, their origin and migration theories. Here, Das has tried to look into the complexities of Koch Rajbanshi identity, its ethnic affiliation and the issues of transformation of the tribe to caste society. Das argues that Koch Rajbanshi people has the right to claim themselves as Kamatapuri, since they have been the main component of both ruler and ruled in the area for seven hundred years. Das has interpreted colonial texts, various legends and other local sources while framing his observation on the identity formation of the Koch Rajbanshi people. In his observation, Das says that Koch Rajbanshi is a “social category” rather than a hard bound ethnic identity.

The 3rd chapter analyses the historical background of the Kamatapur region, which comprises present Northern part of West Bengal and lower Assam.  The chapter starts with the history of Kamatapur of the middle of the 13th century and ends with emergence of colonial Cooch Behar in 1771.  This chapter is mostly confined with the history of present North Bengal and has not discussed the history of the Koch Rajbanshi of present Assam. In this chapter, Das has given a vivid description of Kamatapur kingdom from the pre-Koch period, emergence of Koch dynasty in Kamatapur and transition of Kamatapur into Cooch Behar Princely state.

The fourth chapter deals with the history of the Kamatapur of western side. Kamatapur was divided between the Koch royal families in the end of the 16th century as Koch Kamata and Koch-Hajo. The Koch Hajo region became part of modern Assam after independence of India. This chapter provides a valuable account of the history of Western Assam and lower Assam which was under the Koches till independence. Though brief, the author has given strong account of small Koch kingdoms and estates like Bijni, Gauripur, Darrang and Beltola. The discussion on the Beltola kingdom might be 1st of its kind for which Das should be given credit. This chapter gives the reader a clue why Kamatapur is demanded in Assam besides West Bengal.

The next chapter deals with the complexities and politics of merger of Cooch Behar Princely State into the Indian domain and then its annexation with West Bengal as a mere modern Indian district. The lost of the identity of the Kamatapur (Cooch Behar) region in Independent India has been argued as one of the root causes of demand for Kamatapur in present time. The author has mainly interpreted correspondence between Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and B.C. Roy to look into the politics of annexation of Cooch Behar with West Bengal. This chapter could have been deeper in investigating the issue.

The 6th chapter discusses the upward mobility movement of the Rajbanshis in the early 20th century which laid the foundation for a social justice movement in the later period. The chapter discusses how local Rajbanshis were alienated by migrant upper caste gentry who came from East Bengal and how power structure and land holding changes due to the same. This is an important chapter in terms of understanding the social causes which has resulted the present movement.

In the subsequent chapter, Das has discussed the language of the Koch Rajbanshis which is known as Kamatapuri, Rajbanshi or Goalparia. Das has avoided linguistic complexities while discussing language of the Koch Rajbanshis and mainly focused on the politics of recognition of the language. The next, chapter which is the last chapter of the 1st section, is the concluding chapter.

This book is a must read for those who wants to understand Koch Rajbanshi peoples’ aspiration for social justice. Das being a member of the Koch Rajbanshi community has found it difficult sometimes to disassociate himself from the sentiment of the Kamatapur Movement (as well as with the Koch Rajbanshi), particularly in the last section of the book, where he has written on various topics related to Koch Rajbanshis. Except this exception, Das has successfully played the role of both insider and outsider as a writer.

(Marami Bhakat is a Ph D Scholar at Dept. Political Science , Gauhati University)

Gauhati High Court admits Writ Petition in Koch-Rajbongshi S.T issue

Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, the Gauhati High Court admits the Writ Petition being W.P (C) No. 5978 / 2013, in regard to the scheduling of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the Scheduled Tribe’s list of Assam, filed by Centre for Koch Rajbanshi Studies and Development (CKRSD), a non-profit organization from Guwahati, represented by its Chairperson, Sri. Vikram Rajkhowa and Managing Trustee, Sri. Arup Jyoti Das. Hon’ble Justice Ujjal Bhuyan issued Rule to both the State and the Central Govt. giving three months notice.

The Koch-Rajbongshi community of Assam is an indigenous aboriginal tribe of North-East India, which has been demanding for inclusion of their community in the S.T lists of Assam since 1968. On 09/08/1994 the Tribal Research Institute, Govt. of Assam submitted a report stating that there are adequate justifications for the inclusion of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the S.T lists of Assam. Based on the said report the Registrar General of India had also given ‘No Objection’ to the inclusion of the community in the S.T list of Assam. Thereafter the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 1996 to provide for inclusion of Koch-Rajbongshi in the S.T list of Assam was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 14/02/1996 and again on 12/07/1996. The House referred the said Bill to a Select Committee of Lok Sabha, which also recommended the inclusion of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the S.T lists of Assam. In the meantime as Parliament was not in session the President promulgated the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Ordinance, 9 of 1996 on 27/01/1996 to give effect to the Scheduling of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the S.T lists of Assam. The said Ordinance was re-promulgated three times, i.e., Ordinance No. 19 of 1996, No. 30 of 1996 and No. 3 of 1997, but as the Bill was not enacted on time the said Ordinance lapsed and since then the issue of the inclusion of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the S.T lists of Assam is hanging. Being aggrieved the Centre for Koch Rajbanshi Studies and Development (CKRSD) has filed the present petition before the Hon’ble Gauhati High Court seeking adequate relief.

The Chief Secretary – Govt. of Assam, the WPTBC Deptt. – Govt of Assam, the Tribal Research Institute – Govt. of Assam, the Secretary – Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Secretary – Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India has been made respondents. Senior Advocate, Sri. P.K Goswami and Advocate, Sri. Santanu Borthakur, is appearing for the petitioners before the Hon’ble Gauhati High Court.