Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Crafts: The call of northeast India


AT first glance, Bangalore’s ANTS store seems like a mere crafts outlet. It offers cane-handled Tangkhul Naga black pottery and Manipuri kauna reed mats, traditional dai knives in a sheath, elegant Bodo weave wraparound skirts, even coral-turquoise jewellery. But beyond its sunny café, where conversation flows easy over cake and cappuccino, lies an invisible but potent mission. For this outlet in upmarket Indiranagar, is more about people than products.

Its intent? To create illuminated entry points for mainstream India into the Seven Sisters and One Brother (Sikkim) states of the often-misinterpreted, little-visited northeast.

This was apparent at its recent festivals of Meitei and Tangkhul Naga food, celebrating the universal language of food. Sourcing ingredients like fermented bamboo and delectable shelled snails from Manipur, the former was cooked over two days by Meitei students and IT professionals. Over 2000 of them live in the IT hub. Biting into Paknam, a savoury pancake of steamed herbs, spices, dry fish and gram flour, we mull over how little Bangalore knows of the Meitei.

The million-strong Meitei are the major ethnic group of Manipur, whose seven clans trace their written history back to 33 AD. Such inputs catapult us beyond familiar connects, such as Manipuri dance, director Ratan Thiyam’s famed Chorus Repertory Theatre, and the iron-willed dissident Irom Sharmila.

Tasting Shingju salad of cabbage, raw papaya and fermented fish, my thoughts race to a March 2010 group exploration of Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. The journey left us full of questions:

When the biodiversity-rich Aruchanal mountains are latent with tourist promise, why is there but a single infrequent helicopter flight to Tawang from Guwahati? Why are Assamese highways the only connections between eastern and western Arunachal? Why are Indian soldiers (not police) allowed to beat up handcuffed suspects in a public jeep in daylight in Assam? The answers are hardly as sweet as the kheer of purple-black rice, grown only in Manipur.

Issues apart, our trip left us memories to cherish. Of women weavers at traditional looms under their chang ghar on stilts on Assam’s Majuli island. Of a Khasi church service dedicated to us in friendly Mawlynnong in Meghalaya. Of the grandeur of Tawang monastery against the snow-steepled Himalayas. The journey only whetted our appetite for Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram and Sikkim.      

Such positive stories from the northeast are the foci of the ANTS store, committed to Fairtrade and Craftmark values. Trichao Thomas, a Naga from the Pomai tribe of Manipur, coordinates its programme to ‘northeastize the mainstream.’ How? Through initiatives like food festivals, readings from ‘Neti Neti,’ a novel by Shillong-born Anjum Hasan, even a mini Naga cultural festival. Unfortunately, historian Ramachandra Guha’s talk on the Naga peace process was cancelled due to the July 2008 Bangalore blasts.

ANTS, launched in December 2007, is an offshoot of the Action Northeast Trust ( Like her counterparts on Majuli, this store showcases weaves by Bodo women like Bongaigoan’s Sheena Basumatary, 38.

In 2002, design student Smitha Murthy from Bangalore’s Srishti school asked Sheena and four others to create samples of traditional motifs as part of a ‘Weaving Peace’ project. Sheena agreed because her husband, a driver, did not earn enough to support their three children.

Three years later, Sheena joined Aagor Dagra Afad, registered to empower Bodo woman weavers. Today, as its assistant managing trustee, she guides 200 others. And Smitha, who reinterprets Bodo weaves as sleek cutaway blouses in sync with urban India, is both ANTS designer and an Aagor trustee. Over the past nine years, Aagor has distributed Rs. 65 lakhs to its 102 weavers (soaring to 400 in response to larger orders), by “crafting livelihoods for the poorest, harnessing strengths of the weakest.” Its sales have touched Rs. 2 crore.

Sheena, who studied only upto Std. 2, says, “The money I earn from weaving has given me self-confidence and control over my life. I’d never imagined that I would one day make important decisions for such a big organization.”

Every product at ANTS couches an unvoiced story from the Northeast, often visualized by mainstream India as an unfathomable, troubled region. This pilot store in Bangalore hopes to use “soft power to mould minds.” Even if changing mindsets takes years, NGOs and the Bangalore intelligentsia can now reach out to the local northeastern diaspora of over 65,000. Perhaps New Delhi and Mumbai will respond as empathetically one day.

For those who long to explore the northeast, ANTS is currently engaged in talks with groups like GypsyFeet, engaged with community-based tourism and local home-stays. Perhaps that will keep hope alive within Awon, Athing and Mimi, the Nagas from Manipur who staff ANTS. For they dream of a united India, sensitized towards the  distant, tantalizing northeast.

 (The Hindu Business Line 2003)

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