Woven wonders of Nagas

Fading legacy

Woven wonders of Nagas
In the textile history of India, the warrior shawls of Nagaland have a unique place. Just like the way its counterpart, the Scottish kilt, has been preserved, there is an immediate need and urgency to preserve the Nagaland shawls. We have 16 major tribes in Nagaland and the warrior shawls of these tribes offer a glimpse into their world. 

In the past, it was possible to identify a Naga citizen simply by looking at his/her shawl: one could know the tribe he belonged to, and occasionally, even the group of villages he came from, his social status, and the number of ritual feasts he had performed. Different tribes of Nagas have different types of shawls. Within the same tribe, everybody is not allowed to wear shawls of their choice as these shawls are supposed to signify the social standing of it wearer. But nowadays, this identification is not possible as Naga elders do not force their younger generations to adhere to the tradition.

One of the common features of Naga shawl is that three pieces are woven separately and then stitched together. In fact, the central stripe is more decorated than the other two, which have more or less the same pattern. The designs of these shawls vary from a formal arrangement of lines to elaborate patterns of diamonds and lozenge shapes. Simple straight lines, striped squares and bands, varying in width, colour, and arrangement are the most traditional designs and motifs.

Before wool was imported in the Naga villages, the material for such shawls were the threads made from the barks of trees that come up during the monsoon season. The threads are pried apart and then dried, boiled with ash, stretched, dyed and rolled on spindles before the actual weaving begins.

Now, due to the arrival of powerlooms in the Naga shawls manufacturing industries, a plethora of new patterns and motifs has been introduced to reflect the younger generation’s sartorial sense and status. A women’s cooperative weaving society based in Kohima village set the trend with its avant-garde designs about a decade ago.

There is such a huge demand for Naga shawls that the Indian Chamber of Commerce has filed an application seeking its registration along with a Geographical Indication tag (GI). Unfortunately, so far, none of the designs have been certified and retained as an exclusive possession of the Naga tribes. This has resulted in an imitation of Naga shawls. They are now  being produced in thousands by machines in Delhi, Chennai, Patna, and being sold at a little over Rs 200, when an original shawl of the same design should fetch nothing less than Rs 2,000-2,500 in the Nagaland handicrafts emporium. 

Recently, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi (IGNCA), found that at the rate mill-made Naga shawls are entering the market, soon the handmade Naga shawls would become extinct. And there would be no samples of original handmade Naga shawls left in IGNCA library. Because of which, they sent representatives to the northeast states and with great difficulty procured representative Naga shawls for its collection.  

Maharaja Features
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