Nagaland

THE ARTISANS OF LONGWA

Documented and photographed for Heirloom Naga in March 2017

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Set in an idyllic backdrop where two countries meet, Longwa is a small village "with nothing to see" claimed one woman but it is her and other men and women like her who (in this village with nothing to see) forge a continuity with the past.

These men and women, residents of Longwa village, are skilled artisans consisting of jewellery makers, wood carvers, weavers, basket makers and brass workers among others. Each of the individuals are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who live at home with their families and pursue their trade in their own free time along with farming, hunting and house chores.

To most of us, these could be possible employment skills to see us through life but to the men and women of Longwa, it was just part and parcel of growing up and learning something that their parents and their parents before them did.
Tuikhau is a jewellery maker who said that she learned this craft by watching her mother when she was younger and occasionally trying it out herself and it took her between six months to a year to learn. She now has four children and says that she will teach them too. She is currently teaching her younger sister too.

Tuikhau is a fine example of the many skilled craftsmen of Longwa that partner with Heirloom Naga to not only sell their products but also enhance their skills.
In the process of providing them a sustainable livelihood, Heirloom Naga takes the chance to redesigning these traditional designs and creating them a contemporary guise. The reason behind this is a simple one: retelling an old tale for a modern audience; for you.

But this is not only beneficial for the business of Heirloom Naga. This is beneficial for the artisans of Longwa because it pushes them out of their comfort zone. A common tale resonated amongst them: that they were creating these pieces for personal use as it was always done. This means that they learned a certain style and design and have so far, continued to create just those. But for Heirloom Naga, there is a demand for them to also be imaginative.

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There is no commercial set up nor are their shops for them to stroll in and buy something they might need to make a necklace or a wall mural. The hair found on a shield wall mural is goats’ hair that has been dyed and this dye is not store bought. Found in a forest far away from the village (“it’s close to the Arunachal border” said one), the dye is made from the root of a plant not easily recognised. It is then dried naturally by fire, crushed into powder and then cooked. The shields themselves are not planks of wood that have been resized. It is a tree bark from the ‘Rok’ tree found abundantly in Longwa. The Rok tree served their ancestors well in the old days as the flesh of the tree was used as pig fodder and the bark, as strong as any, was also used to make houses some of which are still standing today. Same goes for the weavers who continue to use traditional looms and the basket makers who have to first shave and polish the bamboo physically so that they are safe to be held by our hands.

 
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They are nonchalant about their work but these days they understand how it is also a source of income for them and there is a small measure of pride (as there should be) in doing what they do. None of them were really taught the ‘why’ and ‘how’ or given the 1-0-1 classes in craft skills. It was taken at face value so they watched and learned and if you ask them, they will proudly tell you “I learned it by myself or "I watched other people and I learned it on my own.”

Telim Nyakto previously used to be a craftsman working with brass and decorative figurines such as the famous headpieces synonymous to the Konyaks for 20 years before he ventured into a small-scale tourism business providing home stays in the village. He traded all of that for tourism because it is a tedious job where one needs to pay attention to the smallest details. He explained that the head figurines aren’t made from wood unlike what most people think. It is a mixture of bees wax and candle wax. The wax is melted together and strained with hot water into a vessel and cooled before the water is drained. One then needs to wait for the wax mixture to rest and thicken before being rolled out finely. This is then followed by the cutting and carvings for the facial features and the brass additions (such as the earrings). Mr. Nyakto finds it to be a time consuming and thankless job but not everyone thinks so. The brass workers still huddle in their kitchens, close to the hearth, heating water, metal and wax with their rollers, blades and knives.

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At different points of time, many of the artisans said that most of the things they were making were for their own personal home use as mentioned earlier. Whether they were baskets or decorative pieces, they made it for their homes and yet, when visitors and guests came and wanted those pieces for themselves, they felt compelled to give it up. Some gave it away as a token while others were paid for them. Majority of them are indifferent to this because “we always make more”  but Mr. Nyakto mentioned how the more valued artefacts and objects were now being hidden because slowly, they were beginning to understand the importance in preserving their legacy and history through these objects. He remembers a time when all of them traded so many of their old pieces for money and is glad that there are now more people who understand better.

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In employing and partnering with these artisans in Longwa, there is also the hope that it will make them more conscious and aware of the importance in preserving their heritage. The Konyaks have always considered the most exotic even within the Naga tribes as the last of the head hunters but the village of Longwa is additionally more appealing because of its location. The border between India and Burma runs right through the village and the Aang’s (the chief) house stands as one in two countries. You are never sure which country you are in while talking a stroll in Longwa. This special political quirk attracts people from all over the world and some spend months in the village. Apart from the Aang’s house, a view point and a significantly large but insignificant tree, the village doesn’t have much to offer and as mentioned earlier, the villagers know this too well (and constantly question it over a laugh).

There are no shops where these artisans can sell their work. Rather, they have them at home, probably hanging as a display in the kitchen or stashed in a dark storage room, waiting upon the chance arrival of a visitor who will, hopefully, buy something from them. This is one of the ways that Heirloom Naga as a partner supports the artisans. Every new collection requires just that: something new. There is a give and take relationship between the artisans and Heirloom Naga and in staying true to the traditional aspects and colours of the Konyaks, Heirloom Naga provides the

designs for the many products that are created within the village of Longwa and the task is then handed to the 15 – 20 individuals each with their specialities. It could be a new set of colour schemes for the shawls or a modern take on a traditional element such as the wooden food platters that were inspired by the very famous traditional day beds. It is about taking something they are already familiar with and fine tuning it for that modern allure so that it isn’t too far- fetched in comparison to both the past or the present.

Yet, commerce and trade isn’t the only route for the survival of their trade. These artisans are part of a wave that could form a legacy. Their fathers and forefathers birthed a certain tradition and style that continues even today. Today, they have the chance to take that and reinvent it and pass on the torch to their children keeping tradition, heritage, style, technique and history intact.

How much Heirloom Naga can contribute to the artisans will be seen as time goes by but the work of these men and women cannot go ignored and be considered unknown. As they string beads, carve wood and dye colours, they are probably unaware of the ripples they have begun and the steps they have taken to ensure preserving a part of their history but this undulating ripple cannot remain stagnant. It needs growth. With a little imagination, creativity and curiosity, areas where Heirloom Naga can undoubtedly aid in, the longevity of this trade and tradition can hopefully be safeguarded for the next generation.

Find out more about Heirloom Naga on their website, instagram and journal

DEVELOPMENT IN THE DISTRICT: AN INSIGHT

Published in a local daily in March 2016.

*I am not affiliated with the Land Resource Department nor do I work there. The department was touring for work purpose and I was a traveller kindly accommodated. This is an account of my interaction with department members, observations and a conversation that took place with the Director after the trip.

You can read more about the trip in my Tuensang Travel Logs

Six and a half hours into an impromptu trip with the Land Resource Department of Nagaland in January 2016, I had a vague awakening that my personal staunch views of how the government functions was perhaps too harsh. Seeing the work done in the field and at the grass root level, it infused an understanding that I once believed would never dawn upon me.

The trip undertaken by the LRD was an assessment tour of their Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP), a government of India initiative implemented countrywide under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) scheme. Under the watershed development programme, the LRD also had a sub-project: Special Programme for Economic and Environmental Development, better known as "SPEED", a five-year programme. Initiated by the LRD Director, Mr. Mhathung Yanthan, when each department was asked to foster a project to commemorate the 50th year of statehood back in 2013, 50 villages of 50 to 100 households were adopted for this programme and is now entering its third year of implementation. The aim of it being to give more focus and emphasis on the selected villages and give a hand-holding support to develop them into economically empowered and climate-smart villages.

Longkhitpeh (pronounced Long-ki-pi) was the first stop and it is one of the villages chosen under SPEED. Within the short 2-year span, the village has made remarkable progress. They have attained total sanitation but more significant is their mosquito control. There have been zero cases of malaria since coming under the project.

Longkhitipeh, Ekhao and Nokyen-B were three SPEED villages visited in the region but it was the changes in Ekhao that was singled out. I was told that there were no boundaries between pigs and human. Each lived with the other and the concept of toilets didn't exist. This time, however, seeing the number of toilets under construction and the pigs being reared in proper sty's, the young WDT (Watershed Development Team) members were especially satisfiedcommending their absentee peer in-charge of Ekhao of a job well done.

The WDT members involved in the IWMP and SPEED projects are mostly young people between the ages of 27 to 35. They were not only hardworking but realistic and determined. Interacting with them made me aware of my ignorance on basic matters of our state. Educated in good institutions around India with futures that could've taken them far and wide, they made a conscious choice to come back and help their own people. Unlike the miserable half of us looking for the fastest exit route out of here.

The WDT members have tales of harrowing journeys during the monsoon season, getting stuck on the road at night to cutting across a mountain and getting lost in the jungles. To them though, it's all worth it. And it's not all just words to please their senior officials or a stranger in their midst. Their genuine concerns could be seen in the camaraderie with not only the villagers but among themselves as they discussed the village or programme they were overseeing and exchanging experiences and doubts. Mr. Yanthan feels that 90% of them have job satisfaction and that it is due to their commitment and sincerity that there have been achievements.

Having been a supervisory officer himself, Mr. Yanthan has made all the staff supervisory officer of one district or the other so that they will oversee the performance and time to time, carry out inspections “to get first-hand knowledge of not only monitoring the project but also to understand the problem of the people, their wishes and aspirations. So for that, I also undertake tours on a regular basis and my focus is on the difficult and remote areas.

Kengjung (also Kingjung) definitely proved to be one of those. While being one of the border villages (with Burma), it is also one of the furthest. As mentioned earlier, roads were only constructed a couple of years ago making this the first trip for the visiting senior officials. The way to Kengjung was via Sanglao and Wui. While the Nagaland Electrical Department claim to have 100% reach, it is seemingly confined to the bigger towns and villages as the village of Wui gets its electricity from the Assam electrical line. Kengjung, being just three hours away, has been inaccessible due to the challenging terrains. This has resulted to a unique alternative: the hydroger.

The hydroger is essentially a turbine pushing the force of water to create the needed electric surge. Although there is enough water supply to run an entire day, Kengjung follow a daily routine where the hydroger is turned on only after dark when it is essentially required. The hydroger was installed under the Nagaland Environment Protection and Economic Development (NEPED) Project when the commissioner secretary was the administrative head of both NEPED and LRD. A convergence of departments. A convergence that Mr. Yanthan hopes for if Nagaland is to move ahead.

"There are so many good government programmes and these programmes are supposed to work in tandem with each other which is not happening. Convergence is not happening in reality. Only in paper. Departments have their own agendas. It's also because of political interference. Political hand comes in especially in the project selection, site selection and people beneficiary selection."

If this convergence were to take place, let's say, I asked the director whether the question of who takes the credit will arise and cause tension. "It'll be the department that implements it" he said with a smile. However, he made it clear that the LRD is not so much after publicity and taking credit. "It's a thankless job. It is only the people, when anybody goes and visits (the villages) by chance or purposely, that mention our department because they (the visitors) get curious and ask them which department is doing all these things."

These changes were evident in almost all the villages we visited except for Wui, where a project is planned for later this year. The department inaugurated a community utility centre in Longkhitpeh, a rest house in Kengjung and Pathso-Nokyen. There was also a rice mill provided by the LRD in Ekhao as well as a sugarcane mill in Pathso. Interestingly, sugarcane cultivation was also introduced by the LRD and this was their first harvest.

Ultimately, the changes that are being brought in is with a vision that there will be an economic uplifting. Yet for that to take place, the department understandably had to put in some investment. How are finances in these matters decided? How much funds are released?

The answer was a cost-sharing formula. Mr. Yanthan admits that the cost norm is very limiting. Explaining it in terms of one hectare of a plantation or an orchard, a particular region is given Rs. 8, 000 to 9, 000/- for development. With difficult terrains and high level vehicular risks to account for, “it is a Herculean task”. While some structures and programmes have been solely taken up by the department, most times the village provides their share of money from the village development programme (VDP) fund and also available labour and raw materials.

Mr. Yanthan's work ethics are much to be admired. He leads by example and most of time, it was impossible for us 20 something's to catch up to him as we trekked mountains. Having studied and specialised in agriculture, he knows the rubrics and demands of the job with clear-cut precision. A conversation with him was always educative and he has a very creative approach to his methods. The team has a high regard and respect for him, interacting with him freely while he was ever ready to advice, consult and listen. 

A good number of people in my age group (mid to late 20s) scoff at the mention of ˜government jobs" because we don't want to get into the system. A system where the government is famed for running on greed and personal favours. Any sort of good work is ultimately cast off as an ulterior motive of personal gain. So when we decide to part ways with our parents' generation and with that, government jobs, it's done out of a personal opinion of what we see around us today. Rope in incidents like the internal political struggles of 2014/15, the still-unknown and unseen peace accord, evident backdoor appointments and even the infamous March 5 incident, it doesn't leave much optimism.

But this trip infused a sense of belief. My view of the government being the bully, "the bad guys" was too generic. The surface may look hopeless but there are some changes being made and being worked towards somewhere in the deep end. While it is vital that the senior officers be exemplary leaders, I think it is equally important to also have a group of dedicated youngsters so that they can be groomed and educated for the future. If every millennial with government service aspirations were like the ones I encountered during my week-long journey, the hypothetical hopeless future of Nagaland could well be rescued.

THE WOMEN BEHIND THE LOOM

Documented and photographed for Heirloom Naga.

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28 year old Daisy probably has no idea that the cushion covers she is weaving outside her modest home will end up on the other side of the world, be coveted by people she will never meet and be displayed in homes she will never set foot into. All she is hoping for is some free time to play the role of a mother and an income to support her recently-unemployed husband and their young son who quietly sat by her side watching her pull strings and switch wood panels in the loom.

One would expect a huge institution where women are housed together and tirelessly working on their loin looms. But this isn't a booming industry. It is an almost forgotten traditional art that is struggling to be preserved. There is no technology involved. If it's not up to the mark or to their satisfaction (because they know the quality of their own work), the yarn is undone and the work must begin again.

Within the Sangtamtila colony in Dimapur (Nagaland) there are two groups of weavers from two different villages: Inpui and Tsithrongse. The village setting is idyllic and with no more than a 100 households in each, the languid and slow living provides a balanced environment for the women who double up their weaving work with other chores. The age bracket of the weavers varies. There are some as young as 16. Their personal lives are varied as well. Some have a support system to share the responsibilities with while a few must depend only upon themselves. 

Amileu, 45, has been weaving for five years and according to her, the difficult designs take about three or four days while a simple one would take just two days. The ease and difficulty of the designs is evidently based on the patterns. The colours, not so much. Amileu's work space was quite planned and structured. She had a small 4 x 4 room with the loin loom situated near the window where natural light streamed in. 

 
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Kumsha, 29, had a different setup that wasn't necessarily conventional or a common sight. But while we can view it as an unlikely space, it shows us the flexibility of the loin loom. It's not just flexible in terms of time management. The loin looms are collapsible making them extremely handy. Kumsha's loom hangs in the corner of what first looks like the kitchen but then you get the full view and realise that it is also the bedroom. In a shade of cerulean, it truly was the warmest colour in the case of Kumsha as this room held the quintessence of the many roles she played in her life every day.   

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"It is the flexibility of the loin loom and the way it benefits the women giving them the space to do everything else they want. That is the essence“
- Jesmina Zeliang, founder, Heirloom Naga
 
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These women and their families live well below the average standards that we are familiar with. They are the other half. Yet, in saying that, they do not wallow in their poverty nor do they sink in self-pity. They are admirably "gung ho" and are driven to make ends meet because the end goal for each of these individuals is the same: to educate their children so they can have a better life. Daisy had initially left the weaving unit to care for her son but now that he was older, she took it up again. The financial aspect too was a factor especially now that she is temporarily the only one earning wages. In some cases, weaving had also become a family affair. Lipila was introduced to it by her daughter-in-law. Seeing that she was home with not much to do, her daughter-in-law convinced her and she now weaves at her convenience. In fact, if she feels like it, she even weaves at night with the help of the emergency light, she said. 

In the lives of these women lies a large part of the Naga culture. While weaving is not inherent only to the Nagas, it does form a part of their identity. Each tribe is recognised by the colours of their shawls. Each motif on the shawl is a representation of either the individual or the tribe and each were carefully hand woven. While it doesn't need to be said, the designs being woven for Heirloom Naga too are inspired by the Naga shawl but have been given a modern dusting. Yet, it does so by still retaining it in the traditional way (i.e. weaving). 

Every piece of the finished product is not just about the essence of owning something "Naga" or being "made in Nagaland". While important, it is also not about the hard work and time that has been invested. Rather it is about the women who are single-handedly keeping this art alive each weave at a time. These are the women behind the loom and it is about the little fragments of their lives that goes into each piece that is woven by them within the confines of their home. In the spirit of Instagram, these are the women and their lives #BTS (Behind The Scenes). 

Stories were told and tea was consumed around looms where cushion covers was being woven. A little boy, curious about the loom, unfortunately caused the yarn to come undone. The rolled up loom with an unfinished piece was in the presence of unexpected guests and laughter as photos were being taken. A weaver's young daughter secretly steals her mother's leftover threads creating her own designs in secret.

All that translated and woven into one piece of cloth. Could you imagine?