Documented and photographed for Heirloom Naga in March 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.