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CHITRA BALASUBRAMANIAM
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CHITRA BALASUBRAMANIAM talks to Northeastern craftspersons to find out why they are drawn to Delhi.

Photo: Chitra BalasubramaniaM
Photo: Chitra BalasubramaniaM

Iwas watching Wung Shungmi, a Manipuri black pottery craftsman at the Craft Museum, New Delhi, when he casually asked where I lived. And then he asked: “Can such a kiln be fired in your area?” I discovered that Shungmi actually lived in near INA and has been making the traditional Manipuri pottery right here in Delhi. Wondering if this was true of other Northeastern craftspeople, I set off on a tour of Delhi to find that several traditional craftsmen had made Delhi their home but continue to ply their traditional crafts from pottery and bamboo baskets to loin loom weaving, and quilts to kawna mats.

The number of craftsmen making Manipuri black pottery is more compared to other crafts, especially in Vasant Enclave and Mahipalpur. Ashim Pearl Shimray, who has her workshop in Mahipalpur, says, “The biggest advantage of producing the goods here is that we can avoid transportation cost. In pottery there is a lot of breakage. So we get the raw material and make it here. Also since the buyers are right here in Delhi, they have an input in the design. Greater experimentation is possible.” Pearl came to Delhi to study Sociology in 1998 and stayed on here. She is a studio potter and also makes traditional tribal jewellery of the Hill people of Manipur covering all the Naga tribes.

Pearl has another shop in Shahpurjat along with Pamringla Vashum. Pamringla not only runs the shop but also weaves the traditional shawls of the Thangkul Naga and uses those designs to make runners, table mats, cushion covers, bags and more products on the loin loom or back strap loom. Pamringla’s living room doubles up as a weaving zone. When we enter, her aunt is busy counting the threads to be fixed to the loom. The thread or yarn is procured locally from Sadar Bazaar. The frame is spread and the end of the loom is expertly tied to the open window. She adjusts the length and sitting on the floor starts work.

I am impressed by the ease with which the loom sits in the living room. She has different sets of looms, all cleanly stacked at one end and no one will actually believe that it is actually a loom in working. She explains, “Once the design is set, the weaving is easy. As the loom is set anyone who knows weaving in the family simply picks it up and starts work.”

The back strap loom is a rarity and specialty from the North East. The width of the fabric is smaller and to create larger fabrics, two exactly similar pieces are joined together. When there are more orders than she can handle, she outsources the work. “There are many people who can do this in Delhi. I tell them the pattern and give them the thread. They take it home and work.”

Pamringla came to Delhi in 1999 for an exhibition and worked with Trifed before branching out on her own. When Michelle Obama visited the Crafts Museum, she bought some of Pamringla’s products. “Delhi is a very good market,” she says. “Back home in the village, it is very difficult to sell our products. Here there is a good market and there are places — melas, haats and exhibitions — where these can be sold.”

Similar is the story of Annie from Nagaland who makes beaded jewellery. Seeing the response here, she plans to stay in Delhi adding, “We actually get better and more raw material in Delhi than back home. Here it is easier to buy.”

Vivekananda Bagchi, a National Award winner in 2010, is a wizard with bamboo. Though from Bengal, he has made Delhi his home and specialises in making bamboo products from Tripura too.

He says, “It is easier to get the raw material in Delhi than anywhere else. At home, we have to scour the villages for it. Here Paharganj and other markets stock good quality in plenty. The prices are nominal too.”

The entire area of Sangam Vihar, Mahipalpur, Vasant Kunj, Kishan Garh and Gandhi Nagar is full of craftspersons from the Northeast. In this market driven world, the craftsmen naturally prefer to be closer to the buyers.

The question of raw material is easily taken care of with several trips home when necessary. What matters is the market and that is where they are.

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