As the two petite Ao tribal girls demonstrated Indigo dye being extracted from the fermented leaves of Osak, many young Naga men and women looked on with interest and excitement. It was as novel to them as it would be for those from outside their State.
This hurt Senthila T. Yanger, a craft revivalist and textile specialist who has been tirelessly working towards reviving old Naga traditions, the use of natural dyes being one of them. She, however, was glad that the Government of Nagaland gave a platform to the rich tradition for the first time in the annualHornbill Festival which concluded recently in Nagaland. It was in the form of “Earthues” — an exhibition of natural dyes in collaboration with the Department of Women Development and Art and Culture.
In the exhibition mounted at the World War II Museum in Kesama — the Nagaland Heritage Village where the festival was held, colours like indigo, red, yellow, green, pink and black were derived and extracted from various sources like Strobilanthes flaccidifolious, rubia sikkimensis, lünaprü, roots of the siangteloü plant, dried orchid stems, wild ginger, wild walnut, wild berries and flowers, etc.
“Nagas used to grow their own cotton. They would spin their own thread and apply colour to it. It was the only means of colouring our cloth till the 1920s but after the coloured yarn from Burma appeared and the synthetic colours were introduced in Europe, dyeing traditions gradually went away. Especially Indigo dyeing of the Ao tribe is completely lost. The activity is now undertaken only during a cultural event,'' rued Senthila who was taken in by the diverse dyeing traditions during her extensive work on Naga tribal textiles which continues to date. And last year she was awarded the Padma Shri for her contribution to the world of art.
Each Naga tribe, according to Senthila, has a unique method of extracting dye from the plant. “Khiamniungan women pound the leaves and ferment them for four months. During winters, when there is a lull in the agricultural season, they undertake dyeing,” added Senthila who at the moment is working on Indigo dye practices with women in Akhoya village — famous for it, and Chuchuyimlang village — both inhabited by the Ao tribe.
The social sanctions around the craft were as intriguing as the technique itself. In Ao tribe, women were not allowed to dye during their monthly periods and they were not allowed to touch red colour in any case. “One had to be celibate too to be making dyes which is why it was always the older Naga women, mostly the widows, who used to do it. There were a lot of social sanctions, especially in my tribe (Ao). This interested me during my journey of discovering the traditions of Osak or Indigo dye, which is special to this group.”
Senthila set up Tribal Weave in 1999, an organization aimed at not just giving new lease of life to old Naga textiles but also mobilise women to form self-help groups, rendering skills of a craft that has been lost turning it into a feasible venture and facilitate marketing of their craft-based products.
The traditional loin loom is another prime area of involvement for Senthila and at Tribal Weave, she has been trying to reinterpret it by using traditional motifs like animals and spears, symbols of valour in contemporary arrangements on bedspread, curtains, cushion covers, runners, mats, etc.
“The loin loom is our strength. It is 100 per cent hand-made. Of late, many youngsters are disassociating themselves with it,” said Senthila.