Threading Narratives

Article by: The Shillong Times

By Willie Gordon Suting

meghalaya weaver

Photo: The Shillong Times

There has not been much research on textiles of Ri Bhoi district. Anna Louise Meynell sought to dig deep into this subject with the desire to promote and spread awareness. Her exhibition held at Savio Hall showcased different textiles she collected from Ri Bhoi district for her PhD. It is a wide variety of fabrics with different hues.

The intention of the research work was to document traditional designs, techniques and practices of the eri silk weavers of RiBhoi district. Working with three ethnic groups, the Khasi Bhoi of Raid Nongtluh, the Karbis and the Khat-ar Lyngdoh, the research explored cultural identity through textiles and cross-cultural influences.

The research first began with eri silk. But it evolved to include designs and techniques of supplementary weft weaving. Many textiles of Ri Bhoi district woven in hand-spun cotton or mill-spun cotton and contemporary acrylic wool hold equal value in understanding cultural identity and the weavers’ response to their environmental changes and in the market.

The term bhoi refers to the influence of other cultures and ethnic groups that have settled in the district. This was possible to see in the complex textiles of the Khasi Bhoi with the supplementary weft designs of geometric patterns. The Khasi Bhoi weavers are particularly skilled in cultivation, spinning and weaving of eri silk, which is traditionally woven in the floor loom. The Khasi Bhoi weavers are masters in natural and traditional dyeing in turmeric for yellow and stic lac for red. Today, they have a wide range of colours which come from plants, barks and flowers of their natural surroundings. The Karbis use both geometric and figurative patterns in the designs. The khmat (eye) designs are widely used by the Khat-ar Lyngdoh weavers.

Many textiles include flowers, birds or mythical creatures. This is distinctly different from the Khasi Bhoi weavers who only weave with geometrics. The majority of Karbi cloth is woven in cotton, and today in acrylic wool. Some weavers use eri silk and natural dyes. The Khat-ar Lyngdoh weavers are skilled in the supplementary weft technique. The is use of a wide variety of geometric khmat designs in the thoh pan (dancers’ waistband) and the jainpein (wraparound skirt).

Many of the old traditional pieces are woven in hand-spun eri silk or cotton, however, today most weavers are using mill-spun cotton and acrylic available from the local markets.

Meynell, speaking to Sunday Shillong, said, “These are textiles as a physical example of what culture is, its environment and social history.”

Meynell wanted to help promote the weavers as there was not enough awareness of their art and profession. “My purpose is also to share my research with Meghalaya by studying mostly these three sub-tribes,” she said. Meynell said that it had taken a lot of effort and time to collect the data and information, and added that she tried her best to observe production techniques.

Ri Bhoi as a district is very diverse. Meynell said it was a privilege to be welcomed openly in the villages. “I developed a good relationship with the artisans who were very nice to me.”

Meynell had also tried her hand at spinning the loom. “We have to safeguard cultural heritage by first understanding what it is,” said the 38-year-old Scottish woman. “Preservation and identification of cultural heritage can only come from environmental and social sustainability,” she added.

Local textile professional Vianney B. Nongrum had helped her in collecting data and information for the research work. They both visited villages to observe and study the art and production process.

But the weavers in Ri Bhoi district live in penury as they only make a living from agriculture. The earnings depend on the seasons. Some villages get help from the Department of Sericulture, but this happens only at times when there are craft and design events organised in Shillong.

NESFAS, a local NGO, has been working closely with the state government to help weavers.

When asked about her opinion on designer Daniel Syiem’s efforts to promote textiles, she said, “Syiem is doing great work. He creates good designs to help weavers.”

Meynell came to Meghalaya in 2014 doing a consultancy with NESFAS. From this, she met weavers, and was fascinated with their looms and skills. She then approached the University of the Arts, London to complete her PhD on the subject, of which the institute agreed. Along with scholarship, Meynell received major funding from the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The period of the research work was from May 2016 to December 2017.

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