Handicrafts of the Zeliangrong: Their cultural significance
- Part 1 -

Dr Budha Kamei *

"As arts and beauty go together, a home without art cannot be the abode of beauty. Without beauty there cannot be truth and without truth there cannot be peace. A home becomes a house."

The present article attempts to look into the traditional handcrafts of the Zeliangrong of North East and their cultural significance. The word craft denotes skill, art, trade etc. Crafts are all the techniques of skilled handwork used to produce tools, weapons and artifacts. Handicrafts also called handcraft or crafts have referred to a particular skill or art of making objects by hand. It can be stated that handicraft is the making of objects like basket, bowls and rugs etc. In addition, it can also mean creating beautiful objects for decoration. But, jewelry, bended glass windows, wall hanging, wood carvings are excluded in this.

Craft has always associated with arts. That is why an example of a craft is usually considered to be specimen of folk-art or people's art. Craft as a whole is concerned more with the art of household. As a means of making artistic goods, it has its chief significance when it is connected with naivety and simplicity of producing necessaries of everyone day to today utility of the vast country side. It is true that crafts are mostly traditional wherein a person fantasy is adored. The craftsman does produce the highest aesthetic form conjured from his intimate and organic relation between hand, eyes, and brain and the rhythmic movement of the soul.

It can be stated that the skill of craftsman is hereditary handed down from one generation to another. By studying crafts one can understand a people's culture. It has expressed the great tradition and rich cultural heritage of the Zeliangrong. This skill continues to exist as long as the people continue to support in its beauty. The factor for their development and preservation has put in the fact that they are the material symbol of the people's unique cultural beliefs.

Handicrafts, with its super revelation of beauty transcending limitations of mere abstract or aesthetic beauty have entered the realm of day to day use. In this simple craftsmanship one can make observation a truly democratic approach towards the arts which adversely targets to the socio-political set up of the people. It is person's own ingenuity that upholds his society.

Here, it is the uniqueness of craft lies – beauty accompanied with historic fingerprints. For the Zeliangrongs, arts and crafts are one of the means to express of man, language to convey a meaning. They are the indigenous creation of the folk. The crafts too have expressed their close relation with the nature, something about life of an individual or tribe as a whole, some expressions might be superior yet some inferior whatever may be, the arts and crafts are the outcome of patient examinations of man centuries under many circumstances.

The world of crafts is so much important and valuable because it reflects the state of human society through the individual person. It is important as other subjects. The individual makes no craft object for its own sake, for the beauty of its form or the delight of its color, but always with purpose, evidence in it, may be utilitarian, religion or social. The ruins of the past truly have mirrored the culture of past history.

Being the medium of expression, it is so natural that craft is formed long back to this day with the material available around the people. To meet most of their needs, the Zeliangrong make artifacts with bamboo and bamboo, since these materials are available around them.

The coming of the Christianity had overwhelmed the traditional crafts into considerable extend. The tribal people are very receptive to the new world. However, they try to continue their traditional crafts as they love for their crafts. Crafts are the indigenous creation of the people whose traditions are not change and not affected over generations.

Every handicraft is unique, and it makes different in its beauty from one to another unlike the machine made product which is uniform and failed to satisfy the aesthetic sense of appeal. It is commendable to note the triumph of traditional crafts over the machine-made goods. In the modern technology age, where handicrafts have either died out or decayed due to machine production, it is strange to see people starting to appreciate the rural crafts.

It is mainly due to the fact that humble indigenous crafts have been the company of human being, comforting the restlessness of mind creating nostalgia of the past good times and innocent people. They seldom have failed to free us from our hidden fears and torturing doubts. A craft that is a happy blend of beauty and utility immortalized the individual mind and spirit.

There is much beauty to be found in the handicrafts of the Zeliangrong and in fact, they are especially famous for weaving and basket. But, to admire them needs imagination and ability to relate them to their human background. It is also necessary to know the difficulty against which the artist has struggled; lack of materials and improved tools, and a sense of inferiority in the face of commercial products of civilization.

Basketry is the art of working such strands into various shapes and designs, including the making of mats, hats, coffins, fans , cradles, sandals and even boats, as well as baskets.5 The ancient British used a boat called coracle which was made by covering a large basket with hide. It is one of the most ancient crafts and is closely related to weaving. Basket making is one of the earliest forms of basketry. It was already well developed in the Neolithic Age, the period of transition from nomadic hunting societies to settled agricultural civilizations. Women mainly used it as a vessel for holding storing, and carrying various commodities.

The folklores, myths and legends tell men's crafts made out of grass, bamboo, cane, and leaves. According T.M. Abraham, the earliest archeological evidence is found between 5000 and 4000 B.C. in Foyum, Egypt where large circular baskets were made for storing grains. Archeologists could not establish a history of basket because the organic materials used in basketry like bamboo, cane, grass and leaves are decomposed and become soil. Pottery is in a direct line of descent from the Neolithic basketry. Because, many baskets were live with mud or other clay material to make them impervious to liquids. The basket often decayed, but the hardened clay remained.

Thus, it can be said that basketry led to some of the earliest pottery from a late Neolithic Chinese culture of about 3000 B.C. Here, the basketry work was predominated by twined and network. Ancient Greeks used baskets in religious rites and for fishing. It may be noted that the Roman poets like Juvenal and Martial use to refer the British baskets as rare and exotic items. The ancient basket maker people of the southwestern United States have been given this name because of their great skill in the art. The Pueblo Indians following their ancestors continued the tradition until about 1300 A.D. Still today, basket are primary containers for carrying and storing materials, in all parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Basketry work is chiefly a tribal craft. The tribal of Manipur live in the hills where raw materials are grown plenty. For uses in the day to day life, basketry is popular and very prominent to the tribal people. Their entire household required articles are made of bamboo and cane. In Zeliangrong society, basketry work is done by male folk. It is compulsory for every man to have the skill to produce baskets at least for his own domestic use. Green gold

Bamboos are grown in the tropical and sub-tropical region of the world. Out of about 255 varieties of bamboo found in the world, 59 varieties are grown in India alone. The North Eastern states account for 44 out of 59 varieties. In Manipur, there are only 15 varieties, namely, Arundinaria (2 varieties), Bambusa (6 varieties), Cephalostachyum (4 variteies), Dendroclamus, Melocalmus and Melocanna. Ten million hectares is covered by bamboo i.e., 13% of the Indian forest.

The Zeliangrong use the species like Dedrocalmus, Homiltonii, Bambura, Melocana, Bambusa tulada and Teinostachyum. They use bamboo and cane in all walks of life. In fact, bamboo is literary a hill man's stuff of life – house is built with bamboo, with its ashes fertilizes their fields, of its stem they carry water, with two splits of bamboo manufacture fire, they weave their sleeping mat of fine slips there of, its succulent shoots provides a dainty dinner, they prepare a special pickle by fermenting its shoots.

They make beautiful drinking cup and in fact, all the kitchen requirements are made of bamboo. They thatch their house with the help of bamboo, smoke from bamboo pipe. Weaving implements are mostly of bamboo. Their babies are rocked in the bamboo cradle. Every finishing touch being done with cane binds their houses together and throw bridges over the impassable hill torrents. The cane work reaches a high standard of technical perfection. Throughout the whole of India indeed, bamboo and cane occupy a forward place in the domestic economy of the inhabitants.

Basket is a container made by weaving or fastening strips of materials together. The word is derived from the Latin bascauda (dispham), which is thought to be etymologically rooted in the Celtic base means bracelets. The connection probably stems from the manner of making certain bracelets by coiling or interweaving strands of material.

Generally, baskets are made from willow, stripes of wood, bamboo or rattan and other vegetable materials. The required tools for making basket are: shears, round –nosed pliers, a knife and an awl. Two kinds of material are used: (a) firm, straight length called the warp that serve as ribs or spokes for the basket; and (b) lighter, more flexible pieces, called the weft, which are woven around the warp.

Among the Zeliangrongs, bamboos are usually harvested in the month of October. Because the new shoots that attract the insects, stop growing by October. Bamboos of three years old being brittle, are rather used for making other implements. They always prefer bamboos of longer internodes. The harvested bamboos are kept inclined, leading to the post so that the substances in the bamboo stems can flow out smoothly. This is one way of the using bamboo for lasting purpose.

The craftsman will cut up bamboo poles into several pieces horizontally and vertically according to the job requirement. The cut pieces are then split into smaller splints as with the demand. The split bamboo are soaked in the pond water for about 35 days, so that the sugary substances present in the bamboos are seeped out by water and the bamboos are lift to rot, that the foul smell and tasteless bamboos do not attract pest and insects. Thus, bamboos are conditioned.

The soaking process strengthens the bamboo and work softer without splitting. The green outer layers and protruding parts on the nodes of the bamboo are removed by scrapping with a knife while it is still fresh or wet. In some cases, fresh bamboos splits need to treat by smoking in order to avoid stem borers. In many cases, the Zeliangrong treat the bamboo after weaving. Baskets made from bamboo which is harvested before the right season are required to treat properly with cow's urine, cow dung and is left smoke for many days.

The most common techniques used in making baskets are the coil and plaited. Plaited basketry is made by crossing the warp and the weft, but if the warp is indistinguishable, both are called wefts. The main varieties of plaited basket work are checkered work or tabby weave, willed weave and hexagonal weave.

To be continued ....

* Dr Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on May 09, 2017.

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