Tuesday, December 15, 2009

OMG!!

I don't have much to say. I completely forgot a faculty meeting yesterday. I made the 18 kilometers to my workplace in 25 minutes despite Christmas-shopping traffic. I am so in my boss' bad books, which is where I continually seem to be these days anyway. Maybe there's a whole book dedicated only to my misdemeanors.

Human errors. Too bad we're expected to be inhumanly efficient sometimes.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Just Another Post

This isn't going to be one of those academically-oriented posts that Calliopia finds so boring; I ought to warn you that it also probably won't contain sage words and profound insights into the fundamental truths of life. No, sirree. This is just another post about a topic that has been discussed almost to death : love.

See, what I don't get about this whole concept of love (not the divine kind - although I have a few questions on that too, for another time)is how it's supposed to be the definition of perfect bliss and excruciating pain all at the same time, and how, despite it's seemingly ambiguous, arbitrary and completely fickle nature, so many of us seem to be addicted to it. Is it love, or is it the idea of being in love that has us hooked? No profound observations yet - I did warn you.

In spite of countless attempts, for centuries nobody has ever been able to define love; at best there have been some very good descriptions of the nature of, the effects of, the characteristics of love. For my part, I would like to add that Love is a very wet thing. And by wet, I specifically mean the kind of wetness that emits from the eyes...tears, some call it. Hah, and you thought I was talking about the other kind.

Anyway, not to meander too long from what prompted this post in the first place. In short, I received a call from a girl friend of mine, a very tearful call, in fact, this evening. We all know the story - her guy, with whom she'd been involved in this extremely hopeless love-triangle, did the unthinkable (actually, not so unexpected, considering his complete inability to commit to either of the women involved), and got the other woman pregnant. She ranted, raved, raged, and threatened to commit some act of violence involving hammers, pistols, and other assorted weapons. However, once she ran out of really graphic (and painful) descriptions of what she would do to him, what remained was that elusive emotion called love. She wanted to hate him, but it didn't work. Well, maybe the hate will come later, but right now, she's making excuses for him. She knows what she's doing, and she still can't help doing it because this thing is bigger than her.

So, what is it about us that we jump into situations and stay there, fully aware of the potentials of getting hurt - again? Are we suckers for pain? Is it some masochistic impulse that keeps us going back for more? Should we run as fast as our bare feet can carry us the moment we are threatened with this thing? Are we simply kidding ourselves when we chalk down a failed relationship as "a mistake" and then look toward the horizon, to that new person we've just met, and think "maybe this is The One"?

I don't know. I have no answers. But I like to think that this refusal to learn our lessons, to 'wisen up', is, in fact, courage of the most heroic order. To risk ourselves getting hurt again and again, to refuse to lose hope.... maybe that is just another evidence of the indomitable spirit of mankind. And maybe the small victories make up for the huge losses. Or maybe the losses are, after all, in the end, victories.

PS: I'm sorry Miss Calliopia, I can't seem to find out how to make my fonts smaller...been out of touch for that long!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

TEXTILES OF MIZORAM: The Puan.










-Dr. Cherrie L. Chhangte
Assistant Professor, Mizoram University.

Paper Presented at Woven Tales from the North East: One-Day Textile Conference, 16th June 2009 at NCPA Mumbai.

Mizoram, which became the 23rd state of the Indian Union on 20th February 1987, is a mountainous region bordered by Bangladesh in the west, Myanmar in the east, the Bay of Bengal in the South, and Assam and Manipur in the north. Tribes that inhabit the state of Mizoram include the Luseis, the Hmars, the Paites, the Pawis, and the Maras, among others.

Handlooms have always been an integral part of the Mizo life. In earlier times, every Mizo girl was expected to know the art of weaving, which met the practical needs of not only herself, but those of her family as well. The courtship of a young woman by a young man usually took place at night, with the girl often industriously making preparations for the next day’s weaving by cleaning the cotton, hanging the threads on the loom, or generally preparing the implements for weaving, and the young man conversing and assisting by her side. The main garment of the Mizo is called the Puan, which simply means cloth’. The Puan has always played a central role in the social fabric of the Mizos, transcending its mere functional aspect as a garment worn by women – and men too, in earlier days – to play a crucial role in the performance of rites, rituals and other special occasions like births, deaths, and weddings.

Even upto the last decade of the 19th century, the Mizos lived on hill tops in small villages under the protection of chiefs. The topographical condition of the area wherein they lived made them self-reliant in respect of the day to day needs. They raised their own crops through jhumming and engaged themselves in hunting on a regular basis to supplement their food. Cotton, which was among the crops grown in the fields, was collected carefully, ginned and spun out with the help of indigenously made tools to produce yarn for weaving puans to meet their needs. This was done on simple loin looms (puanbu) which enabled them to weave cloth usually not broader than thirty inches. For one puan two such pieces had to be sewn together. A puan is normally about 55” – 60” in length and 48” in breadth.

In the beginning, the Mizos did not use colored yarn, and so the cloth produced was a simple, coarse white piece for both men and women. These were called puanngo. In course of time, they discovered that certain barks, roots, herbs and leaves could yield a fast, black color, and this was subsequently used to make variations on the monotony of the existing designs, by the introduction of black borders, as well as stripes in black and white. With the passage of time, they became acquainted with other colors like red, yellow, green, and blue.

As with most other communities, art was often a reflection of the everyday preoccupations of the people. For instance, the first design produced by the Mizos is a design called kawkpuizikzial; ‘kawk’is a common leafy vegetable whose leaf tips curl in a rounded loop, and this was imitated by them, and remained a recurring motif in different traditional puans. Similarly, as innovations in design became more and more advanced, they frequently took on names on the basis of the designs used therein; thus, ‘disul’ (after a species of grass), ‘naya sawm par’(10 paise design), ‘sawhthing par’(ginger flower), ├írsi par (star motif) are some of the designs that are self-explanatory.

Puans have always been an intrinsic part of the Mizo wardrobe. After Mizos progressed from the siapsuap (a grass skirt), the puan became the only garment worn by both genders. It was simply worn wrapped around the body under the arms. Other types of puans were also woven and used as bedding and shawls. By the 20th century, men wore puans very rarely, since trousers had become fashionable and popular as a result of the increasing interaction with Indians from the mainland, as also the British officers and missionaries who came into Mizoram. However, women retained the use of puans, though it was now worn sarong-style, wrapped around the waist, with a blouse on top, a practice which is retained till today, although variations do occur.

The Puan also plays a major role in marriages; a collection of puans is a crucial part of the bride’s dowry, and she is required to bring a number of puans with her to her husband’s house, and these puans, after being handed over to her mother-in-law, are subsequently distributed as gifts among the female relatives of the husband. The Puan is also a significant part of the rituals associated with death in the Mizo community. People carry plain and simple puans when going to funeral, and these are used symbolically as shrouds, and parting gifts for the dead. Once the funeral rites are over, the dead person’s family usually distributes a number of these puans as keepsakes to the dead person’s near and dear ones.


The most well-known and intricate of the Mizo puans is the Puanchei. Used in festive dances and other special occasions, it is the most prized possession of a Mizo woman. Interestingly, even in present times, a woman does not get married without bringing with her a Puanchei. N. Chatterji observes:
It is also interesting to find that many of the designs of the traditional puans make their appearance in Puanchei in some way or other. Thus the two beautiful deep black compactly woven woolen bands of the ngotekherh make their conspicuous appearance in the puanchei…what is more distinctive of this weaving is that none of the colored threads on the warp are allowed to make their appearance against the above-mentioned…bands…. They also have to ensure, besides close weaving, that at no part of these stripes any shrinkage due to irregular or careless handling of weft and warp threads takes place. (Chatterji, 37)
It is not known when this puan first started to be made, but we may deduce that it evolved in course of time as the artistic expression of their natural talent for weaving, designing and color-matching.

Other puans of note are the Senior puan, the Puandum, the Thangchhuah Puan and the Tawlhloh puan, among others. The Senior Puan traditionally has a diamond pattern, though variations may occur. Although there is no definite explanation as to why the term “senior” is used, according to some scholars, it denotes the fact that when this design was first introduced, it was worn mostly by the more senior women in the community, whereas young girls rarely wore them (Chatterji, 38).

The Puandum (dum meaning ‘black’), of an earlier origin than the Puanchei, has bands in dark colors against a black background. Young men usually used this puan as a night cover during their stay in the men’s dormitory (zawlbuk). In earlier times, a young woman was required to weave a Puandum and carry it with to her new home when she got married. This was to be used as a shroud to cover her dead husband’s body in the eventuality that her husband died during her lifetime. It could also be used to cover the bodies of any close relative on her husband’s side. It has a deep cultural significance, even to this day. Before Marriage, this puan was also used as a Dawnpuan phah, which means that if a girl and boy sleep together on the Puandum with the permission of the girl’s parents, the boy must marry the girl. If he refuses to do so, he is required to pay a fine. In present times, it is still used as a mark of mourning at funerals. Thus, it is not usually worn as a garment on ordinary occasions except those involving deaths.

The Thangchhuah puan is highly significant in that it could be worn only by those who had earned the highly coveted ceremony of Thangchhuah, a ceremony which was so excessively expensive and complicated that it could usually be performed only by the exceptionally brave hunters or the exceptionally wealthy. In order to perform the Thangchhuah ceremony, a person was required to kill certain animals, or be able to throw a lavish feast for the entire village from his own produce in the field. Thus, it was a mark of social status to be able to wear such a puan. A small turban in the same design called Thangchhuah diar also exists which again could be worn only by the performer of the Thangchhuah. Incidentally, those who performed the Thangchhuah were allowed to have a window in their house, whereas in typical Mizo houses there were no windows, since it was believed this would prevent the entry of evil spirits and demons.

The Tawlhloh Puan was a puan worn by a warrior who had established his reputation for bravery. Tawlhlo in Mizo means ‘to stand firm’, ‘not to change position’, or ‘not to move backward’. It is said that this design evolved during the time when the Mizos lived between the river Run (now in Myanmar) and the river Tiau. Warriors put on this cloth when they were fighting the enemy as a token of their steadfastness and courage in the face of danger. Even during colonial times, these warriors put on the puan when facing the British soldiers as a token of their resistance and to maintain their traditional dignity. However, in course of time, this puan began to be used by ladies and rich people in times of festive occasions like marriages and the original significance attached to this cloth started to diminish, giving place to a new significance and status value of it.

Most of the tribes of Mizoram, like the Paites and the Hmars have similar puans with perhaps slight variations in terms of design and names. One of the most popular and intricate puans among Mara tribe as well as the Pawi tribe, who both inhabit the southern part of the state, is a puan known as Chyna Hno among the Maras and Nawnthumpuan among the Pawis. It is quite expensive and a prized possession not only among the Mara women, but among the entire Mizo community. In earlier times, the dye used for this puan was not fast, and therefore could not be washed. This further enhanced its value, and it was worn only on very special occasions.

One interesting puan of the Paite tribe, which seems to have evolved during the 1980s is the BA Puan, which is reserved for those who excel academically. It is usually given as a token of appreciation, and is not worn by anyone other than those who have merited it.

In an interview with a Paite gentleman1, I was told that the Paites have certain traditions with regard to the puan that are maintained to this day. For instance, the Puandum of the Paites is often gifted as a token of affection to friends and new acquaintances. The Paites are traditionally a humble, self-effacing tribe who are reluctant to call attention to themselves. Characteristically, even when they give this puan as a present, it is done in the most secretive way possible, preferably without the knowledge of the recipient. For example, if a guest brings this puan as a gift for his host at dinner, he will simply leave the package behind him without any mention of it, and most often than not, the host discovers the surreptitiously placed gift after his guest has left, thereby giving him no chance to express his thanks and consequently, cause embarrassment to his guest.

Another significance of the puan among the Hmar community is the role that it plays during the process of negotiation for marriages. The emissaries from the boy’s family carry with them a black puan in which the head of a small hoe is wrapped. If the girl’s family is amenable to the alliance, they keep this item with them. Returning it implies that they are not willing to accept the boy as their son-in-law. Incidentally, the hoe is symbolic of the fact that it may be used against the husband at a future date if he misbehaves with his wife or her family. This tradition is maintained to this day.

In contemporary times, enterprising and innovative young designers have brought the puan to an entire new level, by interspersing the traditional motifs into modern designs. Thus these woven cloths are no longer confined to the traditional sarong-style usage, but make their appearance in jackets, trousers, skirts, tops, and even bags. This fusion is seen as a healthy instance of a tradition that is evolving and keeping pace with the changing times.

To sum up, we can say that the puan plays an integral part in the social and cultural fabric of the Mizo community. Major social activities and events like marriages, deaths, festive celebrations, and so on, are incomplete without the presence of the puan. Also, it plays a deeply significant role as a symbol of identity in the psyche of the Mizo people, so much so that unofficial movements have sprung up time and again to promote and encourage traditional attire. As early as around the turn of the previous century, that is, by the late 1800s, verses were mockingly sung by Mizo lads to denigrate the practice of wearing garments that were not locally made, a practice which started as a result of the growing interactions with traders and merchants from the mainland. Women being women, perhaps for them the lure of new fashions and fabrics was harder to resist than for the men. In this light verse, for instance, the lady who wears non-Mizo clothes is disdainfully described as something of a harlot, a shameless hussy who will never find a husband since all men will turn their backs on her:

Thlawinali, thlawinali, thlawi te nali,
Mahni siamsa ziaam feng duh lo Siali,
I leng rei dawn mange thlawite nali.
(Shameless Hussy, Shameless Hussy, dear Shameless Hussy,
Scorning the creations of one’s own people, Scornful woman,
A spinster shall you remain for a very long time, Shameless Hussy).

Later, during the 1970s and 1980s, student movements once again took up the cause of wearing the puan, other traditional attire like ornaments not being deemed practical. With nationalist sentiments and anti- Indian feelings reaching a high, and to counter the growing tendency of women to wear salwar kameezes and other conspicuously ‘Indian’ garments, these movements very strongly condemned the use of these garments that were non-Mizo, and threats that those who refused to wear puans would be shunned in the community were made – a threat that was frightening in a close-knit community like that of the Mizos. Perhaps it is owing to these strictures that to this day, the habit of wearing blatantly ‘Indian’ clothes is absent in the state; few women, if any, wear the salwar kameez, and saris are never worn by Mizo women, not so much for any underlying resentment, but more out of sheer force of habit.

Although such threats and compulsions are no longer made in contemporary times, what is heartening to note is that the puan shows no sign of disappearing from the wardrobe of the modern Mizo woman; in particular, women are reluctant to attend church services without donning their favorite traditional garment. However, it is perhaps cause for alarm that the art of weaving in the traditional loin looms is slowly dying out, and contrary to the situation in earlier times when every young girl was expected to know how to weave, in modern times, this has become a thing of the past.

With the introduction of mechanized looms which are less time-consuming and therefore more commercially viable, more and more people are depending on these semi-mechanized looms to produce a variety of puans in all colors and designs2. Although this may be cause for celebration for the entrepreneur, it has deep ramifications and raises the issue of how far we are responsible for preserving folk indigenous arts and crafts. Since weaving in the traditional way is more time-consuming and strenuous, it is natural that hand-woven puans are much more expensive than the machine-made ones, which has further contributed to the decline in their popularity despite their higher quality. Within Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, laudable efforts have been made to teach youngsters this art in the PC Girls School, by making weaving a compulsory part of the curriculum. However, it is strongly felt that efforts must be made on a larger scale to promote and preserve the art of weaving these cloths. Puans, after all, serve as a repository of the history and culture, the lores and the folkways of the Mizo people in ways that are at once aesthetically pleasing and practically useful.

Notes:
1. Interview with Mr. Vanneihtluanga, noted creative writer and journalist, who happens to belong to the Paite tribe.
2. In an interview with Mrs. Ruati, proprietor of L.R. Handlooms, one of the more successful handloom houses in Mizoram, she did affirm that hand-woven cloths are still preferred by the discerning customer, who will not hesitate to shell out more money for a work of higher quality. However, she states that such customers are rather few and far in between.

Bibliography.
Lianhmingthanga, Material Culture of the Mizo, Tribal Research Institute, Department of Art and Culture, Mizoram. Firma KLM: Aizawl, 1998.

N. Chatterji, Puan, the Pride of Mizoram, Tribal Research Institute, Department of Art and Culture, Mizoram. Firma KLM: Aizawl, 1979

Mizoram State Museum Catalogue, Department of Art and Culture, Mizoram, 2008 .

Mizo Incheina, Tribal Research Institute, Department of Art and Culture, Mizoram. Mizoram Govt. Press: Aizawl, 1993.


Some of the images have been uploaded from the internet. The author wishes to apologize for any copyright infringements inadvertently committed.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

How Grandpa Got His Name

I never really knew Grandpa all that well, because he lived in far-away Lawngtlai, and died when I was about six or seven. I do have vague memories of him being wracked by violent fits of phlegmatic coughing, lying in bed in our home at Aizawl, always very quiet and uncomplaining; I would venture near his bed out of curiosity to have a better look at this tanned, thin old man who spoke Mizo infused with all the unfamiliar nuances and cadences of southern dialects. Always, when I did that, he would tell my mother, "Don't let the children come near, they might catch what I have." So I would slink guiltily away, thinking that I had somehow offended him, my childish brain unable to comprehend his concern for me. What I do remember very clearly though, is his name, for Grandpa had been given the uncommon and slightly alarming name of Thatchianga. For those who do not follow the Mizo language, 'that' means 'kill', and 'chiang' is 'plain, distinct, clear, certain, obvious' according to J.H. Lorraine's Dictionary. So, his name essentially means something like "one who kills/ killed with certainty". Quite a name.

When I was in Pre-University an aunt asked me why my Grandpa had such an odd name. By then, having gathered a few hazy facts from my mom about the genesis of the name, I easily replied, "Well, he killed this vai (non-Mizo from the plains) chap and so they named him Thatchianga." It took a few seconds for that to register, but when it did, she asked me, "But what was his name before he killed this fellow?!"

Anyway, here is how the story goes. My great great grandfather, Hnawncheuva of Tawihpui village and his friend, Dokulha, were warriors. This was during the Raj, and even in far-flung places like Tawihpui, petty officers of the government did what they could to take advantage of and harass the villagers. Among this lot were the non-Mizo Circle Interpreters, called Rahsi by the Mizos. These people had frequent interactions with the locals, especially the men, many of whom they employed as coolies. Apparently, they would greedily demand chickens, rice, vegetables and other hard-earned produce from the villagers anytime they had the whim. The villagers, fed up of this kind of behavior, asked Hnawncheuva and his friend to get rid of them, asking them why they, so-called warriors, were such cowards as to let these vais get away with such atrocious behavior. Not only emboldened by their entreaties, but by now seeing it as their bounden duty to protect the interests of their people, these two gentlemen ambushed and killed one such officer.

Having made no attempt to conceal their crime, they were duly captured, and a trial was conducted in which the verdict was that they should be transported to the Andamans to serve their term in prison. As they were bound and taken on the long trek towards the nearest port, they refused to be cowed by their captors and would not walk despite threats of the vilest kind. At a loss as to how to proceed, their captors decided to carry them piggy-back style on the torturous mountain roads. Not content with having to be carried thus, these brave warriors would suddenly make a lunge for freedom, and many times both they as well as the men carrying them would tumble down the steep inclines along the way. Needless to say, it must have been quite a journey they undertook. When the captured men resorted to suddenly biting their captors with ferocity, their teeth were all pulled out to teach them a lesson.

They eventually landed at Andaman Cellular Jial and served their term. When the time came for them to go home to Mizoram, Dokulha, in a flash of ill-inspired brilliance suggested that since they were going home anyway, they should kill at least one more vai for good measure. My great great grandpa must have resisted the urge, but the temptation was too great for Dokulha; he went and knocked off an unsuspecting vai who was basking in the sun, enjoying the peace of a beautiful morning. Alas! He was captured yet once more, and spent the rest of his life behind bars in the Andamans. Parting from his friend with much sadness, Hnawncheuva eventually reached home and was reunited with his family. It was in memory of this that my granpa, his grandson, was named Vaithatchianga, later shortened to Thatchianga.

A decade or so ago, my sister, who was then working as a missionary in Arunachal Pradesh, happened to narrate this story to a male colleague of hers. She told the story with relish, and concluded by remarking that had Dokulha not been so foolish, he would have gone home too. Her colleague, Dingtea, with a wry grin, said, "You're right. We've always wondered what would have been his fate had he not made that disastrous decision. You see, Dokulha was my great great Grandfather." Small world, eh?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

C'est la Vie

Well, well, well. Another year has ended and a new one's just begun. More than any other year, I bid goodbye to 2008 with mixed feelings. It has not been an easy year for me personally. There were health problems, myriad deadlines to meet, difficulties at the workplace and in personal relationships, and towards the end, the loss of a beloved aunt who was a widow, and childless, and therefore, quite close to us.On the upside, I finally completed my doctoral dissertation, something that had begun to take on the proportions of a nightmare; I had friends and family to help me make it through the difficult times, I met and formed bonds with people who were special in their own ways, and I finally came to terms with some harsh realities, which, though hard to swallow at first, at least served to dispel any illusions I may have nurtured. All in all, the positives and the negatives balanced each other out, as they tend to do. C'est la vie.

I received this text message at New Year's, and despite the silly rhyming, I quite like it,so I'm reproducing it here as a wish to all my online friends:
The year has gone, but made us strong,
The path was long but we walked with a song,
There were fears and tears,
But we also had reasons for cheers,
Wishing you happy memories of the last year,
And a great beginning of the next year - 2009!



As far back as I can remember, my sister would welcome the New Year every year with Abba's song, "Happy New Year". In more recent times, the now disbanded A*Teens did a cover of it. Here are the lyrics, courtesy www.azlyrics.com
Happy New Year
No more champagne
And the fireworks are through
Here we are, me and you
Feeling lost and feeling blue
It's the end of the party
And the morning seems so grey
So unlike yesterday
Now's the time for us to say...

Happy new year
Happy new year
May we all have a vision now and then
Of a world where every neighbour is a friend
Happy new year
Happy new year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don't we might as well lay down and die
You and I

Sometimes I see
How the brave new world arrives
And I see how it thrives
In the ashes of our lives
Oh yes, man is a fool
And he thinks he'll be okay
Dragging on, feet of clay
Never knowing he's astray
Keeps on going anyway...


Seems to me now
That the dreams we had before
Are all dead, nothing more
Than confetti on the floor
It's the end of a decade
In another ten years time
Who can say what we'll find
What lies waiting down the line
In the end of eighty-nine
... [2009]

And here is the video. Hope you enjoy the song as much as I always do.



Once again, here are my best wishes for you for the New Year. May you be richly blessed, and may you be a blessing to others too.