The Loinloom Festival opened up debates around culture, livelihoods and ethnicity: Samhita Barooah

This year I travelled to Dezeiphe village in Dimapur district to be part of the ‘Loinloom’ festival organised by Exotic Echo in the first week of December 2018. My journey began with a train till Dimapur from Guwahati and then I followed the whatsapp instructions from the organisers to take the shared tempo till 5 mile and then take an auto to Dezeiphe. I was particularly fascinated by the way they instructed me to bargain and pay a reasonable amount to the auto driver so that they do not overcharge me. I paid Rs 300 till Deizeiphe. The road trip from the railway station at Dimapur till Dezeiphe was a back breaking one. I could feel the bones rattling through this road in the shared tempo with gusts of heavy dust flooding my nostrils. Once I reached my destination I was at peace with my bones and entered the premises. One non-naga man greeted me and immediately assumed that I must be a Bengali and a friend of Sonnie Kath to be coming for this loinloom festival. I said I am an Assamese. Then he reiterated, “Yes not a Naga probably.” One’s facial identity becomes so crucial in this context however much you feel like a Naga from within. I took the rear seats with a bunch of journalists to be able to keep my relatively light luggage at the side and participate in the programme. People from across Nagaland, Delhi, Tokyo, France, Manipur, Mumbai and Shillong had gathered for this programme.

After some time, I looked around the amazing loin-loom products, weavers and loin-looms arranged according to the native tribe of Nagaland. One loom was in the middle of all the other looms. This loom represented the Tangkhul Naga tribe of Manipur. Every Naga tribe was represented in the other looms around the Tangkhul loom in a circle. Now such a depiction can be interpreted in many ways from the centre to the periphery or even the other way round. Tangkhuls are from Ukhrul district of Manipur but they have played a major role to unify Naga tribes across borders and positioned themselves as the peace negotiators in the recent peace accord developments hence their loom is held at the centre as a connecting point for all other tribes of Nagaland. In another context, all other tribes from Nagaland are safeguarding the Tangkhul tribe by surrounding them from all around. Interpretations can be many, but it also depicts the difference between the Tangkhul Naga loom in the middle and all other tribes around it reflecting ‘diversity’ which is being different yet included within the larger identity of the Nagas. I kept wondering how such perspectives can be drawn from the loin looms when the whole world is heading towards Hornbill festival which seems to be more of a tourist enterprise. But the loinloom festival had very grounded socio-cultural and political connotations in the context of rural Nagaland. The entire discourse around the loinloom festival was to create a network and build alliance with the grassroots weavers, designers and women’s collectives with the national and international markets where these products and designs could be appreciated and adequately remunerated.

There were planned discussions around Geographical Indication and patent laws for the Naga weavers and designs from a cross-section of experts from state institutions, weaver’s groups, community leaders, fashion industry, academic institutions and research groups. These discussions were open, lively and participatory which engaged the audience and the experts in a very dynamic way. One of the village elders shared some trivia about traditional jewellery which women wore in his community not for fashion but for utility to do weeding in the fields easily. Seno Tsuhah representing Chizami Weaves from North East Network in Nagaland also shared her thoughts during the festival and focused on the fact that fashion may not have borders but the weaver’s rights over their designs and creations need to be protected.  Such festivals are the need of the hour and such discussions needs space to understand the pros and cons of all issues attached to loin looms. The founder and prime mover of Exotic Echo now a global brand in fusion products of weaves and leather Sonnie Kath has been successful in bringing together all these people from across the world to discuss about loin-loom weaving when the whole world is glaring at Hornbill Festivities.

My time was limited at the festival as I was also rushing to Kohima for another programme but the two-day festival made a great impact in my mind. Loin-loom weaving is a form of identity-based livelihood for women in Nagaland across tribes and borders. Patenting and Geographical Indication might be useful to ensure adequate recognition and compensation to the ethnic community designs and practices. But such laws are still nascent in practice in India and people misuse them more often to settle petty interests. Women’s work with the loom has already presented some exquisite designs and products which has a huge international appeal. The pertinent question is whether design and product innovation of the weavers will be stalled with the legal intricacies of patents and geographical indication which will benefit a few in the garb of cultural justice. Another issue is whether weavers from diverse tribes can weave diverse designs from all tribes or should they remain confined to their own tribes? When we think of the collective tribal identity then how do individual patent laws impact such identity also needs some thought. When designs are practiced as a collective who benefits as the custodian or creator of a design also remains unanswered. But the loinloom festival opened up many debates around culture, identity, livelihoods, markets and ethnicity related intersections in Nagaland this year.

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah is a Researcher and Travel Writer.