Craft, Culture & Agriculture - A glimpse into the living heritage of Northeast India

A glimpse into the living heritage of Northeast India

Friday 7th July 2023, 6.30pm at The Nomads Tent

A presentation about the life, craft, culture and wildlife of Northeast India by Anna-Louise Meynell, a Scottish researcher and textile designer, and Champak Deka, founder of Native Northeast, a tour company in Assam.

Anna-Louise Meynell is a textile designer and researcher from Scotland who is based in Assam, Northeast India. She completed a PhD on the eri silk traditions of Meghalaya in 2021 and has remained in the northeast region since the period of her fieldwork. Anna-Louise has been working with artisans in Northeast India since 2014 and through the various facets of her work has had the opportunity to travel to some fascinating parts of the region, exploring textiles, techniques and sustainability of traditional artisan practices. 

Native Northeast is driven by Champak Deka, a fellow traveller and native of Northeast India. His previous career as a commercial deep sea diver and a submariner in the Indian navy took him all around the world, instilling in him an appreciation of engaging experiences through travel.

Anna-Louise has travelled extensively around Northeast India with her husband Champak Deka, making both professional and personal connections with artisan communities across the northeast. Together they run textile tours for small groups to come and experience these authentic artisan communities. 

Off-the-beaten-track of the Indian tourist circuit, with diverse tribal culture and breathtaking landscapes abundant in wildlife and luscious plant life, Northeast India is a region in which many ancient textile traditions are still maintained and practiced in sync with the yearly climatic and agricultural cycle. Craft, culture and agriculture are inextricably bound together in the ways of life that have not changed for generations. Travelling in Northeast India, exploring artisan villages, one has a sense of witnessing true living heritage. When we talk about preserving heritage, it is this co-existence of craft, culture and agriculture that can be credited for the continuation of traditional practices. Largely, across the northeast region, agriculture is the primary livelihood where the whole community works together in concentrated periods of planting or harvesting. An agricultural mindset supports the cultivation and identification of raw materials for weaving. The textiles that are created become part of the very localised culture; the cultural practices and celebrations where these textiles are used often revolve around the phases of agriculture; and we come back full circle to agriculture. Support to maintain this lifestyle can be a strong mechanism for preserving cultural heritage.

Textiles of Northeast India are defined by the locally cultivated raw materials and the various looms used to weave them on. Muga silk cultivation of Upper Assam is an art that has been refined over the centuries. It is the particular climatic conditions of Assam, the soil quality conducive to growth of the som tree that the worms feed on, and the traditional knowledge of the farmer that supports muga silk cultivation, such that it gained GI recognition for Assam in 2007. Eri silk is equally evocative of Northeast India, the soft handspun silk that is cultivated in many village homes across the region. It is a valuable income generating activity for rural families and, until recently, was only ever produced domestically. Locally sourced natural dyes complete the picture of a product deeply connected to the local culture and biodiversity. 

Less common but equally fascinating is the nettle fibre of some artisan communities in Nagaland. The giant Himalyan nettle is harvested, stripped, twisted, pounded, boiled, washed and wound to make a yarn embedded with local culture and the personal markers of the artisans. A visit to the villages where this rough smokey textile is woven seems to make sense in the narrative of the fibre: the bold tribal homes with huge carved wooden doors, the skulls and horns of animals decorating the walls, the enormous rice baskets for storing grain all year round, and the sun worn faces of people working outdoors, a life of hard agricultural labour. Many, many, more examples of textile heritage are still present across the northeast, of techniques and raw materials that tell the story of people, place and culture.

Join us on Friday 7th July at 6.30pm to find out more about this fascinating story.

Book your ticket here.