I have a soft spot for back strap looms, as these were the first looms I ever saw and the brilliant colours that were laid out and woven together to form a third colour or pattern still fascinate me even after spending 20 odd years as a weaver and designing for the textile market. Sometimes at night when I am sleepless, I recall those colours and my grandmother softly spinning her yarns. It calms me.
There are over three lakh weavers, in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, the seven north-eastern states of India . These weavers are women and practice their craft on a very primitive loom, which are simple in construction and easy of operation. This is in sharp contrast to traditional weaving in other parts of India where weaving is done by the men generally.
Low in cost, these looms have no permanent fixtures and are easily portable. Leather or cloth band is used to fix the loom around the woman’s back to provide stability while weaving , hence the name back strap loom. In certain parts of the world these are also known as lion looms.
In the these states, weaving is more of a traditional custom, than an occupation. Most women get together in a courtyard outside their houses and set up loom once done with the daily house work and the atmosphere is quite relaxed and informal. During the monsoons these women set up loom inside their homes. During planting and harvest season, one rarely sees any weaving happening as everyone is out in the fields pitching in, agriculture is the primary occupation.
The advantage that lies with these looms is the unlimited scope that they offer for designing as replicating abstract geometric patterns are limitless. Also the weaver is not limited by how many colours she can use in the weft, thus creating very striking designs that are timeless. Narrow strips of cloth are woven and then joined to form unstitched garments which they drape themselves in. Also shawls, bags with long straps and broad fabric belts were traditionally woven.
Nowadays most weavers don’t find it practical to weave these long strips of fabric for garments. They are adapting to changing times with the help of a few non government organizations and designers . A lot of them are creating products primarily for the urban markets, where people are waking up to appreciating hand-made products. Scarves, cushion covers, runners, table mats, napkins are common products that they create, using their old traditional patterns and vibrant colours schemes.
The Bodos, a Mongoloid stock who at some point in history migrated from the Bod, a province of central Tibet to Assam and parts of Eastern Bengal, are divided into many sub tribes , such as Dimasa Kachari, Bodo Kachari, Rabha, Deori and Garo and over time have spread to many parts of this region. They are the finest weavers of the north-east .
The decorative shawls of the Ao tribe of Nagaland is probably the most striking in terms of its bold colour scheme and is known as Tsungkotepsu and traditionally exclusively worn by warriors who had killed in battle or offered a sacrifice of mithun , an animal that is held sacred in many parts of this region.
One of my favourite design is from Manipur , known as Kudam Manbi and is based on a pattern of beads and cowrie shells made by the Kukis, a tribe that inhabits regions of Manipur and Mizoram.
image courtesy – http://www.google.in
Refrence – ignca.nic.in; http://www.craftmark.org;