Hornbill Festival: Beyond the exotica

The Hornbill Festival of Nagaland is promoted as an annual cultural extravaganza to promote Naga culture that tourists seem to love. But in a changing time and era, there are those who are doing their bit to save Naga culture without putting up a show. 

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Reverend Dr Phuveyi Dozo stands behind a bulletproof glass on the lectern and offers prayers for the success of the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland. Soon after he is done, Y Phonlong, the Angh (chief) of Longcheng village invokes the old gods to bless the annual cultural extravaganza.

The Hornbill Festival began 15 years ago to bring together 16 of the biggest tribes of the state in a cultural extravaganza that has been billed as the ‘Festival of Festivals’ in the ‘Land of Festivals’ by the state government. The idea was to bring some semblance of peace in the state affected by insurgency and usher economic benefits through the promotion of the state’s largely unspoilt natural landscape. The state happens to be the birthplace of the world’s longest continuing separatist movement since when in August 14, 1947, the Naga National Council declared independence from the British, a day before India’s. More than six decades since then, the Naga ‘freedom’ movement continues to this day and recently made a major leap forward when one of the oldest separatist groups, a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thungelang Muivah, struck by a ‘peace deal’ with the Indian government.

While the details of the deal remain shrouded in mystery, what is evidently clear is that the Nagas, and specifically the state of Nagaland and its people, stand at a crossroad today between the new and the old; between treading on a continuously changing new path of life and preserving an older way of living. At the Hornbill Festival, it appears, the two aren’t exclusive of each other.

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Y Phonlong, the Angh (chief) of Longcheng village prays to the old gods.

 

Christianity arrived in Nagaland over 125 years ago with Baptist missionaries who wanted to offer the headhunting tribal people deliverance. Along the way, several of the old tribal animistic practices such as severing the head of an enemy and getting their bodies and faces tattooed have been lost, discarded and/or discouraged entirely.

India’s latest Census figure puts over 87 percent of the state’s population as following one of the several denominations of Christianity. While only a handful of people, mostly those in villages with very little connectivity, refuse to convert to Christianity, there is a growing sense of wanting to reclaim the past amongst some people in the state.

A few metres away from the main cultural ground at the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, some 10km from the state capital Kohima, are tents where men and women are hard at work sculpting statues and weaving traditional shawls and wraparounds. It is part of ‘Craftscape’ exhibition organised the NGO Tribal Weave.

A brochure for the exhibition reads ‘Meet Naga Artisans at Work- In celebration of the timeless traditions that value the humanity of the handmade’.

The artisans keep themselves occupied with wood, metal, cane, cotton and even salt. A signboard explains how the Zeliangs of Peletkie village extract mineral salt, called Lekie Cai,  from the ‘sanctified’ mineral salt spring through a process involving ‘customary adherence to rituals and offerings’.

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Extracting the ‘Lekie Cai’ is hard work.

 

I catch hold of Tribal Weave founder Sentila Yanger while she does the rounds of the exhibition explaining to people the details of what’s being done. She goes into considerable details about how in the old days the only way to extract dye was to pluck leaves and branches from certain plants before treating them through an arduous process involving boiling, drying and re-boiling to get the right hue.

She says that she is trying to revive that which has been lost over the years with the advent of time. For instance, cotton was once extensively grown to weave fabric before mill spun cloth and yarn were introduced. Making the entire process easier and less time-consuming, the women in villages and towns alike took to the new commercially available threads like fish to water.

Yanger, who founded the NGO in 1989, says that a lot of the old practices have been discarded with the advent of time. And not all of them are confined to heirloom-making or salt processing alone.

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Hoping to salvage knowledge of the old ways, Sentila Yanger takes notes.

 

I bring up the topic of the Angh blessing the event just after the Christian pastor did on the opening day of the Hornbill Festival and tell her I found the juxtaposition interesting, especially since I am also a tribal from Arunachal Pradesh where our society is going through a similar process of transition.

“As an onlooker, I feel sad that we have lost these things”, she says, her voice conveying a lot more than what is said.

Nearby, music emanates from the ‘Artists’ Corner’. Amidst paintings and sculptures created by Naga artists, smack at the centre of the makeshift exhibition stall sits a collection of customised motorbikes. A few steps away, Phejin Konyak engages with visitors who are curious about her yet-to-be-released book ‘The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’.

“Who defines what being civilised means?” she rhetorically asks Steve, an American tourist visiting the festival for the first time. Steve begins to steer the conversation towards the Zomia theory when I interject and ask him if he is talking about James C. Scott’s ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ which appears to excite him. “How did you like the book?” he asks. I confess I haven’t read it but that I am familiar with the theory of how and why people would choose to live in difficult mountainous terrain away from the comfort that the lowlands have to offer.

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Phejin’s book is an attempt to document what she says has already been lost.

 

Phejin’s book, which is set to release in March, is an attempt to explore and explain why men and women of her tribe- the Konyaks of Mon district- got their bodies and faces tattooed and how that practice has also been discarded now.

She explains that the tattoos symbolised rites of passage and accomplishments (including the practice of collecting severed heads of enemies).

The promotional pamphlet for her book says that the “traditional hand-tapped craft of tattooing is vanishing along with the culture of old ways” and that the book is an attempt to capture this practice “before all is lost forever”. However, she isn’t exactly looking to revive the old practices.

“My father always says that we should change with the changing times.”

In the stall next to her, there is someone trying to revive the old tattooing practice- or at least the old tattooing patterns.

Moranngam Khaling, an ethnic Uipo Naga from the neighbouring state of Manipur has been leaving his indelible mark on people as a tattoo artist for the past 11 years. Having worked in New Delhi and Guwahati, he moved to Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub to promote Naga-patterned tattoos amongst a generation of youngsters who seem more inclined to have dragons or Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies.

Mo Naga, the name he goes by, says that western tattoo designs are completely foreign to Naga culture and that he is attempting to bring back the tattoo patterns of yore. Things are not easy though and he explains that his move to Dimapur has not been very successful because youngsters are not enthused to get Naga pattern tattoos.

“In two days, seven people have got tattoos made and none of them were Nagas”, he says with visible discontentment.

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Mo Naga leaves his mark.

 

But he is more than happy to give Naga-pattern tattoos to non-Nagas and doesn’t see it as diminishing the symbolic value of why men and women got tattooed in the old days.

“We have no problems selling people from outside our Naga shawls, do we?” he says.

Just then, the roar of the revving from one of the customised bikes fills the exhibit stall when Phejin walks towards us with an expression of curiosity and annoyance and signals with her thumb to ask what’s going on. Mo’s words almost disappear over the sound of the loud engine and I lean in to hear what he has to say.

“I don’t know what this has to do with Naga culture?”

 

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