The term Naga art is a lot like Indian cuisine – neither prepares the mind for the breadth and diversity they encompass. Naga art refers to the collective expression of the 17 distinct tribes and subtribes that span the mountainous region from Northeast India to Burma. The artistry that emerges, the various skills, the myths and rituals they accompany, are dazzling. Hidden in the hills of Nagaland is a world of strong tradition that drives a supremely illustrative art that covers exquisite craftsmanship from textiles to ornaments to costumes, jewelry, body art, basketry and metalwork. For those who are drawn to modern art, Naga expressions, with their geometry, symmetry, muscularity and bold stylings, are thrilling. And to add to the adventure, these stripes and zigzags, squares and bold colours all tell stories and draw us into ancient myths as fascinating as any Greek legend, a world of serpent spirits, spiders webs and protective eyes.
Just like the ethnic groups of India that share many commonalities but differ in ways significant enough for them to be distinctive as a people, cultural similarities cut across the Naga tribes but there are numerous different languages as are customs. A robust oral tradition passes down the stories of ancient times to modern generations.
The Nagas have been hidden in the hills for centuries so their ways were shrouded in mystery. They became exotic which was another way of saying they weren’t as well understood or as accessible as the people of the plains. The colonising British called them Naga or naked. The British took it upon themselves to “civilise” a people that resisted their domination so proudly and fiercely and missionaries brought the Christian faith to smother a lively, nature worshipping, animistic culture that upliftingly asserts that all things, even inanimate objects like rocks and phenomenon like thunder, have a soul.
Animism charges Naga design. Many of the motifs and patterns are informed by the central theme of fertility and reflect the natural rhythms of life. Every artefact is alive with meaning. The vibrant motifs tell the story of a person or a people, their identity, their rank and their deeds. Concepts of light and truth, darkness and confusion are equally represented through bold colours like black or red. Tattoos are almost like a coat of arms that inform others of a family’s status and its achievements controlling, therefore, who can marry who.
A mountainous home means food habits and agrarian practices are more or less similar while difference is notable with motifs and materials. Some tribes are famed for specific art forms like basketry while others may excel in jewelry or weapons. Sometimes art forms are gender-based with men weaving baskets and women textiles.
An understanding of some part of Naga culture is incomplete without some appreciation of the existence of the morung. The morung or youth dormitory is the heart of many Naga tribes. This is a kind of training ground for the youth into the ways and history of the tribe. It is also a sacred site and a cultural centre. Morungs are decorated with intricately carved pillars and other tribal motifs.
Events like the Hornbill Festival are more then a way to protect the culture of a people, they are vital to global culture. It allows us a glimpse into the workings of another way of life, another perspective adding to the richness of the whole.
Now when you drape a vibrant Naga shawl around your shoulders or use a Naga basket as a home décor accent, you will also enjoy the vitality of a people behind their creation, their stories and their humanity that add to yours.
By Malini Aikat