She received the National Award for embroidery in 2004. Today, she is an entrepreneur promoting the art of handmade embroidery and preserving traditional motifs in phanek mayek naibi (a patterned sarong worn by Meitei women).
Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted at Devi’s residence in Imphal, Manipur, on December 7, 2019; the conversation happened in Meiteilon and was translated into English.
Sainico Ningthoujam [SN]: How did you develop an interest in weaving?
Mayanglambam Radhamani Devi [MRD]: I started when I was very young and learnt from my mother. She was very good at weaving and taught me everything I know. I was weaving as well as doing embroidery. Initially, I was working mostly with khwangphee [waistcloth].
SN: Could you talk about your work and the kind of initiatives you have undertaken?
MRD: Back in 1998, I started going for trade fairs and started Pioneer Women’s Welfare Association to help with
SN: What are the fabric and weaving practices involved in the making of a phanek mayek naibi?
MRD: Back in the early days, there were two threads used for traditional fabrics, kabrang [mulberry cocoon] and maslai [thin cotton]. They were strong but could not hold colour well. They were used for phige phijon [clothes worn during marriage ceremonies] and in mayek naibi. Our mothers and grandmothers used to say, you cannot wash a phanek mayek naibi because the colours will wash out and run over. So, we used to only wash the middle area gently and leave the border untouched, but it was a huge hassle.
But now we have ‘zero muga’ and one ply fabrics that are much cheaper, the colour does not fade and it looks pretty as well. Now you can put these phaneks in the washing machine or dryer and they can remain as good as new.
SN: What kind of dyes are used? Are they usually plant dyes or chemical dyes?
MRD: Long time back, we used to use natural dyes—red from pomegranate and ooreirom [Bixa orellana], black from the kum tree [Strobilanthus flaccidifoius], and saffron from kusum flowers [Schleichera oleosa]. These were strong colours that would never fade. But now, mostly, artificial colours are used because it is more convenient.
SN: What are the main motifs in mayek naibi? How are they related to social life?
MRD: Our designs are embedded with social and historical meanings. There were particular motifs that could only be worn by specific women on specific days. For instance, the hija mayek [pattern resembling the cross section of timber] was only to be worn by queens or widows. You cannot wear them for work; there used to be many restrictions on where and how to wear these phaneks. Earlier, there were very few patterns that would be used over and over. The tenua ki machin [parrot’s beak], khoi [bee or hook], seeds of heitup [a variety of wild apple] were the main motifs; their significance arises from history, folk tales, and the flora of our native life. These are very intricate patterns and the modern machine cannot replicate such complex designs. Even hand weaving as an art is dying now, most people prefer to switch to machine-made fabrics since they are cheaper on the demand side and quicker on the supply side.
SN: What do you think about change in motifs or new symbols being added to traditional clothing?
MRD: I think these new trends are temporary. They will not be permanent; our old patterns will come back to being the main symbols again. These days, ‘pretty’ is the only parameter; no one is giving attention to the story or tradition behind it. Most people wear them without giving a second thought to the cultural implications of these symbols. I think it reflects the chaos and downfall of our contemporary society at large when we do not respect or remember our past.
Nowadays, religious symbols like Laikhurembi [an indigenous goddess] or divine animals are used in the borders and I do not want to encourage it. Even I make these patterns, but on the innaphee [a thin, delicate wraparound for the upper body with intricate embroidery], never on the bottom of phaneks and only for museum collections as art, not for wearing as clothing.
SN: Can you tell us more about women’s role in the weaving industry, especially in the context of Manipur?
MRD: Well, nowadays men are also joining the industry, encouraged by government support. But largely women still dominate the end-to-end details of weaving and marketing. Manipur leads in terms of weavers; we have the maximum number of government-issued weaver cards. These cards enable us to get cheaper access to resources such as cotton and infrastructure for weaving textiles. But an interesting point to note is the unequal nature of work when men enter the field. For a woman, apart from weaving various phaneks and innaphees, she also cooks, cleans, washes dishes and clothes. She has to take care of her kids, the family and all these chores, in addition to weaving. But when a man weaves, he leaves his station only to eat and rest, so of course his output is higher and so he earns more. They can make three to four clothes in a day, but for a woman, with all the [unpaid] duties, she can only make one cloth a day.
SN: How has the power loom changed the industry? Approximately, when was it first introduced? Are both [handwoven and power loom] products perceived differently in the market?
MRD: The power loom entered our market [Manipur] only three to four years back. But power loom-made moirangphee [a unique design on the border of innaphee] is not as good as the original handmade one. That is why power looms are usually used in making bedsheets and shawls. It is quite useful for mass production. What we used to take one month to complete can now take one day to finish. But it really depends on luck. Many times, the motor stops working, and it requires regular electricity and capital to buy and maintain, so it can become quite cost prohibitive in the long run. It is only last year that the government officially started supporting power loom supply, so we can now pay 30 per cent of the cost. That is helpful in setting off some of the initial costs of setting up a business.
Usually, the general audience is not able to distinguish between the methods of production, but we can easily spot the difference. You can see it in the way two parts of the cloth are joined or the inner thread work of the design. In terms of scale, power loom is cheaper to manufacture since it saves time but power-loom-made products are usually sold at the same rate as the handmade ones.
SN: In a world of mass production and global consumption, how do you envision the local weaver’s position? How does one make handmade products resilient in this dynamic market?
MRD: I think this is why we need Geographical Indication (GI) tag to recognise and preserve the indigenous patterns as well as our unique weaving industry. Or else, the significance and cultural values of these patterns are stripped away from the product itself, and it is sold solely as a design without any meaning.
I will give you an example. I was at an exhibition and had sold all the phaneks. We think they are sold, someone is wearing them, admiring them. But later it comes back in the market as pitaa [border lace] and sold very cheap. So, they [the people who bought the phanek] take our pattern, put it through their machine and then come back and sell it back to us very cheap, flooding the local market. That hand embroidery alone costs around INR 3,000, and with the whole phanek together, the total cost can be around INR 6,000. But these borders from outside are sold for INR 200–250 and then stitched into any phanek. This practice discourages people from learning how to weave these intricate patterns and disregards the effort that goes into sewing these delicate motifs.
Their machine-made products are pretty on the surface, cheap, mass-made and our local weavers cannot compete with those prices. It even makes attaining GI tag harder, because it becomes harder to distinguish whether the design has been made in Manipur or outside. What if someday some corporation or person decides to trademark these designs, we will not have any valid proof to claim these designs as our heritage. Whenever I see these borders in the market, I make it a point to remind the sellers that these cheap copies dilute our efforts and hinder the goal of attaining a GI tag.