Leeba (appliqué work of Manipur): In Conversation with L. Bino Devi

Leeba (appliqué work of Manipur): In Conversation with L. Bino Devi

in Interview
Published on: 26 May 2017
Richana Khumanthem in conversation with L. Bino Devi, Imphal, August 2016

Richana: Please say your name.

Bino: My name is Lourembam Bino Devi. I’m from Singjamei Mathak Thokchom Leikai.


Richana: What is your age?

Bino: 73.


Richana: What is this work called in the Meitei language?

Bino: It is called leeba


Richana: Do you draw on the fabric before cutting?

Bino: I don’t draw before cutting. I just take the fabric and use my skill to cut it. I don’t require many instruments either. A pair of scissors, needle and thread are all I need. Of course, I need them in various sizes. It is okay to cut big motifs with a big pair of scissors. But in order to cut finer details, I need small scissors.


Richana: So you do the cutting as well as the embroidery?

Bino: Yes, I do both.


Richana: Can you please cut something out for us? And could you tell us the motif you will be cutting?

Bino: I think I will cut a phantup motif. It will be faster.


Richana: What is Phantup?

Bino: The Phantup represents Pakhangba (the Meitei half-serpent, half-dragon god). The royalty use it in their ningkham (waistband, ning meaning backside, kham/khum meaning ‘to cover’). I have not seen many people using this motif. It is said that Churachand Maharaj used to wear this motif.


Richana: What is this fabric that you are using?

Bino: It is suede.


Richana: What was used in the olden days?

Bino: Franzi. It is a cloth used for making blazers. Suede is easier to cut. Franzi is too thick and tough to trim. It is a thick woollen fabric. Tera phi (cotton) was also used.


Richana: How long have you been doing this?

Bino: Since I was 17 years old. It started when I got married.


Richana: Whom did you learn from?

Bino: My mother-in-law taught me. I heard she is a National Awardee. One day I was sitting and watching her do this. Seeing me, my father-in-law asked me if I knew how to embroider. I told him I knew the basics. Then he asked me to follow my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law cut a monmai (decorative circular appliqué work piece used to cover both the ends of a round pillow) for me. Gradually I learnt to do it. Monmai was very popular at one time. There was a huge demand for it.


Richana: Is there still a huge demand for it?

Bino: There is and there is not. But yes, the demand was higher earlier. Those searching for the authentic monmai with complete and original motifs come to me. Otherwise there are many incomplete versions available in the market. People do still come to me for the original work. I try to supply as much as I can, but age is catching up. I try to teach others as well, but I see a lack of passion. I’m not claiming that I’m the only one who knows how to do this. I am sure there are others as well. But if you do not work and use your talent, it is equal to you not being talented. I’m worried this art will die out, therefore I do what I can. I was fortunate enough to cross paths with the Art and Culture Director (K. Sobita, now retired). She has done so much for me. I am indebted to her for where I’m today.


Richana: Both you and K.Sobita have been on a mission to revive the art of Leeba for a long time now. What steps have been taken so far?  

Bino: I met the retired Director when she was still a curator at the museum (Manipur State Museum). She came looking for me at home many times and I always missed her. Finally she told my mother to ask me to come to the museum once. At that time I did not even know what a museum was. I went to meet her at the museum and was asked to teach students at a workshop. We have been working together since then. This was back in 1995. Even though it was a one-month program, I felt so completely at home at the museum. Whatever I needed, they provided.


Richana: Other than monmai, where else is appliqué work used?

Bino: It is used on the borders of phi (a kind of dupatta) too. Maharani’s phijil (border lace) was also done in appliqué. Earlier appliqué was not done with thick fabric like this. It is only now that these fabrics are used since they make the process easier and faster. There are very few people who ask for the old authentic appliqué style.


Richana: What motif is this?

Bino: This is called yensil mayek. This is used as phi (shawl/scarf) border.


Richana: The topmost one?

Bino: This is known as harao phijin.


Richana: Used by women?

Bino: Yes, used on the border of their shawls.


Richana: And this?

Bino: It is angom phijin. I call it thamballei cheplei (thamballei is the lotus, chep/cheppa means slanted, lei means flower) because of the placement of the motif.


Richana: And this is a monmai?

Bino: Yes, this is a monmai. This is the common one. For royalty, the embroidery will be done in yellow thread, like the one you can see above the monmai.


Richana: And kongon (kongon meaning bubble, a motif composed of handmade brass sequins, now rapidly being replaced by plastic) will also be added?

Bino: Yes kongon will be added, as well as piping and kinar.


Richana: And this mayek (motif)?

Bino: Yensil aphangba.


Richana: Where is it used?

Bino: This whole piece is used in the Ningkham samjin (Ningkham is a decorative waistband and samjin is a headgear worn by men; both are worn together). The three lines are supposed to be worked on separately and sown together later. This is just a prototype.


Richana: What is this?

Bino: This is Kumin mapan, border of potloi.


Richana: And this?

Bino: This is a little modernized. It is called thamballei cheplei​.


Richana: And this green one?

Bino: It is lohong phijin. There are different types.


Richana: And this too is thamballei cheplei?

Bino: Yes.


Richana: And this blue one?

Bino: Lairen makhoi​.


Richana: What is it used for?

K.N.Sobita (off screen): This was mainly used as a reward kwangchet (cloth tied around the waist, worn on top of the dhoti) for pala artists (choir). This is a modified and enlarged version.


Richana: Can we see what you are cutting?

Bino: I will just trim it a bit more. The more you trim and shape it, the more beautiful it looks.


Richana: Appliqué work has been used for a long time in Manipur, yes? You had also told me earlier that it was used in making shoes for the royalty.

Bino: It’s been practised for a long time, way before my time. My mother-in-law also learnt it from her mother.


Richana: Is there no one in your family who is doing this now?

Bino: They know how to do this in bits and pieces; they have not mastered the art yet.  There are others too who are getting awards for appliqué. We are also planning to open a school for this craft. We will not be giving them stipend for the education, because we have tried doing that before and found that their enthusiasm to learn is mainly driven by their want of stipend. They leave taking the money and not learning anything.


Richana: So you will be teaching whoever genuinely wants to learn this art?

Bino: Yes, they will be paying a fee too. I have conducted a lot of training programmes, at home as well as at the museum. I am even a part of the guru shishya parampara training. With the amount of effort we are putting in to teach them, if they really want to learn, they would have learned a lot.


Richana: You have won many awards. Can you tell me about them?

Bino: I received the State Award in 1996. I was the First Prize winner in Handicraft Week celebration in 2000. I also received the Manipur Sahitya Parisad’s Silpa Bhushan. I was also awarded the BJP’s Women’s Achievement Award during the Nupi Lal observation.


Richana: And where is this motif used again?

Bino: It is used in ningkham. You can use it on phi border too. But it is not right to use this on phanek (women’s wrap-around) border. This motif Phantup is Pakhangba’s motif. When I was just learning how to do this, my mother-in-law told me that if someone wears what you have made and something bad befalls the person wouldn't I be responsible for it? That is when I realized that our ancient motifs are sacred and certain protocols have to be followed while using them.