When one sees the Aos, the first thing that one notices is their vibrancy. Exuberance, energy and a festive mood are expressed in their attire. Their shawls and supeti (wraparound skirt for women), studded with motifs and intricate designs, speaks of the brilliance of their aesthetic sense (Fig. 1). Their jewellery is resplendent, made of a wide variety of materials, such as shell, glass, stones, claws, horns, bones, metals, seeds, hair and wood (Fig. 2).
Fig.1. Ao shawl
Fig. 2. Elderly woman in Ao jewellery
The essential colours of the Ao dresses are red (crimson), white (or the natural colour of the fibre), black and blue (a shade of azure) (Fig. 3). Yellow is also used, albeit rarely. This article will look into the dyeing processes of the Aos in detail. Apart from the yarn used for making their shawls and supeti, the Aos also dyed animal hair to adorn their nok (dao or machete) and nű (spear).
Fig. 3. Family in traditional Ao attire
The term ‘dye’ is derived from the Old English word ‘daeg’ or ‘daeh’ meaning ‘colour’ (Roy 1977). A dye is a colouring matter which consists mainly of organic matters, soluble in water, with which the object to be coloured is impregnated. The art of dyeing is ancient and there are archeological evidences which suggest that dyeing was an industrial enterprise in Egypt, India and Mesopotamia by the early Bronze Age. For example, there are indigo-dyed blue stripes found in the borders of Egyptian linen mummy cloths from around 2400 BCE; a cuneiform tablet from 600 BCE Mesopotamia, with a recipe for dyeing wool blue by repeatedly immersing and airing the wool was also found; during the excavation of the Indus Valley or the Harappan Civilisation, archaeologists recovered seeds from at least four different species of the genus Indigofera from the site and also recovered from Mohenjo-Daro remnants of cloth dyed blue dated to 1750 BCE.
Plant juice is the basic substance for natural dyes. Humans might have discovered this quality in plants when they were foraging for food. Most probably the stains that the juices of fruits, flowers, bark, roots and leaves left on their hands inspired them to use it for creative purposes.
Like any other tribal society, the Aos too had their own traditional method of creating dyes. The process was elaborate and many taboos were observed. Sadly, however, with the inundation of the market by synthetic dyes, which are easier and less time-consuming to process, the traditional skills are being lost. While doing research for this article, it became evident that apart from the blue dye (which they still make in some villages), the Aos today hardly make the other dyes. Interviews and field visits have revealed that presently most people aren’t even aware which plants are used for making dyes.
Fig. 4. Leaves of Osak tree used for traditional dyeing
The leaves of the osak (Strobilanthes flaccidifolius) plant, as the Aos call it, is the main (if not the only) source of the blue or near-black colour of their traditional attire (Fig. 4). This plant is known as the Chinese rain bell or the Assam Indigo. Strobilanthes flaccidifolius (or alternately Strobilanthes cusia) is part of the acanthaceae family. On the other hand, Indigoferae (indigo) is a member of the fabaceae family (bean plants). Real indigo would result in a much more intense blue dye than the Strobilanthes used by the Nagas could ever produce, but real indigo doesn’t grow locally (Wettstein 2014).
The osak is a relatively fast-growing, beautiful blooming shrub, growing up to five to six feet tall. It has soft weeping stems and many hanging bell-shaped magenta flowers. The term 'flaccidifolius' in its scientific name suggests the plant has drooping leaves and sure enough the osak leaves are ovate in shape and droopy. The plant needs more than a year to reach its full size. Seedlings are planted during the rainy season. Traditionally, the osak plant is cultivated in two different environments: first, it is grown on the outskirts of the villages and, afterwards in dense forests with lots of shade. The leaves of plants from both these environments are used at different stages of the dyeing process.
For making the blue dye with the osak leaves, the Aos follow an intricate and involved process. It is usually done by the women. It begins with mashing the leaves grown in the jungle. The mashed leaves are then kept at home on a board and left to disintegrate over a period of one to two months. Once the leaves are ready, they are stirred into cold water and left for about three days. Then, ashes from wood are added and they are left to rest for another full day. The following evening, yarn is dipped into the mixture and left to soak overnight. After that, the yarn is washed and dried. The whole process is repeated until the desired colour is obtained. Sometimes a slightly different process is followed. The leaves of the plants growing in the sunny patches around the village are boiled with the yarn. Here the leaves aren’t necessarily crushed. The yarn is taken out and dried in the sun. If the desired colour is not obtained, the same process is repeated. Many times, it is the whole woven cloth that is dyed. One of the elders whom I interviewed in Mokokchung was adamant that it was never the yarn that was dyed, that the cotton yarn was first woven and then dyed. On further research, it was found that this was also another way of dyeing. The dyed cloth would be patchy and look somewhat like the ‘batik’ design. Cloths dipped in this way are only soaked in the cold dye and are not cooked (Mills 1973). The entire process of dyeing is meticulous and demands caution. The lady I interviewed at Khensa Village (Fig. 5) mentioned that during the whole process (of dye-making) a woman has to abstain from all intimate, physical relations. The women were also barred from the dye-making process when they were menstruating.
Fig. 5. Khensa village
The red dye wasn’t as commonly used as the blue dye because of the many superstitions attached to it. For example, as red symbolised blood, there was an overmastering fear that a young woman preparing this colour would die a violent death or lose her head in a raid and it was also believed that using red dye made a woman infertile. Only old women, especially widows, could dye yarn red as they were considered of little value to society.
Fig. 6. Tangshi leaves
J.P. Mills, District Commissioner in the Naga Hills in 1914–1948 and one of the first people to actively document the Ao tribe, has given a detailed account of the process of making red dyes. The dye was obtained from a mixture of different plants. The root of a creeper known as aozű (Rubia sikkimensis) was thoroughly dried and pounded. Aozű, known as aowali in the Mongsen phratry (the other Ao phratry is the Chongli), is also known as the Walling plant because the Walling clan is believed to have been named after this plant. It was then mixed with the dried and pounded leaves of a tree known as the tangshi (Fig. 6). Tangmo or the pounded outer husk of an acid berry (Rhus semialata) and water were then added to the mixture. The yarn to be dyed was boiled in this concoction for about half an hour. It was then taken out and, after drying, the yarn was brushed clean and ready for use. The proportion of aozű, tangshi and tangmo was roughly 2:3:2 (Wettstein 2014). This one-step process was widely practised. However, there was also a two-step process which was practised in some villages. In this method, the thread was boiled with an oil seed known as azű (Perilla frutescens). It was then allowed to soak in the cold brew for two or three days. It became a pale brown when dried. The dried yarn was then boiled in an infusion made of the pounded leaves of the kotsam tree and the bark of the roots of the chonglong tree. That made it turn red, and when the desired colour was obtained, the yarn was taken out, rinsed in cold water and dried.
Fig. 7. Dao
The Aos were proud warriors and this is evident in their impressive daos and spears. The daos and spears are adorned with red and black hair (Fig. 7). Nowadays, mostly synthetic hair is used, but traditionally the facial hair of a goat and (sometimes) human hair were used. The nokleptsuyu (dao holder) comprises a piece of wood, sometimes decorated with black human hair and dyed (red) goat hair, shaped to hold the dao and keep it intact. It is accompanied by a woven belt decorated with cowrie shells and shells of Job’s tears or coix seeds.
The process of dyeing animal hair was different from that of dyeing cotton yarn. The principle difference was that only men were involved in this process. Even they were expected to maintain purity for at least six days before the dyeing process began. The taboos were observed earnestly as there was always a fear of losing one’s life, or misfortune befalling the family, or of colour fading after only a few months. The dyeing process was usually done secretly in deep forests, inaccessible to others because of the superstition that if anyone saw or knew about it, the colour would not come out well enough. The man responsible for dyeing would go into the forest with the ingredients for the dye and a few essentials like his dao, earthen pot and means of starting a fire. Only his wife would be aware of his intention. The same plants were used for making the red dye. The first step involved cutting some branches to make a fence in order to protect the whole process from the evil eyes of others. The man would then make a new fireplace to cook the ingredients. The ingredients were mixed with pure water from the jungle and some rice beer brought to a boil in the earthen pot. Goat hair and cane splints were added to this boiling mixture. After being cooked for about an hour or two, the cane splints and the goat hair usually turned a deep red. These were then taken out, washed and dried. The colour would generally last for 40 to 50 years.
Though yellow is quite prominent in the Ao attire today, the yellow dye was used very sparingly in the past. Not much is known and recorded about the old ways of preparing the yellow dye. However, it is believed to be made from the dried stem of an orchid known as the akong. The orchid is about one and half feet tall and the stem becomes an intense yellow when the flower matures. Besides dyeing, the plant was used for various other purposes of adornment. The bark of the orchid stem was peeled, dried and used as earrings and as tassels on spears, loincloth, headdress, etc.
Today, because of the availability of synthetic dyes in the market, there is hardly any need for the Aos to practise their detailed dye-making process, thus pushing this art towards oblivion. However, no one can deny that the colours available today are no match for the traditional dyes in terms of the hues. The indigenous method and dyes are also more eco-friendly compared to the synthetic colours. But not all hope is lost, as people today are becoming more aware of the pressing need to preserve our heritage. One such organisation is Tribal Weave, started by Sentila Yanger in 2003. This organisation, amongst many other activities, aims at conservation of culture and revival of arts and crafts; they have been credited with the revival of the natural dye traditions of the Nagas, especially the indigo-dyeing of the Aos.
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