Major brands and the mainland appropriate, misrepresent traditional attires: Northeast Indians

04 December 2020
A weaver looks at a Leirum Phee in Manipur in November 2020. Several people from northeastern states said people from the rest of India often misrepresent their traditional attires and even culturally appropriate them without facing any consequences. Such incidents are not just offensive, but can also threaten the livelihoods of traditional weavers.
Goutam Raj Thwdam
A weaver looks at a Leirum Phee in Manipur in November 2020. Several people from northeastern states said people from the rest of India often misrepresent their traditional attires and even culturally appropriate them without facing any consequences. Such incidents are not just offensive, but can also threaten the livelihoods of traditional weavers.
Goutam Raj Thwdam

In the last week of September, Parle-G, the Parle Products’ flagship biscuit brand, ran a campaign on its Instagram page celebrating World Tourism Day, held annually on 27 September. The campaign comprised a series of posts, each of which aimed to depict one Indian state and featured an illustration of the young girl who has been the brand’s face for decades. The Parle-G girl was dressed in the traditional attire of a state along with the supposed background from that state in each post. But in the illustration labelled “Assam,” the brand clubbed identities of multiple northeast Indian states—the Parle-G girl wore a Kajenglei and a Kawrchei, a Manipuri headdress and a Mizo top, respectively, with a background that appeared to resemble the topography of Meghalaya. 

The post was uploaded on 27 September. As several people from these states started criticising Parle-G in the comments section, it was deleted within 24 hours. In its place, on 28 September, Parle-G uploaded three illustrations depicting Assam, Manipur and Mizoram accurately. But it did not issue an apology.  

“People outside of northeast have this tendency to ‘assume’ things about us, based on their limited understanding, and wrongly club all communities under one banner: ‘northeast,’” Chichanbeni Kithan, a research fellow at Delhi Assembly Research Centre, told me. Kithan is from a Naga community. Several people from northeastern states spoke to me about how people from the rest of India often misrepresent their traditional attires and even culturally appropriate them without facing any consequences. They told me about a few such cases from this year, and explained why these incidents are not just offensive, but can also threaten the livelihoods of traditional weavers.

One instance pertained to Levi Strauss & Co, an American clothing company, and created a furore among Mizos. On 11 September, a Facebook user posted a picture of a Levi’s shirt on Mizo Special Report, a Facebook group with over three lakh members. The user pointed out that the shirt had a pattern very similar to the pattern used on Thangchhuah Diar, a traditional Mizo cloth which is tied around the head. “It is almost as if our identity has been stolen from us,” Felnunmawii, a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology’s IDC School of Design in Mumbai, said. “I believe the shirt has been ‘inspired,’ if not copied from the Mizo Thangchhuah pattern, which is a case of cultural appropriation.” 

Felnunmawii and Tsa Khupchong, an author with a masters’ degree in Mizo, told me about the significance of the pattern to the indigenous Mizo people. “Thangchhuah Diar was a symbol of dignity. Men earned the honour of wearing it by completing a certain kill list [of animals],” Felnunmawii said. She added that it was akin to getting a title. “The title gave him a good place within the social hierarchy. This title also came with duties to maintain social order and codes of conduct like bravery and ‘tlawmngaihna’”—selfless service for others or society. The timeline of this tradition is unclear, but according to Khupchong, it slowly died out during the colonial period. “After we became Christians, our beliefs changed and the traditions such as Thangchhuah and Khuangchawi slowly faded away,” he said.  In recent years, it has been tailored into shirts within the state itself, and has become a must-have for Mizo men. 

The fact that the design on the Levi’s shirt looks so similar to Thangchhuah has already done harm, Felnunmawii said. It can be found on the Levi’s website and e-commerce marketplaces, such as Myntra and Flipkart. “A friend bought the shirt from Myntra because he did feel it looked like our traditional attire and he needed it for some office function,” she told me. “We expect Levis to admit the mistake, if it even was unintentional, and acknowledge the inspiration behind the design.”

According to Felnunmawii, this can potentially impact the livelihood of weavers in the state. According to the All India Handloom Census 2019–2020, there are 27,402 handloom-worker households in Mizoram. Of these, 13,086 households earn less than Rs 5,000 per month. “Traditional attires in the northeastern states and many other states across the country are handloom. When brands commercialise these designs and do not acknowledge the region, they not only strip us of our identity but also affect our economy,” she said. R Hmingthanzuala, the director of Mizoram’s art and culture department, reiterated this point and said it can have “an adverse impact on the handloom and handicraft sector and the livelihood of the people involved in this sector.” 

Hmingthanzuala told me that the directorate plans to register indigenous Mizo products, including the Thangchhuah pattern, for a Geographical Identification tag. Under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, a GI is a form of recognition granted to a particular product created in a particular region, whose specific properties are considered attributable to the conditions of its place of origin or whose reputation is associated with it. In August 2019, five patterns from Mizoram got the GI tag, but Hmingthanzuala said that the process of registration takes time. “I appeal to Levi’s company to respect and understand that the Thangchhuah kawr”—cloth—“is a design that is native to the Mizo’s and even though we have not processed it for a GI tag, if they mass produce this pattern, it will not be right. This is our prized cultural possession.”

Kimi Colney is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: Northeast India Manipur Mizoram Assam Nagaland
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