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

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
04 December, 2020

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.”

Similarly, the Manipur government is also planning to apply for a GI for “Leirum Phee,” a traditional cloth of the state, in light of an instance that occurred in April this year. On 14 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the extension of  the then ongoing countrywide lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus. Modi had donned a scarf that was a smaller size of Leirum Phee and even used it to cover his mouth during his address, which had more than two hundred million viewers.  
Leirum Phee holds great cultural and historical significance in Manipur. Mostly handmade by locals of the state, it is used to honour dignitaries and given as a gift by the parent of a woman on her marriage. Some people from Manipur considered it a matter of pride that the prime minister had promoted the cloth on a national telecast. In fact, the cloth did receive attention after the address, but as the “Modi gamchha”—a thin, coarse cotton towel—which was being mass-produced in Barabanki, a town in Uttar Pradesh. 

“For indigenous communities in Manipur or in north east at large, traditional clothes are not just a mere ‘piece of cloth’—it is about identity, tradition and history,” Ninglun Hanghal, a journalist from Imphal, said. According to her, many households in Manipur still have traditional looms or flying-shuttle looms. “Most commercial ventures are not done in mass scale as there are no power looms,” Hanghal said. She emphasised that weavers in the state depended on making traditional clothes to sustain themselves. There are 2,21,855 handloom-worker households in Manipur, as per the handloom census. Of these, 96,618 households earn less than Rs 5,000 per month. 

K Lamlee Kamei, the director of Manipur’s handloom and textiles directorate, told me, “A cloth culturally used in Manipur, anybody who produces it outside the state not only damages the commercial value but also the cultural affiliation to Manipur.” The directorate wrote to the union ministry of textiles requesting its intervention in the matter. “We lodged a complaint to the ministry to stop production everywhere in the country except in Manipur,” Kamei told me in mid-October. “The ministry has informed UP officials to go and inspect where the production is taking place and they met with the weavers. I think a report must have been submitted from Barabanki. But we have not received the report in Manipur.” 

Kamei added that the Leirum Phee made in Manipur was still superior as it was handmade. He said historical data about the cloth is being compiled to apply for a GI tag. “As the manuscripts are very old, they are being translated to English.” When asked if the directorate would try to get Flipkart and Amazon to stop sales of the Modi Gamcha, he said that they would deal with such cases once the GI has been registered. 

Jahnabee Borah, a features writer for Mint Lounge, said food and clothes were close to the cultural roots of the people in northeastern states. Borah had visited Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya in 2019 to research on northeastern textiles. “Few broad examples: Bodos in Assam have this signature fern-like pattern; Muga Mekhela-sadors”—a traditional Assamese dress—“with woven red patterns are an emotion for Assamese women; in Nagaland, motifs in bright orange are unique to the mekhelas”—a traditional wraparound skirt—“and shawls of Nagaland’s Chakhesang community,” she said. Borah added that more stories need to be written about the culture and traditions of northeast India. 

The importance of respecting the cultural roots of different communities in the region came up in the public discourse in July as well, when a Delhi-based company called Kaku Fancy Dress sold what they called a tribal Naga costume on Flipkart and Amazon. The costume consisted of a leopard-print dress with a red belt and red headwear. “For Nagas, traditional attires are sacred and it goes the same for different tribal or ethnic people,” Neuto Justin Kinny, the information and publication secretary of the Gujarat chapter of the Naga Students Union, said. “For them to misinterpret our traditional attire just for business or profit at the expense of our sacred gift is not the right thing to do.” 

According to a Nagaland-based newspaper, the Morung Express, a complaint was lodged against Amazon and Flipkart in July this year regarding the Kaku Fancy Dress case. Chunthailiu Gonmei, one of the complainants, told me that the complainants had served direct notices to Amazon and Flipkart, and showed me emails by both the companies acknowledging the notices. I reached out to them on email and received no response from Flipkart. Linett Loyall, a representative of a PR company representing Amazon, responded to the email I had sent. Loyall told me on a phone call that she could not comment as she is not directly from Amazon and also said they are looking into the matter. The costume can still be found on these platforms as “Kaku Fancy Dresses Tribal Dance Costume for Kids.” Gonmei said such misrepresentation has far reaching consequences. “It reinforces stereotypes of tribal or Naga people as ‘jungle’ who are uncultured, wild, and exotic.” She added that “no effort was made” to look at real traditional Naga attires.

Kithan, the research fellow, explained why this was demeaning to the people who make traditional dresses in her home state. “I have seen my own mom and aunties painstakingly work for several weeks to produce one single wrap-around or shawl with intricate designs which are gender, age and tribe specific. The colours and designs signify different occasions and stages of a person’s life in the tribal context,” she said. Kithan added, “Platforms such as Amazon, Flipkart should take the responsibility of cross-checking facts provided by their sellers. They cannot simply wash their hands off the misinformation their sellers are providing.” 

Kithan said limited knowledge of northeast India was the root of the problem. “The other day, I and my colleagues were discussing food habits and one of my colleagues simply stated, ‘People eat chowmein in North East.’ I had to rudely interrupt him and assert, ‘No, our staple diet is rice,’” she said. “They don’t understand that all the eight states are inhabited by hundreds of communities and groups with their distinctive dialects, cultural attires, food habits and religious practices.”

Note: The paragraph beginning with According to a Nagaland-based newspaper, has been updated to include more details regarding Amazons response to the issue.