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Craft, Culture and Agriculture: Living heritage of Northeast India

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

Announcing 3 talks by Anna-Louise Meynell and Champak Deka in the UK in July 2023

Northeast India is a region where many ancient textile traditions are still maintained, practiced as cottage industries in sync with the yearly climatic and agricultural cycle. Craft, culture and agriculture are bound inextricably together in ways of life that have not changed for generations. Travelling in Northeast India, exploring artisan villages, one has a sense of witnessing true living heritage. When we talk about preserving heritage, it is this co-existence of craft, culture and agriculture that can be credited for the continuation of traditional practices. Largely, across the northeast region, agriculture is the primary livelihood, where the whole community works together in concentrated periods of planting or harvesting. An agricultural mindset supports the cultivation and identification of raw materials for weaving. The textiles that are created become part of the very localised culture, the cultural practices and celebrations where these textiles are used often revolve around the phases of agriculture and we come full circle back to agriculture. Support to maintain this lifestyle can be a strong mechanism for preserving cultural heritage.

Textiles of Northeast India are defined by the locally cultivated raw materials and the various looms used to weave them on. Muga silk cultivation of Upper Assam is an art that has been refined over the centuries. It is the particular climatic conditions of Assam, the soil quality conducive to growth of the som tree that the worms feed on, and the traditional knowledge of the farmer that supports muga silk cultivation, such that it gained GI recognition for Assam in 2007. Eri silk is equally evocative of Northeast India, the soft handspun silk that is cultivated in many village homes across the region. It is a valuable income generating activity for rural families and until recently was only ever produced domestically. Locally sourced natural dyes complete the picture of a product deeply connected to the local culture and biodiversity.

Less common but equally fascinating is the nettle fibre of some artisan communities in Nagaland. The giant Himalyan nettle is harvested, stripped, twisted, pounded, boiled, washed and wound to make a yarn embedded with local culture and the personal markers of the artisans. A visit to the villages where this rough smokey textile is woven seems to make sense in the narrative of the fibre: the bold tribal homes with huge carved wooden doors, the skulls and horns of animals decorating the walls, the enormous rice baskets for storing grain all year round, and the sun worn faces of people working outdoors, a life of hard agricultural labour. Many, many, more examples of textile heritage are still present across the northeast, of techniques and raw materials that tell the story of people, place and culture.

Anna-Louise Meynell is a textile designer and researcher from Scotland who is based in Assam, Northeast India. She completed a PhD on the eri silk traditions of Meghalaya in 2021 and has remained in the northeast region since the period of her fieldwork. She has travelled with her husband Champak Deka extensively, making both professional and personal connections with artisan communities across the northeast. Together, they run textile tours for small groups to come and experience these authentic artisan communities.

They will be in the UK in July 2023 and will be presenting textiles of Northeast India and the tours that they offer at:

1st July: Holt Community Centre, Norfolk

7th July: The Nomads Tent, Edinburgh

19th July: Nairn Community and Arts Centre, Nairn

Please contact for details on the tours and talks.



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