Spear in hand, head held high with pride. Crowned with the Do∙me, binded with rooster feathers and wrapped in red organic cotton with a traditional weave. Eyes filled with courage and pride, her posture commands authority. There stood the warrior, a Garo woman. Looking over the horizon with a captivating stare and mystical beauty. The white trousers and black ankle-length boots that compliment the ‘tribal gear’ seamlessly is truly, the work of a talented stylist. A stylist who is connected and deeply rooted to the matrilineal community of Garo. Michri Thejaseno C B Sangma is a fashion consultant with a degree in Arts and Aesthetics from India’s premier liberal arts institution- Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). With an eye for detail, she blends the old and the new as organically as possible, effortlessly. Staying true to tradition while embracing the cosmopolitan society she grew up in.
Being half Garo, a quarter Naga, Mizo and Gharwali, made me realise, I didn’t have to be in a specific box. I started to learn and ask questions more about who we are as a people, as a race. Styling has always come easy to me. It’s like breathing. I don’t think about it much. I basically work towards a concept, get inspiration from what’s around me, from other artists.
Her project, A∙chiks: yesterday, today and tomorrow is a counter-narrative akin to the Spivak-ian subaltern body politics. Against the old Said-ian orientalist misrepresentation of the ‘mysterious east’ by the occident. Using organic material from the land she grew up in, the project is inspired by elements of fantasy and impromptu improvisation with elements that remind Michri of home.
This was a very personal project. All I set out to do was to remind myself about the richness that exists within me because of my people, my heritage. So, as much as I want to say I did it to educate, sure, but it was more to validate who I am.
I’m so overwhelmed by the response I’ve received over the past few weeks. I hadn’t anticipated that so many of the people felt the way I did.
Garo people are also called ‘A∙chik Mande‘ which means ‘hill people’. They reside in the foothills of Purvanchal Himalaya (Meghalaya) in Northeast India. Women play a key role in this matrilineal society mainly as landowners. Michri looks up to women in her community, especially her mother and applauds her fortitude for taking care of her and her siblings after she lost her soul mate, her partner for 27 years. A∙chiks: yesterday, today and tomorrow feature women of all age groups who depict the cross between the old and the new.
The old and the new is not just in the clothes.
To the best of my ability, I’ve tried to break down the notions of who gets to be in front of the camera. You’ll notice I’ve incorporated women of different ages- normal older women.
It’s important to remember that our lives started with our parents and it’s a homage to them as well.
While the men took care of the external, it’s always been the women who take care of the internal. The weapons I use are mere representations of the ferocity and strength that our women possess. The jewellery is an enhancement of their beauty.
We’re warriors, both men and women. We’re not people who slink back and watch the patriarchy taking care of us. We take charge, always have. It was only apt to use our attire to embody that.
Garo women are often compared to the likes of Amazonians for their fearlessness and display of strength. For centuries, they have endured the harsh living conditions of the forests only to thrive and grow. Not only they have gracefully embraced other Indian and western cultures but have integrated them well into their daily life. Here we can see a Garo woman sporting the traditional Seng*ki– a waist belt and eyes covered with a white paste of rice and water to ward off evil. The Seng*ki – a white multi-tiered ivory waistband is traditionally worn as a belt to hold the cotton weave worn by Garo women. Here the Seng*ki is adorned as a jewellery piece. However, it functions as a self-defense weapon as well. Garo women working in the jungles can make their enemies run for their life by flinging it in their direction. Every portrait in the A∙chik collection tells a story. Here is a dramatic representation of A∙chik pante (a young Garo man) wearing a Gando– loin strap with traditional motifs of concentric diamonds known as muikron– ‘the eye’ in Garo.
The culture of people, live within the people.
I’m mostly trying to get people of the land excited about the rich heritage that we have and to start appreciating it a bit more, not just among ourselves, but with people from the mainland as well. I don’t want our tribe to be just ‘interesting conversation’, I want it to become common knowledge like how we talk about the Mughals. I’m merely starting a conversation to normalise the life we have back home and merge it with the one we have outside of the hills.
In this portrait, the sisters sport the Konal-a silver tight choker around the neck. They also adorn the Jaksil (metal bangles) worn on the left arm. Michri in this portrait proudly shows the mark on her cheek. In her words, “it has never been a burden”.
Here is a refreshing take with a lively young Garo boy effortlessly sporting in a denim jacket, a traditional loincloth and belt with comfortable cargo pants. A seamless blend of older traditions and new-age fashion symbolising how newer generations are embracing the best of both worlds. The spear- the pride of the warrior clan, can’t be missed.
I’ve blended casual modern-day wear with the traditional because we no longer live singular lives.
With an abundance of information and entertainment, it’s impossible that our work and lives aren’t influenced. It’s a global society and while we’re trying to preserve, it’s important to move along with the times so as to avoid being obsolete.
That’s what the tribes are becoming.
With her bold collection of Garo tribal fashion, Michri wants to make an impactful statement. While present-day Garo men and women have embraced western clothes as a part and parcel of their daily life, taking a ‘feather’ from Garo’s traditional ensembles can create a lasting fashion statement.
I want our clothes to be part of everyday wear and not just something you adorn on special occasions where you deck up in all your tribal glory and become a walking talking museum piece.
I don’t want our past to end up as artefacts that need to be studied in the future. I want them to be part of the new world. The world of fashion is changing, it’s becoming slightly more inclusive. Like the Scottish men are proud to wear their kilts, I want our men to be proud when they wear the gando.
A Konal on the neck, with a linen shirt, white trousers coupled with a handwoven wrap-around skirt embellished with tribal motifs. If this ensemble does not only makes a compelling case for runway fashion, what does?
Not to mention how every element compliments the other and co-exists in harmony. Silently celebrating the confluence of two distant cultures that are truly passionate about fashion. Throughout her design portfolio, Michri stays true to earthy colour tones with dashes of red and blue. This is symbolic of an organic connection to the tribe’s old-world. A pagan world.
The pagan religion, Songsarek, of Garos, required us to perform sacrifices to appease the Gods and worship the elements – fire, water, air, earth. The whole idea of the red and brown is a reminder of the sacrifices made- the blood that runs down to the earth, merging with it ever so seamlessly.
The A∙chiks: yesterday, today and tomorrow is not only about embracing your identity but also rediscovering your culture with a new lens. An everyday exercise that can be carried out effortlessly by incorporating elements of dying traditions and adapting them to newer styles. This project is a cue for hundreds of glorious traditions and cultures dying a slow death by getting shoved out of sight. Fashion can be the saving grace, upholding your identity and culture by bridging the old and the new. One ensemble at a time. Michri clarifies that her views alone are not representative of her culture, coming from a privileged background.
This project isn’t an attempt to speak FOR the Other.
It is a reflection mostly of the self. An attempt of self-preservation at best.
Image credits: Michri Thejaseno