Written and pictures by Nidhi Athokpam
As the wedding season draws closer, the weavers of Manipur are as excited as the brides. In a typical Meitei wedding, you would get to witness the excitement of the celebrations through a colorful palette of ethnic wear. This is tied down at the same time to the solemnity of it, with whites of the WangkheiPhee(worn by elderly women) and the Pheijom(bottomwear worn by men, resembles dhoti). With time, we see that the WangkheiPhee has interwoven the age-old culture of Manipur with modernity.
WangkheiPhee is a delicate textile fabric made of very fine cotton, usually worn like a shawl by women. It is worn by women paired with Phanek during weddings and religious festivals.
It gets its name from ‘Wangkhei’, a bustling locality in the district of Imphal East. The fabric was made originally with muslin cloth for the use of the Royal family of Manipur. When Maharaja Churachand had his state capital at Wangkhei around 1892, the weavers from around the palace started producing clothes for the use of royalty. Because of the fact that these exclusive clothes were woven by the weavers of Wangkhei, it came to be known as WangkheiPhee. It is said that during the times when Manipur was a kingdom, there were different motifs and designs used specifically for each clan or kins. This was done for easy identification of a person’s clan.
Weaving a WangkheiPhee is a simple yet intricate process. The designs of it are developed without the use of implements like dobby or jacquard but painted on the warp. This design then acts as a contour on which extra weft yarn is interlaced with the warp to bring it to life on the cloth.
The weavers, mostly women, pour all their love and creativity into their creations on the eyong(loom).
The classic designs are of Kheiroithek(zig zag pattern), Thangjingtangkhai(triangle pattern), Kabokchaiba(spotted pattern)and in the border with Moirangphijin (long head triangle pattern). These classic pieces still maintain loyalty among the masses despite the emergence of many designers in the past few years.
WangkheiPhee, which used to be woven as a whole by two weavers at once has slowly evolved into a process of weaving where the fabric is made into two pieces and then stitched in the middle to make a complete one. The latter technique is more feasible as it allows flexibility of time and labour to the weavers.
In conversation with Chanu, she reminisces her adolescent years when she along with her elder sister would hop on to their eyong, which was placed adjacently and made Wangkheiphee while sharing incidents from their day. Their mother, a weaver herself, taught them the craft. Local women who were intermediaries selling these WangkheiPhee would pre-order in bulk- sometimes 10-12 Phee at a time. Chanu says, “Nowadays WangkheiPhee costs no less than 5000 Rs. if it’s well made with motifs and designs. But back then it would only sell for Rs. 500 at the maximum.” She recalls how the income they got from these would supplement the meagre income of their father who worked as a clerk at a college and help the family get by.
Chanu, a shop owner now, had left her profession as a weaver when she got married at 25 years old. At 50 years, due to the current scenario with Covid 19 she had to close her shop and take up weaving again. When asked the reason for doing so, she said that her reason for weaving was always survival. She explains that during her teenage years she had to weave to keep food on the table and now it is to let the culture survive through her skills and talent.
Fortunately for Chanu and other weavers, WangkheiPhee is protected under the GI registration. Indigenous products are mostly valued as family heirlooms and passed down through generations. The same goes for WangkheiPhee. This helps steer away from fast fashion as well.
With growing environmental consciousness, you don’t want to be caught hoarding pieces that’d only add to the landfills! Due to the various designs available, both old and new, coupled with the color palette, it is highly customizable according to one’s tastes, allowing you and only you to shine!
However, with every indigenous product comes the threat of losing its authenticity and becoming victims to fashion and capitalism.
Recently after Mr. Narendra Modi was spotted with LeirumPhee in one of his talks, many online distributors popped up halfway across the country in Uttar Pradesh selling “Modi Gamcha”. Although this issue was escalated it didn’t succeed in preventing the sellers entirely. Such is the vulnerability of indigenous products and the threat to local weavers and artisans.
Internationally, there were similar cases where luxury clothing brand Max Mara plagiarized local embroidery designs of the Laos people and Carolina Herrera was accused of using indigenous Mexican designs for her Resort line 2020.
Despite these, there have been efforts at both local and national level where cooperative societies of weavers have been set up and fashion shows have been organized with the sole reason to uplift the weavers and their crafts.
Hopefully, Chanu’s wish for survival of the local weavers through livelihood provided by their craft and survival of the craft gets fulfilled with no compromises.
Model and photo credit : Arti Priya