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October 14, 2019

Championing The Sartorial Value Of Traditional Textiles: Theyiesinuo Keditsu

As told to Rushmika Banerjee. Illustration by Osheen Siva

The perks of cyber popularity can undoubtably be intoxicating, but they are exponentially rewarding when you leverage the web to engage in constructive social criticism and open up dialogues. Read about the fifth in a series of eight prolific posters who are leaving a legacy that goes beyond the likes…

THEYIESINUO KEDITSU
Professor

A teacher, a professor and a knowledge seeker, the Nagaland-born Theyiesinuo Keditsu started her Instagram page, @mekhalamama, around two years ago in a bid to champion local textiles and empower the community to wear the mekhala — a sarong-like cloth that wraps around the lower body and tucks in at the waist — every day. With a current social media following of over 11k, Keditsu uses the platform to demonstrate her experiments with drapes and styling, and her scholarly approach towards Indian textiles has been applauded by fellow Naga people as well as those who were once unfamiliar with this garment.

“As a woman who has grown up in Nagaland, I cannot speak of an ‘introduction’ to the mekhala. My earliest memories of them merge with the memories of my grandmother who, like most women then, dressed only in mekhalas. I started wearing them on a day-to-day basis in January 2015. Prior to that, since 2003, I had regularly been wearing mekhalas to church. I grew up seeing my mother going to work and juggling so many roles, and that has shaped the woman I am today. My desire is for my children to see me working and independent while clad in mekhalas. I feel this will go a long way, not only for them but for everyone, in changing the perception of the mekhala, which has been perceived as somehow incompatible with contemporary life and pursuits.”

“I wanted to document my outfits and share my thoughts on our home-grown textiles. I also wanted a forum where I could keep a record of my Naga mekhala looks. Instagram seemed just the right space, but initially, I had no idea how it worked — I was simply posting. After the first few posts, I messaged a few like-minded female Naga friends, asking them to follow me, and that was it. A month later, an acquaintance addressed me as ‘mekhala mama’, and the name stuck. Eventually, more and more people started coming up to me to tell me they enjoyed my feed and were learning a lot from my captions. The responses have been overwhelming enough for me to create the #mekhalamovement hashtag.”

“Since the time I started wearing the mekhala daily, I realised how provocative this choice was from the way people responded to it. For many, it upset their idea of what an educated working young woman ought to look like, as they associated draping mekhalas with women who were older, from rural areas or the working class. Many perceived it as an uncomfortable garment, which is ironic considering that less than 25 years ago, most Naga women wore only mekhalas. Instagram allows me to confront many of these biases and lets me explore the many possible reasons for why we think about our traditional dresses in the way we do.”

“I’m an academic and pursue my interests with the curiosity and methodology of one. I learn about the different textiles of the Naga tribes using the research training I have received. For instance, traditional mekhalas and shawls have affiliations to different Naga tribes. Most of them will be some combination of the natural plant dyes indigenous to our hills — red, blue, black, green, yellow — and white, if not dyed. This cloth is a marker of tribe, village, gender and status. On the other hand, contemporary mekhalas cannot be immediately attributed to one tribe. They are woven from the myriad coloured fabrics now available in the market and are expressions of a weaver’s whims or the result of a specific order made for a client. Most of this knowledge is oral, which means I need to seek out the women who have played pivotal roles in preserving the knowledge of textiles in their tribes and collecting pieces, or at least photographs, if they are rare or expensive. I maintain records of my interviews with these women. It is still a work in progress, but I hope to publish the material I am gathering one day.”

“I have a favourite set that belonged to my mother since the ’80s. It is a striking set made with cotton yarn with motifs woven in synthetic gold ribbon. It was such an unconventional piece then because of the stark geometrical thunderbolt like motif that was more Ziggy Stardust than ethnic Naga. As a child, I remember watching my mother wear it for a night out with my father, awash in awe and the firm resolve to wear it when I grow up. It is precious to me both for its unique design and for this memory of my tiny, sober and poised mother’s momentary burst of flamboyance. I usually buy from a few stores in Kohima, the state capital where I live, which have been selling mekhalas for over 45 years now. They stock high-quality backstrap loom pieces. To buy the traditional pieces of other tribes, I reach out to people who know good weavers and order pieces from them directly. I think I have about 100 pieces now.”

“I have witnessed a significant change in the way that people perceive this outfit since I started my account. For one, I have lost count of the number of women who have written in to say that my outfits have convinced them to view the mekhala as a fashionable item. There are many who tell me that my account has inspired them to wear it more often — especially the younger generation who cannot yet afford to buy many but ‘commit’ to wearing mekhalas to church on Sundays. I definitely listen to people’s requests on Instagram, particularly if they have information about weavers or other ‘Made in Nagaland’ or locally-sourced products. The DM feature has been a wonderful data collection space. I have also received mekhalas as gifts from followers I have never met — including some from Mizoram (they wear puans). The most fascinating part for me is how women who are not even natives, have also taken to buying and wearing the mekhala. It has risen to such an extent that a popular local store with online presence (@fusion_dimapur) now stocks mekhalas and shawls due to the demand.”

“For me and my handle, Instagram hiding the likes and video views wouldn’t make much of a difference. My purpose for having this account is to demonstrate the relevance of our traditional textiles in a contemporary setting and to show their sartorial value. My target audience is also mainly limited to Nagas. I want them to be convinced of the value and uniqueness of our textiles, and the urgency of conserving this art form. Rather than the number of likes, I look at the responses and comments that endorse my aim. So hiding likes won’t affect the way I use my account or its impact.”

Read part 4 here

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