A Visual Project Depicts The Fashion-Forward Melting Pot Aesthetic Of Shillong’s Youth
“When the heat of the plains could not be assuaged by fans and sharbat, I rushed to the cool heights of the hills called Shillong. The mountain ranges with their mantle of clouds seemed to beckon weary travellers to take refuge in the deep shade of woods on their hill sides. The meandering streamlets follow their course with soft murmur, caressing the heart with their soothing music.”
-Rabindranath Tagore, Shillong-er Chithi, June 9th, 1923 (translated by Uma Purkayastha)
“We decided to use this shawl as it represents the Lotha tribe from Nagaland. This warrior tribe’s phanrupsu adorn the men as a sign of valour and pride.” -Robertson Lyngdoh, stylist
Such is the utopia of Shillong. Anyone who visits this hill station nestled in the heart of Meghalaya has to return. And amid the natural bounty of this scenic destination, at its very core, are the people; they are the heartbeat of this paradise. An amalgamation of the new and the ancient, the young and the old, the traditional and the modern. The city is a kaleidoscope of colours, religions, cultures, traditions and faces, each attached to a particular anecdote: it is the melting pot of the East. The citizens comprise a mix of the local tribes dotted with a pronounced Anglo legacy, residents from nearby states who now call it home and an influx of youth from all over the rest of the country, who come to enjoy the many scholastic benefits. It is also a hidden Mecca of style – edgy street style, teenagers in K-pop inspired outfits (they were into Korean music and pop culture way before it became a phenomenon), old ladies in the classic Jainsems, traditional handloom industries, thrift stores galore and the muka fabric sold in tiny shops.
Photographer Suraj Nongmaithem wanted to capture these complexities in a visual poem. “For most Indians, North-East cultural representation is either in the cliched music or a very tribal depiction; we still don’t see the authentic culture of the youth ever being shown,” he says. The exceptional melange of the latest trends and terrific personal style, along with ethnic, heritage fabrics and jewellery, is something so unique to this area. Each tribe has its own indigenous textiles, jewels and drapes, which can be worn in several ways. Nongmaithem adds, “We want people to understand that though we may look different, our ethos is the same. The more this is normalised, we could break the stereotypes associated with this region. Gen Z here, too, has the same relationship with fashion as teens in any other city, it’s just that the interpretations and influence of subcultures are diverse.”
“The highlight is the moirang pheejin motif, which is woven sequentially on both longitudinal borders of the fabric. This design is used in almost all kinds of innaphee (upper body wrap) and phanek (sarong). The design represents the thin and pointed teeth of Pakhangba, the most important god in Manipuri mythology.” -Suraj Nongmaithem, photographer
First to join the project was stylist Robertson Lyngdoh. “The concept behind it is to simply document the everyday life of the youth here, so we used local faces as our models and took advantage of the scenic beauty Shillong has to offer,” he explains. The entire crew was from Shillong as well, and they arranged for clothes that were either thrifted, tailored, borrowed or from their personal wardrobes. Which is how one would normally dress here, and it also highlights how simple it was for the team to be sustainable and still create looks that were organic, seasonless and timeless.
The three models are also a part of the intricate cultural lacework of this city. They met through their common bond of music and, over guitar strings, they formulated a lasting bond. Kenny, Nafisa and Sen perfectly describe the many nuanced facets of the city. Nafisa has lived her entire life in Shillong, and her parents belong to the two prominent tribes of Meghalaya: the Khasi and the Jaintia. She tells us about her sartorial choices and explains how, growing up, she had very different fashion icons. “Bollywood played no role whatsoever, and we had Western influences or our indigenous roots to turn to. Children from a young age are taught to dress well and look presentable, and as one goes through the different stages of life, fashion becomes like a second skin. I love that sense of freedom to express one’s style.”
Khyodeno aka Kenny’s journey is different; she ventured to Shillong from Kohima in Nagaland to pursue her higher studies, with the hope of getting exposure and being that young independent girl in the city. “I was sceptical about my plans, but once I got to Shillong, my adventure began with every day being a new day. I fell in love with the place and made a lot of friends from different communities.” She was also captivated by the natural surroundings and enjoyed being able to explore the town. “I’m not sure how long I will stay here, but it has changed me. I am no longer the person I was when I first came here.”
Talking about fashion, she says, “There are students who come here from different cities, and each one has different ideas about fashion – we influence each other. Social networking done in person! I also feel that we don’t neglect our traditional attire here; we are encouraged to share our heritage on cultural days, but elements of it like earrings, shawls and necklaces stay with us even on regular days. Even if we come from different cities, we remember our roots and share them with each other.”
Sen is the link between them all. A sound engineer from Nagaland, he met both the girls through a church music outreach programme. “I’ve been in Shillong since 2003, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve been musically inclined. I initially started playing in church, and then I got involved in the local scene.” In between his musical conquests, Sen has been dabbling in modelling by engaging in a few personal projects. “Style is something you see every day here, but it’s got a less hectic approach. Everyone is laid-back and not brand crazy – they would rather personalise a wardrobe basic to make it their own.”
And like the magical city they shot in, this diverse group of collegians and creative artists represents various personalities, heritages and an individual sense of the sartorial. The myriad confluences of all the North-Eastern cultures are probably impossible to depict in one canvas, but in current times, when consumers are finally moving away from fast fashion, this story is not one about change. Instead, it’s about things remaining the way they were, secured by sustainability, nostalgia, pride and the blessings of ancestors. What Nongmaithem’s project does provide, however, is an altered perspective. And maybe Tagore had it right all along, as we see the weary ways of fast fashion and exclusionary luxury being rehabilitated in the fresh air of Shillong.