The Garo people of western Meghalaya are one of the largest tribes in the region. An entirely casteless and matrilineal society, the Garos have an incredible history rooted in powerful beliefs of fertility that thread through their agricultural customs and overarching divinities. Recently, we got the opportunity to interview fashion stylist Michri Thejaseno C B Sangma about her roots, inspirations, and Garo heritage. Sangma, who is visibly passionate about the power of clothing, reimagines the fabric of her indigenous heritage by re-awakening her ancestral roots and its concepts and braiding them with her modern perspective.
What emerges out of it is an entirely unique emblem for the Garos.
“A lot of cultural mixtures have gone into making me who I am,” says Sangma, a mixed indigenous person from the north-east, who has familial roots in the Garo and Naga tribes as well as the Pahadi people of Uttarakhand. Sangma embellishes her complex cultural roots through her implicit, inspired by the epic proportions of mythology, fashion-photo projects. A psychology major and alumna of Lady Shri Ram college, Sangma pivoted early on and dived into the world of art, production and fashion styling. Having earned her masters in Aesthetics and Arts from Jawaharlal Nehru University, she went on to work at Humour Me as a producer and as an art director.
In her recent project titled ‘The A•chiks: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’, Sangma conjures a deep familial iconography. She explains, “With this series, I reimagine my tribal heritage through a new lens. Indigenous headdresses, handwoven cloth, traditional jewellery from my grandfather’s collection— they are all an ode to my home, my people. It is a story of the matriarchs that lived before us and our parents who pass down our rich yet now-fading life. I wish to bring to the rest of the world the beauty and fluidity of my home through the attire we so often forget is part of our history and heritage.”
Attire, above and beyond its functional purpose, is a socio-cultural statement. Clothes translate our identity — delicately woven along with our ancestral heritage, personal histories, and a palpable sense of personhood— for the world. Clothes tell a story and often, inspire new ones. Sangma reiterates why she loves fabric and style, “As for my interest in clothes, I have always felt at home with it. That’s the one thing that has always made me feel like me. My joy comes from trying on new styles and finding different ways to safely budget because as a college student in Delhi, where I continued living for about ten years, it did basically come down to how can you save more money without having to buy things, as all students living in a bigger city can imagine.”.
On inspiration, Sangma says, “My influences aren’t off-the-mill runway influences. They come mainly from musicals and the theatre. I also draw a lot of references from video games and fiction, like the Lord Of The Rings, both the films and the books, so a lot of my influences come from the sense of a highly fantastical world. It has translated into my project and you can see it’s clearly an ode to the mysticism and the fantastical and all of it you can create with your own two hands.”
Time and again, we talk about India’s unity in diversity. In many ways, however, this seems more like an aspiration, a dream. Living in large metropolitan cities, all of us conform to the dominant heteronormative performance of ourselves. Rather seamlessly, we take that one slice of ourselves that everyone can make sense of or can accept, and integrate it rapidly. On the other hand, Sangma yearns for a fluid awakening of her indigenous roots – away from dominant traditionalism and back to her ancestral roots. She talks about the reasons behind this particular project, “I wanted to do this for myself. Growing up in Meghalaya and living in Delhi for 10 years, my identity, whilst experiencing different cultures and people, had to conform and assimilate with my surrounding area and to the city. While I was proud of my culture and where I come from, a lot of people weren’t aware of it.”
She continues, “I wanted to validate myself and that I do indeed come from an incredibly rich heritage and culture.”
The Garos pass down their ownership matrilineally, highlighting the woman as a fierce leader and as the head of the family.
Sangma, in her own words, re-tells the history of her people, “earlier labelled as ‘Bloodthirsty Savages’ (records dating back to the 1800s), the Garos inhabited a tract of hills — jungles that were almost impenetrable. A fierce people, our forefathers were the mighty headhunters; their social status was decided by the number of heads owned. The blood of the ancestors still courses through our veins and it is rich, it is strong, and it is proud.”
Tropes of masculine attire are subverted. Says Sangma, “Here we see, an A•chik pante (young Garo man) wearing a gando, a loin strap (sometimes decorated with ivory beads or brass plates) with traditional motifs of concentric diamonds known as ‘muikron’, meaning ‘The Eye’ in Garo. Like all tribes, clothing was always minimal and the loin was our attempt at a man’s modesty” vocalises Sangma.
Hills and earth are a powerful symbolic presence in Garo culture. Sangma remembers the invasion of the British and how it monstrously stripped their fertile lands. She continues, “Before the Britishers invaded our lands in the late 18th century, the Garos plundered the plain lands of what we know today as Assam. They were known to leave havoc, death (headless corpses), and destruction. Ruthless and unforgiving. However, we lived in harmony with nature, one with the elements. We gave our gratitude to the land and sun, the flowing rivers, the bellowing winds and fire. We knew our lives were enriched, blessed and as people of the earth; we understood the importance of the soil we grow our crops on.”
The Garos continue to thrive and pass down traditions from generation to generation. Sangma’s ode to her culture has spotlighted northeast indigenous culture and recaptured its beauty in a modern light. Clothes, jewellery, and fabric are important elements in the process of reclaiming the history of the land and its people. As an integral landmark, much of Sangma’s sense of loss with assimilation and conformity has been broken and retrieved through this fashion-photo project.
You can view the entire project here.
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