Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Folk And Tribal Jewelry

Young maiden of the Aka tribe wears a profusion of glass bead, stone and silver necklaces, from one of which hangs the ga'u or charm box. Her forehead is encircled by the lenchhi, a band made distinctive by the large silver disc in the centre ornamented in repousse."Myth is an experience which establishes kinship with everything around him."Kamaladevi Chattopadlivay on tribal life.

Myth is the foundation of the jewellery of rural and tribal copies; it is not in the intent but in the material, therefore, that we should distinguish their jewellery from that of the classical tradition. There is a similar, perhaps greater, richness of belief and symbology; it is only that the expression takes different forms because of the relative lack of affluence. Gold is replaced by silver, precious stones by semi-precious ones; but now other materials enter, glass beads, cowrie shells, feathers, beetles, seeds, bone, dried flowers and grasses. 

As if to make up for their modest nature, they are worn in profusion, necklace upon necklace clasping the body from throat to breast; armlets and bangles from upper arm to wrist; multiple rings in ears pierced at life-enhancing points. Or the scale of the size changes, almost as if the ornament precedes the wearer to create a larger-than-life presence. Thus the giant hoop earrings that touch the shoulders, thus the nose rings so heavy that they must be supported with chains secured into the hair, or the anklets that appear like ornate cuffs for the legs.

In her festive best, this girl from the Nocte tribe wears necklaces of coral, amber and silver with spacers of ivory, perhaps bone. Her coin necklace is, here as elsewhere, a mark of wealth.No one single tradition predominates and even within areas and tribes there may be marked differences of observance. Among the bangle-loving Mudia Gonds, women of the Naitami clan are forbidden to wear bangles in the belief that if they do so their wrists ‘Will be encircled by snakes and their husbands will (lie. In Rajasthan, young married women add green glass bangles to their red ones in a shy, tender and unspoken acknowledgement of their pregnancy.

There are instances where the richness of so-called folk or tribal jewellery seems but another view of the opulence of mainstream tradition; equally, there are examples where stark minimalism dominates and where we must look beyond the surface to the meaning underneath. Jewellery extends beyond its conventional definition to include all forms of ornamentation such as festive or ritual head gear. Enough to say here that entire volumes could be written on this subject without exhausting it; of necessity, we can touch upon only a few areas.

It is another world-view we now enter where the forces of nature are experienced at first hand, making them far more immediate and felt. Wind, water, sky, tree and earth are the sources of spirits whose mysteries can never be fathomed by man, and who either bless him with good fortune or are malignant and must be warded off. Life hangs on the constant balance between the two and the power that either can have to influence happiness, prosperity and a bountiful harvest. Thus personal adornment has a magic religious significance and its wearing the effect of a talisman. 

Silver baju-band (arm band) from Rajasthan, worn by the women of the fat and Mina communities. The drawstring makes the ornament adjustable to the size of the wearer.
 The ga'u serves precisely this purpose, calling upon the mercy of benevolent.
Forces to protect its wearer while trying to propitiate or ward off those that are malignant. It is the charm box pendant worn in the Buddhist areas of the Himalayas influenced by Tibet. The charms within the box are vitalized through rituals and have the power to deflect evil or sickness, which means that it must be in physical contact with the body. It is quite usual to see people wearing a number of ga'us simultaneously to take care of all eventualities. Ga'us come in all shapes and sizes, rectangular, octagonal, diamond-shaped, their surfaces often richly ornamented or studded with stones such as turquoise, agate or coral. From Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, ga'u pendants are a common sight, most often worn around the neck, sometimes pinned to hats or shawls.

Meghwal woman from Banni, Kutch, wearing the varlo and the velado (silver wire necklace and gold nose ring). Note the silver earrings that cascade from the upper ear.
The ladies of Ladakh who wear the ga'u also wear the perak, an open display of wealth and status. It is a head-dress, worn at its most glorious by rich matrons, often an heirloom piece passed from mother to daughter. It is interesting to see here a recurrence of the snake motif, for the perak looks like and is meant to represent a snake skin, harking back to the cobra whose hood sheltered Lord Buddha in meditation. Even so does the perak shelter its wearer against the harsh and icy winds of Ladakh, jutting over her brow like a cobra hood, tapering off like a snake skin at the back? 

Its entire ground is studded with turquoise stones of irregular shape and size, a hoard accumulated over years, maybe even a lifetime, which are glued or sewn on. The biggest and best stone is reserved for the front of the perak where it is clearly visible. Often ga'u boxes are secured on the crest of the perak in addition to being worn around the neck. Seed pearls are another gem of choice, being strung in multiple strands around the neck or draped over the ears and pinned to the hair.

East of Ladakh is the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, part Buddhist, largely Hindu. if it is true that much of ancient Indian design remains in silver folk jewellery, then it is interesting to note the use of the chaunk, the original sisphul, worn on the crest of the head where, alas, it is not visible being covered by the head veil. Local ballads sing of a variety of necklaces, bangles, anklets and earrings; and ornate naths or nose rings, some so complicated and heavy that they are chained to the hair and have to be lifted to allow the woman to eat! 

The sacred buffalos of the Todas were worshipped through elaborate and secret rituals, so it is not certain how this ornament was placed on the animal. Perhaps the cowrie shell discs were hung over its horns, the silver chain slung low around its neck.Perhaps this is why in one famous song a lover longs to be the nath on his beloved's face so that he can kiss her the high altitudes of Kinnaur women are profusely adorned, and it is said that a bride may bear as much as IS kilos of silver on her wedding day. The local blacksmith or domang doubles up as silversmith in this once-remote area and one of his most delicate creations is the bridal tanaule worn under the woollen cap topped with dried flowers. Silver bands go across the forehead, while cascading down to frame and partly hide her face are shimmering pipal leaves in the sheerest silver (pipala). 

Over and over again, it is the richness of nature that provides much of the inspiration and source for ornamentation whose vivid colours reflect those of fruits and flowers. From nature's living kingdom of animals and birds and serpents comes the personification of deities and of honoured attributes. The Bison-horn Madias of Bastar take their name from the horns they wear on their resplendent head-dresses, a mark of vigour and youthful virility worn during the Gaur dances of courtship and marriage. Adorned with plumes and fringes of cowrie shells that cover the face and toss about as they dance, each head-dress is an heirloom passed proudly from father to son, and its loss or destruction causes terrible grief. 

This man's necklace is from the Angami tribe and is an ceremonial ornament. The conch shell bears an interesting motif of dancing figures. The pastoral Todas of Tamil Nadu regard their buffalos as sacred; they are living deities gifted to them by the goddess Towkishy and they must be worshipped with strictly-observed rules and elaborate rituals. Buffalo ornaments were fashioned with as much care as those of the Todas themselves. In more than one region, the hornbill is a magic bird of great power, shining with courage and splendour; the right to wear its feathers is the privilege of only the brave. 

We see this, for example, in Nagaland where, across 14 major tribes each with its own language, customs and traditions, the feathers of the hornbill feature almost everywhere in the state. Here is jewellery and ornamentation stunning in its skilled use of a huge variety of material: beads, seeds, dyed animal hair, cane, orchid stalks, animal horns, claws and bone, ivory and cowrie shells, in addition to metals such as brass. These were fashioned into all manner of adornments: necklaces, pendants, breastplates, circlets, cuffs, belts, armlets and, of course, intricate head-dresses, plumed with hornbill feathers, encrusted with the shiny wings of beetles.

Male adornment is particularly notable, for jewellery and ornament were once part of ceremonial dress worn on ritual occasions to invoke the blessings of the crop spirits or those of the gods of war. Earrings and necklaces were worn by both men and women, but in ceremonial regalia, it was the men who were heavily decorated with these symbols of status and power. Wearing ornaments was a right that had to be earned through deeds of valour or merit such as the taking of heads or the giving of feasts. 

Under her hat decorated with dried flowers, the bride wears the tanaule across her forehead, silver leaves falling over her eyes. Head hunting (now long banned) was part of a community fertility rite. The human head represented the spirit inherent in the earth; to bring back a head or skull to the village after battle not only enhanced the standing of the warrior, it nourished the local crop. The right to wear hornbill feathers was won by those who had taken a head; they could also wear the head tally pendants or necklace, a graphic reminder of the number of heads they had captured. Feathers and pendants were thus highly-prized status symbols that publicly declared the valour and achievements of a man; they were the insignia of the warrior.

Clear across the country to the west is the area of Kutch in Gujarat, an arid scrubland which is a far cry from the verdant hills and lush vegetation of Nagaland. As if to compensate for that bleached landscape, Kutch is a repository of craft and colour, home to some of the most spectacular jewellery in India, a living tradition that is seen to this day. In all her finery, a woman might bear some three kilos or more of silver, but bear it she does, even in the remorseless heat of summer. In the Meghwal community of Banni, the jewellery is set against another kind of richness, that of embroidered garments whose colours are gem-like and precisely patterned, where inset mirror work flashes in the light of the sun. 

Cast in the lost wax or cire Perdue method, the little rounds at the lower end of this neck band could well be representations of human heads. A Meghwal woman is a master of embroidey, just as her husband is skilled in leathercraft. An essential part of her jewellery repertoire is the varlo, a stiff and heavy torque of twisted silver wires. The varlo is worn along with a choker of beads beadwork is another specialty and many other necklaces. The intricate gold nose ring, the velado, is a sign of marriage and is worn only on special occasions. Ivory bangles (now more likely to be plastic) crowd her upper and lower arms.

As long as the traditions that ci-eated it remains, the jewellery of the people will continue to be made and worn. But seismic shifts are uprooting those traditions, and unhappily it will not be long before many of them disappear into museums, or, worse still, into oblivion.

Writer – Asharani Mathur
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