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North -East Nutshell: IIC

In capturing the North-East, Shyamal Datta crafts a visual ecstasy – an eclectic representation of indigenous livelihoods that have transcended the boundaries of past and present

Sentila T Yanger, the distinguished curator, brings an uncanny feat of weaving indigenous narratives to the IIC Festival in Delhi as it celebrates the North East. In her magnum opus Unbroken Threads: Broadening Narratives, Shyamal Datta's images of Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh unveil like cultural and geographical gems at the IIC Festival. Two things stand apart in these succinct images – the subtle lacing of light within their traditional habitats – so far untouched by modernity – and the sense of duty and the intense industry in them that emanate as they do their chores of weaving.

Like the colossus of travel photography by Sebastião Salgado – Shyamal too breaks down barriers – he lives with his subjects, immersing himself in their environments. He becomes a participant entering their stories to understand their lifestyles. Salgado described this approach as photographing from inside the circle. This is why these images are infused with sensitivity and respect for the people that dot his frames. Within these frames, we are brought face to face with the fragility and the fortitude of the human spirit of the people of the North East.

LONG HOURS OF LABOUR

"Each piece of fabric they weave carries with it a story that refers to the place where it was made — its landscape and its nature. The weave also marks the identification of the tribe, the hierarchy within the tribe, the ritual it is meant for, the gender it supposed to be made for, the festival and dance it is supposed to be worn in, the type of gift it is used for, the warmth with which the hands of these women spin and weave despite the vagaries of weather in their end of the world, far away and remote," says Shyamal, who grabs the moment of incandescent elegance within the natural light sources that beam from dawn to dusk into their homes.

"Each garment carries with it the immensity of the task, the quiet long hours of labour – almost always women, handed down through generations, with respect for nature and for our own history. When you think of it over the years, what stands out is the power of human hands and the quality of patience and tenacity, and most significantly their cultural identity," he adds.

HUMBLE HAMLETS

Shyamal presents indigenous weaving habitats in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. It is the repository of the past that becomes a document of the present in the indigenous practices and validity of humble hamlets. In the reality of weaving, we discover a unique universe, an integrated language of practices and beliefs reflected in handloom, also known as loin-loom in the North East.

The intricate motifs and designs, the combination of colours, all reflect the social status and ethnic origins of the people. History tells us that women are the custodians of the knowledge, and to the elaborate process of spinning, dying and weaving. Varieties of culturally important traditional dresses are made by women using experiential wisdom and uncanny pragmatic intuition. Weaving and related arts are considered to be significant attributes for the North East tribes. A profusion of organic colours, prepared largely from the plants that grow in the forests and designs used in dresses, are dependent on cultural variability of the specific tribal communities.

NAGALAND: Resonance in Red

Textile weaving is a like a cottage industry amongst Naga tribes and it's a cultural tradition passed on by grandmothers. It plays an important role in gift giving. The most prominent colour in the cloth is the resonant red. Red signifies blood, enemies and bravery. Various patterns and designs require time and patience and it's been worn by both warriors and individuals. The yarn used for plain woven cloths are cotton, fibre and wild jute. Nagas celebrate weaving also by singing songs during the weaving of these charming clothes.

PRISM OF TIME

To look at these 25 images is to travel through an album of memories – it gives us a sense of having travelled the North East, into a slice of invisible time. This is a moving look into the interiors of the North East – it stands captured in the prism of time as if on the threshold of a spectrum of hopes and aspirations wanting to touch the present even as it mirrors the past in its rich and vibrant cultural traditions.

The women weaving in their homes unravel like visual treasures caught in the cusp of a transition of modernism. In his exploration, private homes turn into cultural spaces, echoing a way of life. Shyamal Datta takes on the mantle of a mystical modernist sculpting land, light and people with serenely simple moments that speak of the truth in photography and how it can be the best tool to document lifestyles for posterity.

In 1995, Shyamal Datta became a freelance photographer who explored the forests to create signature stories of wildlife. Shyamal's interest in wildlife spawned photo essays on endangered flora and fauna, indigenous peoples and natural landscapes. He traversed the wildernesses of North and Latin America, photographing landscapes and wildlife. He excels also in having made presentations across the United States, Canada, UK and India. His essays have appeared in several media across the globe.

Exploring North and Latin American continents in search of snow-capped peaks, wildflowers, deserts, rock formations, ocean-fronts and wildlife – his prowess as a writer/photo journalist spans across magazines and journals in the US and Canada.

His most intense forays include capturing the impact of receding glaciers on polar bears in the Arctic Circle in subzero frigid conditions as well as the Aurora Borealis in Yukon Canada sub zero temperatures.

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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