By Chitra Ahanthem
Often, one tends to hear calls from a range of voices over how important it is to nurture the handloom industry of the state. In fact, many patriotic groups have mandated (all from the barrel of a gun or from the platform of various student groups that are suspect) that girl students must wear the ‘phanek’ as doing so would not only uphold the great tradition of the handloom industry of the state but also contribute towards the betterment of the local economy. But look at what has happened in the market: plain phaneks are being brought into the state from Assam and even far away Bangalore with Ahmedabad being another popular source town. As for the more formal phaneks that a majority of Meitei women wear day in and day out, the yarn that is used to weave them are sourced from elsewhere and the trade flow, controlled by non Manipuris. The local artisans and weavers who were supposed to have benefited from the calls for traditional wear for women equaling economic avenues have not seen any shift in terms of being recognized for their labour or got any other financial gains. And even as this state of affairs unravel, the emergence of new age trained designers in the state have taken things to another worrying level. For these designers, the priority seems to be on incorporating the high end price market by carving out an elitist clientele that naturally includes the who is who’s of Manipur (read wives of bureaucrats, contractors, officials) rather than contribute any real value in terms of looking at synergies between traditional wear, designs and texture vis a vis and adaptation to contemporary and/or comfortable everyday wear. The trend of buying handloom products from avant garde designer boutiques because they are up-market as compared to the earlier practice of buying directly from the weavers or from the Imas at Imakeithel means has led to a steep hike in prices without benefitting the weavers. The price range of a Rani innaphi now starts from a direct Rs 3000-3500 bracket but it still came as a shock when my mother one day told me how it turned out that a woman (a wife of a bureaucrat) was wearing an innaphi at a wedding that stood out. It turned out that the woman in question had paid a designer to work on an exclusive piece for the payment of fifty thousand with the understanding that the designer would not ever repeat the said pattern!
The creative talent of trained designers in the state is under no shadow of doubt for many have won national and international laurels while a few have worked with mainstream fashion shows. Sadly, their works and experience have only herded them into only lucrative projects without any considerations for the have nots. Not a month rolls off the calendar without some fashion show event or the other but till date, there is no affordable easy to wear traditional apparel on the market. In April this year, there was quite a stir with announcements of 10 international models arriving in town to showcase the work of a young designer who is making waves outside the state. The event was supported by various Government agencies, including the Manipur AIDS Control Society. No one, including the Government agencies cared to dig more into the modalities of the international models with everyone in a collective state of excitement over foreign models donning traditional wear: that foreign nationals cannot undertake professional assignments without a work permit. And so, the Government agencies supporting the event ended up flouting rules that clearly says that foreign nationals with tourist visas cannot take on work assignments. I did a fact checking by looking the registry at the Imphal airport arrival area: all the foreign nationals had only a tourist visa entry. The rules say that agencies that involve foreign nationals in work assignments can be blacklisted but clearly, since not many people are any the wiser, it passed under the radar. There were media statements from the organizers that the models were involved with the fashion event to help the cause and taking only token payments. This line could be to avoid any questions but the rules are clear that foreign nationals while applying for visas have to specify whether they plan to do any voluntary/charitable work and with whom and for how long. There have been many high profile cases where foreign artists have been deported after it came to light that they were working without the relevant paperwork. With another fashion extravaganza being planned in a few days time, one hopes that modalities are followed. And yet, this carelessness or rather the knack of blindly putting together an event shows in every other sphere: in the case of this particular fashion show in April, the Manipur AIDS Control Society allotted funds for raising awareness on HIV/AIDS which the models did by way of handing out HIV/AIDS related information leaflets to passers-by in the Khwairamband area!
The just concluded Sangai Festival is another case in point of little thought given towards realizing a grand design: stalls selling socks, plastic toys and even vegetables, all under the theme of “when Manipur celebrates, the world stops” or something to that effect. What was the festival celebrating is a question that eludes my grey cells for even the much pride of place given to the cultural dances were hijacked by the absence of musicians in whose place taped music was played out. And in a cruel irony of the plight of street vendors in the streets and bazaar areas of Imphal, there were non locals sitting along the red carpet and selling Chinese light emitting toys: they had no stalls and police personnel who are commonly and regularly seen chasing off street vendors in the bazaar area turned their heads away after whispered conversations.