Desiring a Lost Khasi Culture

It was early July 2013 that we descended to a village in Raid Tyrso, looking for the remaining fragments of the Lakympong Dance in individual and collective memories of people. After zooming in a Sumo from Shillong along the newly-constructed four-lane highway connecting Bhoi and Jaintia Hills, we arrived at the village welcomed by heat, the sight of green and sounds of rural existence- all pitched against the backdrop of the thick indecipherable jungle.
We were scholars of a metropolitan university and walked around the village holding closely our weapons of educatedness- a pen, a diary, a camera and our supposed critical minds. Little did we know that all were to melt away into redundancy in a matter of minutes. Little did we know that knowledge was of a different kind here, that the space and the air of the village corrodes the type of knowledge we proudly carried with us. It wouldn’t stand, it wouldn’t last.
After attempting to speak to a few women in a teashop we found, I was immediately hit by many realizations and a tinge of guilt. It dawned on me that indeed I was a specimen of the great rift between Shillong and the villages in the state- a relationship not only marked by hierarchy but deep alienation; I realized I was a product of an education system which has blind faith in the pillars of academic knowledge- one which attempts to arrange and rationalize lived reality simply through the application of theory; and lastly, that I was a living manifestation of the historical divide between a globalized-neoliberal world and a pre-globalized and even pre-colonial one. That place right in front of me, with its people, its vegetation, its land, its air, its culture was trying to desperately hold on to the latter, clutching its grip on the skeletal of the pre-globalized reality, if not its flesh.
Raid Tyrso, like many regions in Meghalaya is a site on which two levels of jurisdiction conflate. At one level it falls under the Ri Bhoi District of Meghalaya and at another, under the Hima Khyrim, one of the traditional Khasi states. This double-layered administrative practice, one representative of modern statehood and the other of a traditional conception of political space, is present in much of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. But the coexistence of the old and the new, the ancient and the modern goes beyond political administration. It is a tension that resides at the heart of everyday lives of tribal societies.
Our quest for personal narratives pertaining to the history and politics of the Lakympong Dance took us to the doors of Kong Shadap’s hut. She was a ninety-five year old woman who was the remaining matriarch from the early twentieth century in the village, a person we hoped could tell us something about the dance which the village was known for- one that tantalized my interest after learning that it was banned by the British. However, my knowledge about it even now is parched with incoherence, insufficiency and contradictions. Kong Shadap’s house was on top of a hill and there she lived with her partner.
We finally reached the place after a tedious climb under the ruthless sun, only to find an empty house. Outside there was a singular make-shift bamboo platform used for afternoon naps and it was placed under a majestic overarching tree. We rested there a little before venturing to the back of the hut where there was a huge garden. Soon, we found our eyes shamelessly feasting on the lush green of this garden, as we walked under the blanket of shade provided by squash creepers and leaves of fruit trees. Hidden behind corn and sugar-cane plants were Kong Shadap and her partner who were busy adding manure to the soil. Noticing us strangers, they immediately got up and approached us with smiles asking if we were lost.
Of course we were. In that world of insects, friendly reptiles and home-grown food, we had no place, or at least, we didn’t know how to make it ours. At least then.
My determination to extract information about the Lakympong Dance simply fell apart. Kong Shadap, like the women we spoke to before had nothing much to say. Her narration was born out of a fractured memory and a consciousness which struggled to maintain cohesion, one which had survived the violence of the region’s historical transformations in the last century. She tried to explain certain structural elements of the dance but failed to say anything about the location and significance of value and meaning in the entire performance. Her partner and one of the women from the tea shop also participated in the telling, each bringing into the narrative ideas picked from their own memories (and perhaps imagination?). Some of the information emerged out of the collective dialogue that was playing out in the presence of us, outsiders, the seekers of that knowledge they were all trying to construct and reconstruct.
As I was mildly disappointed with my failure to gather what I had intended to, Kong Shadap took us to a room stocked with eri silkworms and other almost microscopic insects used for the production of dye. She was breeding them in this tiny, well-ventilated but seemingly abandoned room. So Kong Shadap, as I discovered, was also an ardent weaver of the ryndia and other Khasi clothing pieces. She was widely known for her unique skill that even the State Government had made use of a scheme to support her business. The machinery for her practice was all there- the various weaving devices made of bamboo and the insects providing the thread and dye- but what she said was missing were people to carry on her legacy. Her daughters and grandchildren saw no point in pursuing the trade because well, there was no gold waiting at the end of that rainbow. That day I went back home with empty pages, but with much to ruminate over.
The Lakympong Dance is performed today as well but in a sanitized form. The British were known to have banned the festival altogether because one of the integral practices was consensual pre-marital sex. Many other subversive elements are not recognized today and whether it is a case of suppression or forgetfulness of their existence, is a matter of debate. We live in an age where the preservation of culture and traditional practices exists with as much zest as the destruction of the same. As people who often fight for the former, we also have to confront the reality of brokenness- a brokenness of belief, a brokenness of practice, a brokenness of existence. And this brokenness is nothing to weep over, because as we try to gather the crippling bones of an old form of culture and tradition, we discover its new dimensions, shapes and colours, often carved by the history of intersecting events of politics, social existence and culture. Instead of weeping, we should be thinking of how to survive collectively in the least violent and destructive ways, as dynamic, flawed and unstable beings living in a chaotic and even more unstable world.
Kong Shadap died this year. In that tiny room, I wonder if all her insects are still breeding and aspiring to weave themselves into stories told by patterns of Khasi fabric.

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Gertrude Lamare Written by:

Gertrude Lamare unpacks literature is a member of Thma U Rangli Juki (TUR)

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