The Northeast in India consists of Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipurm, Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim. Despite the large number of states and people, the region is very small and therefore its arts and craftworks are not very large scale either. We will discuss all of them one by one.
This article will focus on the biggest state in the region, that is Assam.
With the virtue of being the biggest state in the region, we will start with Assam. Painting in here is actually related to illustrations of sutras. It was developed mainly as an evolution of Burmese style of manuscript illustrations and was deeply influenced by the Bhakti Movement of the 16th century. Vaishnava monasteries named satras were established close to the Bramhaputra river during this time and were the primary influence for the development of the Satriya style of manuscript paintings.
However, around the 18th century, influence of the Mughals in the court of the Ahom kings of Assam gave rise to another painting style, which we now call the Court or Royal style. This style is primarily derived from the Mughal pictorial style paintings. Meanwhile, Satriya artists had migrated to Darrang where the subjects were more folk related and this new style came to be known as the Darrang style.
Sadly, there are only a few artists left in Assam who have managed to keep the traditional painting styles alive. The introduction of printing and reducing interest in recital of manuscripts during rites have been the primary instigators in the decline of traditional paintings in Assam. Now there are some artists trained in the classical Satriya style who trained at a satra but there are no more trainers alive who know the style inside and out. There is hope however, that renewed interest would help revive traditional painting in the state, but we shall see.
Now, if we are discussing handicrafts, Assam silk is the first that comes to mind. World famous for its quality, traditional silk making in the state was brought here by the Chinese in around 2500-3000 BC.
There are three varieties of Assam silk, depending on the three different types of silkmoths used in their production. The first is Muga silk. Made from cocoons of the muga silkworm that is endemic to Assam, this silk has a golden yellow colour and a shimmering glossy texture. It was given a Geographical Indication (GI) Tag by the Government of India in 2007 for its uniqueness. This silk is rumoured to not take dyes, but studies indicate that it possible to dye Muga silk.
Then there is Pat silk. The pat silkworms are the same as the common silkworms used the world over and have a characteristic white colour. These silkworms prefer mulberry leaves and the silk produced by them is glossy and durable.
Finally, Eri silk is the only one where silkworms are allowed to grow to adulthood. This means no silkworms are killed during production of this silk, giving it the nickname: non-violent silk. It is however, denser and coarser compared to other silks.
Wood and Bamboo Craft
Besides all this Assam is also know for its wood and bamboo/cane craft. It is a natural offshoot of the dense forests and the variety of trees available to artisans since the ancient times. The satra craftsmen were call Khanikars and they produced woodcut reliefs for the satras themselves and also for the Ahom court. In the modern era, khanikars have started producing objects of commercial value as well.
Beside that, there is a healthy cottage industry of bamboo and cane furniture in the state. As the climate in Assam is ideal for growing bamboo it is used extensively in making household items, specially the Jaapi, a traditional sunshade made from bamboo.
Brass and Bell-Metal
Traditional brass and bell metal utensils are a staple trade item for Assamese craftsmen. Xorai and Bota are still the traditional vessels to serve paan for guests in a household in Assam. In fact, the xorai is considered the symbol of a prosperous Assam.
Metalwork in this region is centered at Hoja and Sarthebari, two villages near Guwahati. Besides these, Titabari and Raha also support metalworking. Nowadays, metal craftsmen have started to modernize their offerings and you can sea more decorative pieces i the market for tourists.
Aside from brass and bell-metal, copper, silver and gold are also part of traditional metalworking here, though gold is now only used in ornaments.
Assam has a rich tradition in making jewellery. The art itself is ancient but it found patronage in the courts of the Ahom kings and flourished afterwards. This craft of gold and silver enamelwork is called Minakari in Assamese.
Dark blue, dark green, white, red and yellow were the colours used at that time. The popular ornaments made are necklaces, earrings, rings, bracelets, bangles etc. However, traditional Assamese ornaments are not cheap, simply because of the skill involved and the time required to produce them.
A part of traditional folk theaters and bhaonas, masks are a part of the cultural landscape of tribal Assam. These masks can made for many materials like wood, pith, terracotta or bamboo. Nowadays though these mask have gotten enough popular appeal to be sold as decorations to the common people and provide steady income to many tribal artisans.
Clay work in Assam has its root in two communities: the Kumhars who use a pottery wheel to make pottery and the Hiras who do not use wheels. These skills have been handed down from generation to generation and are mostly used to produce household items. However, there is an exception in the terracotta artists of the village of Asarikandi who produce a unique form of clay dolls which are very popular worldwide.
Assam as a North Eastern state is a bit separate from the rest of India, but there is a shared history there. With this history and intermingling of cultures from Tibet, Burma and North India, a rich tradition for crafts and arts has arisen. There is a lot that Assam can offer the world in terms creative work, but it is still a bit neglected. We hope that you find this post educational and help popularize Assamese art and crafts to the wide world. Thank you for reading and be safe.