The matrilineal tradition of the Khasi community of Meghalaya, India that has influenced the culture and arts of this region.
Native Arts was formed by men from the Khasi tribe with the intention of providing a platform & building a community among young artists who usually lack the necessary resources in refining and highlighting their skills. Native Arts have documented Khasi women and their initiatives. By hosting Luminous Journey Photography Workshops called "Beyond the Spectacular" that give women and men alike the chance to explore, through photography, the beauty of Khasi hills whilst learning about the importance of sustainable practices such as weaving and agriculture.
"Photography lets us capture amazing and important moments that might only last for a millisecond. As an art form, it lets us preserve wonderful moments in time and space that will never happen again. When we get really into photography, when we’ve mastered the tools to create the images, when we focus completely on the creative aspect, there’s a real and true beauty that comes into play- we become completely absorbed in the act and think of nothing else, we enter into a state of being of temporary enlightenment, in which we see the life of things. Of all the genres in photography, Landscape photography is perhaps the one art form that lets us enter into that state of enlightenment and contemplate not only on the beauty of the universe but on life itself." Ebor Tariang, the photographer for Khasi Women Wisdom
Not only is Mayfreen involved in grassroots initiatives in Shillong, but also in 2016, she represented India at the United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous issues, at the UN Headquarters, New York, USA to lend a voice on land and cultural rights. She actively speaks out for women on a local, national and international level. Here she is outside her home-base in Shillong by the scared forest.
Mayfreen's mother and sister who live next door and opposite her, support her initiatives as part of the matrilineal Khasi tribe. Using her confidence she activates this in other women through policy. In December 2016, she and her team of thee young women launched a Speak Out Campaign to help marginlised abused women who cannot afford legal fees to get representation and access in the legal system.
Post colonial history of North East India was explored through Christina's family photos. Through kinship Christina has been part of an evolving post-colonial landscape between Britain and India. From when the British first came to Assam and started trading to present day British explorers looking to understand the region.
John Charles Palgrave Simpson's father was in tea as was his Grandfather who served for Queen Victoria. After the war, in 1948, John left the army and went to work for Williamson Magor & Co. Limited in Assam who had a long history in tea business dating back to the year 1868 and is considered to be one of the pioneers of tea business in India.
It was whilst working in nearby Assam that he came to stay at a friend's house Shillong, where he saw Christine's mother, Muklurmon Jyrwa in the window of the house opposite. John is pictured here with his second daughter Franscine who looks like a younger version of Muklurmon. John was so captivated by Muklurmon, that he asked her family round for tea and her hand in marriage and so they began their life together.
Christina did not see her father for 25 years because after some troubles with the tea farm in Assam, he moved to Uganda to set up another tea farm and factory. John respected the Khasi matrilineal tradition, so that when Christina's mother wanted to stay in Shillong he abided by her wishes to continue her family roots, continuing to support her whilst building a new life in Uganda. Christina, being taller than most of her fellow Khasi tribe has a distinct resemblance to her British father.
Christina met Peter who was part of the Khasi tribe. They got married within the christian faith that was introduced to Shillong by the Welsh missionaries that founded churches within the region and encouraged Khasi children to write and document their own culture. It was a Welsh missionary that encouraged the documentation of the Khasi language.
Soon after her marriage Christina had her first son, Peter who is tall much like his mother and British Grandfather. Peter married Iba Blah, the honey bee leader. Peter learnt a lot from both his British grandfather Simpson, visiting him on his plantation in Uganda and his father, Peter who would take him far out into the Khasi hills where tigers roamed free.
Khasi Hills are said to be some of the cleanest in India as the Khasi tribe say that nature is their library, containing embodying knowledge and wisdom of humanity. Hilly Meghalaya – the ‘abode of clouds’ with rich limestone caves and hill sides covered in lush rainforest, often known as one of the wettest places on earth, yet provides safe havens away from pollution and smoke of the cities, allowing for moments of tranquility where children and families can safely enjoy each other's company in the fresh clean air.
Naphirisa Tariang is a Khasi writer. Her poetry about nature reveals the Khasi way of life that is intrinsically linked to cycles of life, death and renewal. North Star, her first novel, explores how Khasi materlinial leadership is of the feminine kind. Emulating masculine forms of leadership are not the way of the Khasi women. Her writing is as finely crafted as the elegant silk that is woven by her fellow Khasi women.
Through her writing, she hopes not only to document Khasi history, but also to inspire and teach others beyond her tribe of leadership and humanity's intrinsic connection to nature.
Naphirisa Tariang is studying literature in Kolkata. As she is the only woman in her class who is from a matrilineal society, she wanted to write, to give her female peers the chance to understand that there is another way than a patriarchal society. She found ways in which to tell the story in The North Star of a man and woman supporting each other equally, by encouraging each other to become their best selves.
Iba's bee-keeping project was initially funded by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). She was responsible for its' implementation after completion of the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in the project villages. Iba, having recently won an entrepreneur award is now inspiring and teaching other women to create their own sustainable initiatives.
Iba has been developing her organic health farm with her husband Peter, who is Christina's son. The road that leads to the farm is often clogged with piles of dirt and rocks making it more remote and difficult to get to than needed. With the recent acquisition of organic chickens the farm is only just sustainable enough for one family and send a 10 year old boy to school. Peter and Iba's plans are not only to provide sustainable organic farming for more families in the area but also to provide a health retreat, so that people can learn about nutrition and healthy living. Furthermore, Peter, has plans to build a school so that more children like the boy on the farm who is lacking schooling, can have more support.
Iba welcomes in European WorldView Impact explorers, such as Grazina Linkeviciute to understand more about Khasi ecological land use practices for restoring degraded landscapes into naturally fertile farmlands. Grazina, having seen children working on the land and not being able to go to school, was inspired to collaborate with Iba to build language arts/community/educational centres for 600 local villagers.
These young women at St. Mary's College are watching clips from the Nongtluh Women Weaving co-operative out in Umden Diwon village in the hills. Beverley Kharsyntiew, a Khasi entrepreneur in Shillong arranged the film viewing, which enabled a greater understanding about the local initiatives in arts and crafts inspiring women to learn from women.
Being run by Hasina, she understands how this is not just about the women's livelihood, it is about sustaining their history in a contemporary and innovative way. Layered with contemporary design, modern production technology women are able to actively contribute to the growing eco-system and continue their traditions, whilst not being stuck in the past, they are evolving their own future.
Preparations for the Nongkrem Dance festival are undertaken in November, where the villagers of Smit all come together as a community, young, old, male and female to clean the surrounding area and build the second part of the roof of the ceremonial cultural center that stands opposite the house of the Queen and King. Each year only one side of the roof is build up from naturally weaved straw. The queen is the leader of Smit village who has been welcoming Europeans during colonial and post-colonial time to experience this communal and celebratory time together in harmony.
Shillong has often been called "Scotland of the East", because the rolling hills reminded European settlers of Scotland. Tartan checks were initially used as shawls called “Tapmohkhlieh”, literally meaning “head cover”, and worn from the top of the head, tied behind the neck in a knot and then loosely hanging over the upper body. This was the way both men and women wore them. Now it is mostly people from the villages who wear the “Tapmohkhlieh”. As much of the Khasi tradition has been passed down through oral history, it is not clear where the Tartan came from. However many Scottish, European and even people from Lancashire passed through these Khasi Hills. As Shillong is wet and often cold in the hills, the warmth was welcomed from these shawls. Khasi Women being Enterprising as they are, developed their own weaving based on this tartan and it is has become recognised as Khasi traditional dress, varying in style, yet keeping the checkered pattern.
Khasi Women have wisdom that goes far beyond the reaches of Shillong and the Khasi Hills. By exploring matrilineal societies such as the Khasis we can walk a step further towards balancing varying perspectives of gender equality, so that both men and women can strive to live in harmony by expressing their unique culture together whilst learning from others.
Written and Curated by Jessica White
Photography and Camera by Ebor Tariang and Sawdamut Kharbuki
Video editing by Oliver Gardiner
Supported by WorldView Impact Foundation & Thinc Foundation
Special thanks to the people of Shillong, Meghalaya