Thursday, July 28, 2011

Potters Of Manipur Ursula Graham Bower (1939)

Culture and Crafts in Manipur, Northeast India
by Ursula Graham Bower (1939)

"Are wa ittai nan dai?" (What on earth is that?) cried a startled Japanese officer as a burst of elephant-gun fire whistled past his ears and a troop of half-naked Nagas leaped out of the bushes. He found out, but too late. He and his jungle patrol were wiped out. But last week other Japs who had survived the fight in northern Burma knew more about the Naga raiders and their leader. The half-naked tribesmen from northeastern India were directed by a white woman: pert, pretty Ursula Graham-Bower, 30, an archeology student who looks like a cinemactress.
In 1939 Miss Graham-Bower went out from England to India "to putter about with a few cameras and do a bit of medical work, maybe write a book." She disappeared into the Assam hills to study the Nagas. These lithe-limbed warriors live in fortified hilltop villages, lead a somewhat humdrum existence punctuated by occasional raids to cut off their neighbors' heads, which they carry about in wicker baskets.

Miss Graham-Bower managed to keep her own head on, and presently won the friendship of the Naga chieftains. Now then people in the outside world got letters from her, exulting over the pictures she was taking of primitive dances and ceremonies. Some of the more pretentious Nagas wore a little apron in front, but most just wore bracelets. They cultivated little patches of cleared jungle for rice, and, like the South American Indians, used drugs to catch fish. They begged Miss Graham-Bower to name their babies. She named most of them Victoria Elizabeth.
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Once upon time, Manipur was surrounded by seven hillocks and water every where. Seven suns burned day and night. Atiya Kuru Shidaba and Ima Leimaran decided to create a world thus descended from heaven. Atiya Kuru Shidaba drained out water through a hole with a trident. Once settled, they had a child to fulfill their wishes. A voice from the heaven announced- Dig out some clay and make a pitcher out of it and offer prayers for seven days then your wish will be fulfilled. After seven days of prayer, a male child of golden colour was found by the couple. The child was christened Sanamahi, he later shot down six extra suns by his arrows and created various creatures dwelling on water, air and earth. Finally he created human being. Atiya Kuru Shidaba and Ima Leimaran Shidabi disappeared after completing their task. Ima Leimaran took several incarnations to carry out seven different tasks.`Panthoibi or Leima Leinaotabi, was among them, who created the first earthen-pot. Therefore, in the creation myth of Manipur, the earthen pot becomes the metaphor for the womb.
Manipuri pottery is unique in style and technique. Unlike in other parts of India, the craft is practised both by men and women. The potters of this area do not use a wheel and, instead, use the coiled method of making pots. The pots are functional and, more often than not, black in colour, a result of the process followed and of the smoke stains while firing. Manipuri pottery is made with a mixture of clay and powdered stone. After a thorough kneading, a large slab is rolled out and shaped into a cylinder. The cylinder is placed on a circular board, which, in turn, is placed on a stool. The potter then actually moves around the clay himself, shaping and forming the pot. The pot is supported from the inside with a rounded stone and beaten to the desired shape and thickness. Great dexterity is required as the internal pressure and external movement must be well co-ordinated to produce a perfect pot. The pot is usually finished by rubbing the surface with the reddish-brown seed of a wild creeper and finally with bees wax.

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