Defining Life!


Among all the States of Northeast India, Nagaland has always evoked a sense of mysticism and awe, something which has been further intensified by its remoteness and its people who have managed to successfully preserve man’s animist culture. The varied and rich topography of the land which is inhabited by a group of fiercely independence-loving warriors and their ancient traditions have further added to the mystic appeal of this hill State.

Bound together by its own set of rituals, customs and traditions, Naga culture is exclusive in its own right. The State has a population of only around 1.9 million people, which might sound meagre when compared to other Indian States; but these very people are made up of 16 different tribes, each representing different cultures and preserving different customs. However, with the conversion of the population into Christianity and the incorporation of western influences into their daily life, the rich and varied culture of the Nagas is slowly falling onto oblivion. There is an urgent need to save Naga culture for the present and upcoming generations, primarily for its youth so that they are aware of their roots, their identity.

Up close with Sentila Tsukjem Yanger, Padmashree awardee

In our search for those dynamic Northeasterners who have managed to bring about a positive change in society through their efforts, the melange team recently landed at the door of Sentila Tsukjem Yanger. A Naga textile specialist and craft revivalist, Sentila is widely acknowledged for her work with women craft artisans, which has provided vital links in bringing around sustainable rural development. An ardent advocate of the use of natural dyes as eco-friendly alternatives, Sentila has been experimenting with and incorporating value additions in Naga fabrics with the aim of making it more attractive amongst the younger generations. Her efforts have paid off as youngsters in Nagaland, as well as the rest of the country and the world, today carry with élan, trendy and fashionable clothes and bags which are based on traditional Naga textiles. Not just textiles, Sentila has been at the forefront of those working for the preservation of Naga Art and culture. An avid music enthusiast, she has been working with young people in Nagaland to make Naga folk stories, music and tradition more interesting by recreating them in digital format, while incorporating modern techniques like 3-D animation and experimental Naga folk music. In acknowledgement of her significant role in shaping policies for Handloom and Handicraft development and women’s empowerment, Sentila Tsukjem Yanger was bestowed with the prestigious Padmashree Award last year.

Following are excerpts from a discussion which Aiyushman Dutta recently had with the suave lady at her residence in Dimapur.

Aiyushman: Please tell me something about your childhood.

Sentila: I was born to Late Tsukjem Wati and Achila Tsukjem of Mokokchung district in Nagaland. I was born into a pretty affluent family as my father was a successful businessman, being one of the first Naga Army contractors. My father had completed his education from Bombay Commerce College and after he came back to Nagaland, started providing food and other supplies to the Army. His decision to become an Army supplier was significant for Nagaland was passing through a turbulent stage during that time, there were a lot of anti-India feelings in the State. Under those circumstances, his work assumed more risky proportions.

Aiyushman: You studied in Shillong for a considerable period. Please tell me something more about those days.

Sentila: Though I started going to school in Nagaland in the first two years of my school life, I did most of my schooling in Loreto Convent, Shillong. I still remember how traumatic it was for me when I first joined Loreto Convent in 1965. Hailing from a small school in Mokokchung which taught me just passable English, I felt totally out of place amongst the highly westernised and articulate students of Loreto Convent who spoke the language fluently. Looking back, I barely understood the language and was just bewildered in such company initially. I remember my reaction when I met the first blue-eyed blonde in school – I could not take in the sight as I didn’t know whether she was a doll or a human! We had no other option but to pick up the nitty-gritty of the language. Hostel life again was quite an experience. I was just around six years when I went to hostel and it was pretty frightening. I adapted though and developed an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. In many ways, my schooling in Loreto Convent helped lay the foundation of my life and made me the person I am today. After Shillong, I left for Mysore to attend Theresian College and thereafter at Bangalore.

Throughout my days in school and college, I was very much into sports, the Arts and craft. Having a deep interest in extra-curricular activities, I won a lot of prizes in elocution and painting competitions in school.

Aiyushman: You have also been working in the field of prevention of substance abuse. Can you elaborate a bit?

Sentila: I have always been involved in a lot of charity work and our club –the erstwhile Yorovan Club – was the first organisation in Nagaland to wake up to the threat of drug addiction in Nagaland around the early eighties. One thing we realised was that the Nagas as a whole – especially the elderly people – had not even realised the implications of the widespread use of narcotics and prescription drugs by the younger generations. Though the thrust was on prevention of drug abuse in Nagaland, we also had to make the elder people – the fathers and the mothers – aware about the problem.

In 1984-85, we started a year-long media campaign in Nagaland through the two English newspapers which were published in the State at that time in order to educate people about drug abuse. We got in touch with a rehab facility in Kolkata and organized the first de-addiction camp in Nagaland in April 1986. We collaborated with the district medical officer here who provided us with the ward space for the detoxification camp at the Dimapur Civil Hospital. Besides, we organized rock concerts and other shows to garner support for the cause, and the money generated from these activities were always used for holding de-addiction camps.

Aiyushman: Looking back, how would you view those days?

Sentila: In those days, there were very few people who were aware about the problem. At the end of the day, we are satisfied for contributing at least a drop into the ocean; drops that led to the creation of a ripple. This ripple has now become a wave of sorts as people are now highly aware and sensitized about the problem.

Looking back, we were just a group of like-minded individuals having a genuine concern for society. It was all self-motivation and since there was a genuine sense of responsibility, there was genuineness in our actions.

Aiyushman: Please tell me about your family.

Sentila: I am married to Aochuba Yanger, who is a successful paper technologist. We met in Bangalore and decided to get married. He spent around 4 years in the Mandiya Paper Mill before eventually deciding to come back to Nagaland, where we have been ever since. One of my sons Limawapang is a musician and composer who is presently based in Mumbai, while my other son Lipoktemsu Yanger is a successful graphic designer also working out from Mumbai. My son Lima is married to this wonderful girl Anisha Sengupta, who as the name implies is Bengali and Parsi from the maternal side.

Aiyushman: Why did you choose to work on textiles?

Sentila: There was always a creative side of me which I wanted to nourish; I wanted to get into an area which needed to be explored. So I started experimenting with textiles for I saw a huge scope in this field. I had always been perturbed to find that traditional Naga fabrics are all based on the same style, even though we have a wide range of motifs at our disposal. In order to make our textiles more appealing to market opportunities, I decided to experiment with our textiles by applying the same traditional designs in a more contemporary mode. Accordingly, I started a weaving unit in my house with around six weavers who were all suffering from their own individual problems. A blend of tradition with the contemporary was how I started designing and producing my products.

Aiyushman: How was the beginning like?

Sentila: People nowadays are more conscious about colour and trends. The market today is ruled by these factors. My products follow these colour trends but at the same time, they have elements of ethno Naga. Handloom entrepreneurs in earlier days were concentrating primarily on traditional stuff; but we, the second generation entrepreneurs, have taken it to another level. My initiative which began with just six weavers has now expanded to around 80 weavers who are spread across Dimapur and two villages in  Mokokchung district.

Aiyushman: Did you ever think that your initiative would reap such rich dividends? What kind of difficulties did you have to face?

Sentila: Well, the focus was always there to take the work to a very high level. When I first started, the emphasis was on taking Naga fabrics to the world audience. This objective has now been more or less achieved by the handloom entrepreneurs of the State. We have managed to incorporate a lot of professional ethos into the Handloom sector of Nagaland, while frequent textile fairs have helped promote Naga fabrics to people outside.

As far as difficulties are concerned, there were quite a few. Firstly, we were all quite young and there was very little professionalism in the beginning. We also faced a lot of problems with regards to availability of trained workers and sourcing of raw material. To top it all, it was always a difficult job procuring new colour schemes.

Aiyushman: Working basically as a craft specialist and revivalist, how did you get drawn into the field of women rights and women empowerment?

Sentila: After personally witnessing the domestic problems of the six weavers who had joined me in the beginning, I grew more aware of the need for supporting the womenfolk; aware of the necessity to bring women together collectively and channelling their energy into a positive direction. Tribal Weave was accordingly formed in 1994. I have always championed the cause of women empowerment and rights and had the privilege to address these issues in several platforms. Some of the committees I have been associated with are: Member of the Working Committee for the 11th Plan Preparation on Village and Small Enterprise, (Gender Perspective) Planning Commission, GOI, Special Invitee, National Board on Skill Development, Planning Commission, GOI, Nagaland State Level Women Empowerment Committee, Member, Thematic Group on Gender Issues for the Nagaland District Human Resource Development Report.

Aiyushman: I hear you are also pretty much into music…

Sentila: Well, music is a passion which goes back to the days of my childhood. Having started with the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, music is something which has remained constant throughout my life. Classical music has also always been an integral part; I started learning the piano when I was in Class 2. Though it’s been years since I sat behind the piano, I would say music requires a lot of dedication and perseverance for a person who wants to make a career of it. Otherwise, music is the food of love- play on.

Aiyushman: What aspect of Naga culture and heritage do you feel should be projected to the rest of the country and the world?

Sentila: Frankly speaking, I don’t approve of promoting Nagaland as an area of jungles, animals and rustic people. That is not the real Nagaland. See, culture is constantly changing; globalization has resulted in a sort of monoculture – that is one culture for everybody. We have so many aspects to our culture; I believe each and every facet should be promoted and preserved.

Aiyushman: What do you feel about the insurgency problem of Nagaland?

Sentila: I seriously feel that there are a lot of other areas which need our attention other than these issues which have been going on for the last sixty years. However, I would leave the specialists and civil societies to help find a solution to the problem. But yes, I would still say that there are a lot of other areas which need our attention; issues like HIV and AIDS, violence on the girl child, unemployment, loss of cultural values, unabated influx of migrants from Bangladesh, and the like.

Aiyushman: Talking about loss of cultural values, what do you have to say on the blind imitation of western culture by today’s youth in Nagaland and the Northeast?

Sentila: I basically grew up during the hippie period and like others of my age, I found the love and peace thing “groovy’. We were the generation in the region to wear mini skirts, bell bottoms, platform shoes while boys sported long hair, frilled shirts, wore beads, the generation to give the “culture shock”. You can say that we were the first generation to bring “monoculture” to the region; looking back, let us be the first to say no to the blind imitation of western culture.

Aiyushman: What are your views on the increasing trend of learning Korean by Naga youngsters?

Sentila: This is something very alarming as urban youngsters of Dimapur and Kohima are now incorporating so much of Korean language and culture into their lifestyle that they are slowly losing touch with their own traditions; many can’t even speak their own mothertongue! As a result, we now have children communicating with their parents in Nagamese. Besides being highly unfortunate, this is something which needs to be taken very seriously.

Aiyushman: What are your plans for the future?

Sentila: I like to take it one day at a time. But I do envision a future where we all march ahead, looking back on our past to shape the future and take the best of our cultural values with us.


Posted on January 15, 2010, in Personalities/ Interviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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