Image: Century old cotton and silk Rishas from the Tripuri Royal Family. All images courtesy of Tilla.
“They wanted a designer to go into the craft ecosystem and see if there would be a road map which could be followed by others” says Aratrik Dev Varman, of The Tripura Project, initiated as part of the “Crafting Futures” program of the British Council in 2018. Aratrik hails from Tripura –India’s third smallest state, located in the northeast, landlocked, mountainous, bordered by Bangladesh on three sides. The state is known for its bamboo crafts and beautiful hand-woven textiles.
Tripuri textiles were traditionally woven on the backstrap loom specially for weaving garments worn by women: the risha (an upper garment like a breast cloth), a rignai (a lower garment similar to a wraparound sarong) and the rikutu (a drape). In recent years, the tradition of wearing these garments has declined; they may be worn for special occasions and the risha gifted during ceremonies or guests. Aratrik’s family has a large collection of beautiful hand-woven silk and metal yarn hand-woven traditional Tripuri weaves. He had long wanted to document them; revive weaving on the backstrap loom in his home state and make it a sustainable practise.
Image: Two girls from the Deb Barma community wearing their traditional Risha. c.1974
A grant given to Tilla (Aratrik’s design studio) by the British Council made this possible, so Aratrik and illustrator Jisha Unnikrishnan travelled to Tripura to research and document rishas. Serendipitously they came across a family album of Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya, ruler of Tripura, (reigned 1862-96), who, having been one of the first in India to procure a camera, took several images of his family members and subjects for his personal interest. This album offered a treasured visual documentation of the rishas woven over a century ago, the style of wearing them and the gradual changes in fashion over the decades.
Image: Sandhya, a weaver from Lefunga Village, Tripura, weaving a Risha on her backstrap loom. 2018
Collaborating with weavers in Lefunga and Gamchakobra villages, Aratrik and Jisha designed a collection of Risha stoles as well as meticulously documented thirty-four traditional textiles of his family’s collection. Charting the migration of motifs between communities, changes in colour and yarn type (from silk and cotton to acrylic), they catalogued their findings in “Risha: A narrow piece of cloth”, which they are still hoping to publish.
The coronavirus pandemic has slowed interactions between Aratrik and the weavers in 2020, but he hopes to resume their collaborations later this year and to hold exhibitions of the heritage and newly woven rishas in multiple cities. To find out more about this project, visit Aratrik’s website.
Guest post by Brinda Gill.