‘Modi Gamusa’? The Cultural Appropriation of Manipur’s Leirum Phee

On April 14, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation wearing Leirum Phee – a traditional Manipuri cloth – as a scarf to cover his mouth.

Days later, weavers in Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki started mass producing the scarf using a power loom and selling it under the name ‘Modi Gamusa’, or ‘Modi gamcha’. This led to an outpouring of outrage on social media in Manipur, with many voicing discontent over the cultural appropriation at display.

The Leirum Phee is Manipur’s proud contribution to the plethora of handloom textiles of India, and it involves intensive manual effort to produce one. It is an artefact of historical and cultural significance to the state, especially to the Meitei and Tangkhul communities.

Centuries ago, it is believed, the Leirum Phee was gifted by the Tangkhuls to the Meiteis as a tribute, establishing a healthy relationship between the hill and valley communities. Ever since, it has been an integral element of a Meitei wedding – as an indispensable component of the pham konba, a blessing ritual of the wedding where the family of the bride gifts her ningol gi awunpot, which includes a bed. Many also believe that the motifs signify guardianship.

The Leirum Phee scarf is also proudly presented to dignitaries visiting Manipur.

In 1078-1112 AD, under the reign of King Loyumba, 32 yumnak (surnames) were assigned to weave handloom textiles bearing unique motifs. Of the 32 yumnak, the 11th in order was the Shal Chiram yumnak who were assigned to weave the Leirum Phee, writes author, anthropologist and cultural activist Mutua Bahadur. In Delhi, a display of the Leirum Phee can be found at the Dilli Haat, near INA metro station.

The Northeast is something like a magician on commission for the rest of India. Someday when the mainstream need arises, it will suddenly fill you with excitement, leave you gaping and awestruck at its glory. And when the show is over, you pack up and leave, and soon forget about its existence. Strike that, you are made to forget about it.

No NCERT history textbook has a chapter on the Northeast, representation in parliament is shamefully meagre, racial discrimination against people from the Northeast is rampant, and the region now suffers from rapid cultural erosion.

The region has had to struggle harder than the rest to remain relevant to national governance and attention. The voice of the Northeast has often been sidelined to make way for the mainland.

Also read: Harassed and Ostracised: Racist Attacks Against Northeast Citizens on the Rise

Cultural misappropriation is not the same as mutual cultural exchange; it is shaped by power dynamics. It is an instance where a member of a dominant culture attempts to overpower the culture of a minority group, one that has been oppressed by the former. In this case, an important and reverent cultural identity of the minority has been stripped – erased of its origin, renamed, repackaged and sold for mass profit.

This is cultural misappropriation.

How does one show love for someone’s culture but at the same time remain prejudiced against the people? It is a question less for workers in Barabanki, but more for the nation as a whole.

We are doing a great injustice to the weaving community of Manipur by not acknowledging their hard work and plight. The craftsmanship is often considered an heirloom passed down from generations and despite hardships, the community has held its head high and forged its way through, says Wahengbam Nilamani Singh, former managing director of the Manipur handloom and handicrafts development corporation.

The directorate of handloom and textiles, Manipur, has written a letter to the development commissioner of the Union ministry of textiles, requesting their intervention into the mass production of the ‘Modi Gamusa’ in UP. The directorate stated in the letter that the process to acquire a geographical identification (GI) tag for the Leirum Phee has begun.

As citizens, we must not let the great phrase that defines this nation “unity in diversity” succumb to nothing but a marketing gimmick. Diversity must be upheld, but respect for indigenous cultures cannot be forsaken.

Featured image credit: Twitter