In contemporary Brahmaputra Valley, the mekhela sador has become a costume by which women are judged on their levels of patriotism. 

(By Mitra Phukan)

The weather in this valley of the Brahmaputra is balmy these days. The air is perfumed with Spring.  It is post-Bihu, but there’s festivity in the air, still. There will be song and dance, the music of dhol and pepa, of voice and gogona, reverberating around these hills and valleys that we call home, all through the month of Bohag, till mid-May. The several other ethnic Spring festivals of this state have ended, but the festivity remains.

People are out in strength, visiting elders, going out in groups to celebrate in restaurants and resorts. All around there is joy and happiness, which even the fractious discord of a polarizing election season cannot erase. They are all wearing new clothes, in spite of the fact that, as always, the ferocious winds and rains of a sudden squall, a bordoisila, can cause them to scamper for shelter. But then how can one welcome the New Year, how can one sing and dance along with the nasonis and dhulias, unless one adorns oneself, too, in new clothes? And in this season of election fever and Bohag in our valleys of the Luit, new clothes means, often, mekhela sadors for women.

From March, therefore, there has been a huge proliferation of exhibitions selling mekhela sadors. These come in a mind-boggling array of materials, designs, colours and price points. One can have a budget of five hundred rupees, or seventy-five thousand, (and possibly more) and anything in between. One can be sure that there will be enough variety in the market to satisfy the aesthetic and budgetary requirements of all.

Indeed, the creativity of our weavers and designers is marvellous. These days, the uniformity of yesteryears in the sphere of colours, materials, patterns and designs seems distant. There’s been a glorious burst of creativity in this sphere. The patterns are usually, at the core, traditional ones, but they are mixed and matched in such a way as to bring freshness to the whole. Both pieces of the ensemble, as well as the blouse are often contrasted, to play up the unique beauty of this three piece dress. True, the fourth item of this attire, the riha, is also seen at times, but mostly on very formal occasions, and on bridal wear. The beautiful patterns and weaves of the several ethnic groups of our State are now eagerly snapped up by the cognoscenti, who know that their gasp-inducing beauty will bring them many compliments. And the huge variety of colours that we see is indeed a welcome change from the past, when it was mostly pale colours, and white on the bodies of middle class ‘Assamese’ women, who took pride in the sobriety of their dress, as being, perhaps, reflective of the sobriety of their natures, a state that they aspired to.

The general belief, it seems, is that the mekhela sador is a kind of variation of the sari. I think otherwise. This dress locates us firmly within our region, and links us both to the lands East of us, and to the rest of India, too.  It is, in fact, a variation of the numerous costumes women wear in the states around us. The mekhela, though stitched to form a tube, is a modification of those wraps that we see around us. The gale of Arunachal, the Naga mekhla, the Mizo puan, the Garo dakmanda, the phanek of Manipur, are more similar to our mekhela than is the sari. Though the sador was not worn in the past in the way we see it today, the upper part is now draped like a sari, though the other end is pleated gracefully in unique folds at the waist.

Mekhela sadors are often made differently these days. Besides the traditional looms, there are also the power looms, which have contributed to making the clothes very affordable. Besides the traditional paat and muga, which are expensive, there is a huge variety of other material, cotton, cotton mixes, silk waste, and indeed a huge assortment of other materials. There is also the matter of size. With the modification of looms, and considering the generally expanding girth of the clientele, the mekhela is now much wider than before, while the sador, too, is longer.

All these adjustments and modifications to the costume show how popular it is, today. It is, now, an easily recognizable dress all over the country, one bought by not just the ‘Assamese’, who love these textiles, their patterns and the grace. And no longer do we need societal diktats to wear these. We do it more or less happily, because of the variety available. And yet …is this the whole picture, the true picture? Is there not, also, a societal pressure at work, a pressure that we have got so used to that we barely notice it? It is only when we are “put in place” by a comment, a look, or worse, that we realize the pressures at work. And so, while the variety on offer these days is a welcome development, the fact remains that “mekhela sador politics” is strong in our land.

The mekhela sador has today become a costume by which women are judged on their levels of patriotism. Women, and how they dress, have always in any case had to bear the burden of cultural expectations, but sometimes we see these turning into diktats. There was, for instance, the case of the well-known singer Zublee who was asked not to sing on a Bihu stage in Guwahati, because of her dress, a salwar kamiz, which was not in any way obscene. The only offence that the dress purportedly caused was that it was not a mekhela sador, or one of the “local” ethnic costumes, such as the dokhona.  Her dress did, however, reflect this State because of the ethnic motifs on it. But even this was not deemed “patriotic” enough for her to go up on stage. She was given the option to change to a mekhela sador, and then come back and perform. To her credit, the singer refused, and walked off.

Women performing on stage, as singers or musicians have always had to conform to a dress code here, if what they are performing is a song or melody from this region. Even shastriya sangeet performers never wear a sari on stage, always a mekhela sador. This, perhaps is their choice. But it was not a choice for me years ago, when I was a kheyal singer, and a stage performer.  Previously, I would always wear a sari on stage, because it was easier to balance the mandatory drone instrument, the taanpura, while wearing a sari. The mekhela’s narrow girth made it difficult for me to do so. Gradually, though, during the Assam Agitation years, it became “unpatriotic” to wear a sari on stage. All around me, other performers were wearing mekhela sadors. There was a kind of peer pressure on me to do so as well.  Raised eyebrows, comments in voices that dripped sarcasm, all made me change my mode of dressing on stage, though it hampered my taanpura playing. Gradually, of course, shastriya sangeet itself became very infrequently heard in our region, and that’s another story. In any case, that ended my own dress code dilemma.

There is also the interesting case of the singers of the deshi geets, also known as the Goalpariya songs of Western Assam. When a singer gets up on stage to sing a Mahout song in the beautiful tongue of Western Assam, it seems incongruous that she does so in a mekhela sador. The doyenne of the genre, Pratima Pandey of the erstwhile Gauripur zamindari family, is remembered not in a mekhela sador, but a simple sari, with the anchal mostly pulled over her head. And yet today, when a singer sings in the Deshi tongue on stage, of the great forests of Western Assam where wild elephants roam free across man made boundaries of state and nation, she is attired in a mekhela sador. I find this incongruous, to say the least. Thankfully, the jhumur dancers from the Adivasi communities of the tea gardens still wear the traditional red bordered white saris while dancing. Hopefully, this will not change.

In any case, there is a “Dress Code Homogenization” that is happening before our eyes. In the border areas of Western Assam, the sari, rather than the mekhela sador was what the women wore, in general. But in the rest of the Brahmaputra Valley, the sari was seen as the dress of the “Other”, in this case, the Bengalis, as a result of which the women of this region, who pride themselves in being Assamese, have taken to the mekhela sador. Previously, women would get married in a Benarasi sari…today, it has to be a riha-mekhela-sador ensemble in Assam silk. My mother, from Dhubri herself, was most comfortable in a sari. And she was always saddened when people mistook her for a Bengali, because of her Goalpariya accent and her saris, for she was as proud to be Asomiya as anybody else. Did a woman’s Asomiya identity reside only in the wearing of a mekhela sador, she would wonder.

The politicization of a dress, and the enforcement of a dress code, is something that has been much in evidence since the eighties. When women of all ages went out in protest marches during the Assam Agitation, it was unthinkable that they should wear anything other than mekhela sadors of sober hues. Today, thankfully, dokhonas are becoming more commonly seen even in areas outside the Bodoland region. But mostly in the eighties, it was mekhela sadors. This leads one to wonder …has the rich diversity in the designs and colours of mekhela sadors come from the demand that started at that time, perhaps? Is this the flip side of the coin, then?

This politicization of the dress is very much in evidence during election season. The lines of women who come to cast their vote are all attired in their own “ethnic” dress. In much of the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam, outside Bodoland, again, it is in sober hued mekhela sadors.  In areas where the migrant Muslim community is dominant, the women go in their saris. And this brings on the barb of “Bangladeshi” from those who consider themselves to be “of the soil”, even though the sari-wearing woman is as much of an Indian citizen as the one who is jeering at her. Such, indeed, is the power of dress.

The mekhela sador dress code is now firmly entrenched in many parts of Assam. It is mandatory for women to wear it when they go to such ceremonies as a shraddha, for instance. This is often a hassle, for a working woman has to come home and change into “appropriate” wear before she can again go to the function. Her office wear, of maybe salwar kurta or trousers, is never deemed “appropriate”, especially if she is not young. For her male colleagues, though, it’s perfectly okay to go straight from work to the function without the necessity of changing their clothes. This discrimination on the basis of gender is seen in the area of dress codes at all levels of social interaction today.

In any case, in much of this valley, it is de rigueur to be attired in mekhela sador during a formal function. Not only are Asomiya women dignitaries on stage expected to be draped in a pair, even the women in the audience in a serious function come dressed likewise, though they would be more comfortable in salwar kurta otherwise. And the amusing thing is that even those young girls who come to garland the dignitaries with gamosas are attired similarly. This becomes, actually, a kind of fashion show for mekhela sadors.

Too much of a good thing? It is intriguing, therefore, to find that the “Other Valley” is a mirror image. After landing in Kumbhirgram airport, suddenly, one finds women dressed in beautiful saris on stage, in functions held in Silchar, for instance. Interesting, that! Especially, these days, in the context of the ongoing National Register of Citizens updating process, and the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill, which find a sharp polarization between the Barak and Brahmaputra valleys of Assam.

Guwahati-based Mitra Phukan is a novelist, columnist and a vocalist of the Hindusthani Shastriya Sangeet tradition.

Pangsau thanks Abhinav P. Borbora and Pankaj Borbora for sharing the featured image in this article. The image records Chief Minister Golap Borbora’s visit to Tinsukia Women’s College in 1978-79. He is accompanied by the then D.C., Dibrugarh, Shri B.K. Mishra and Smt. Tilottama Barua, then Director of Education, Government of Assam, who is wearing a mekhela sador.