Title: Beads of Arunachal Pradesh--Emerging Cultural Context; Authors: Sarit K. Chaudhuri and Sucheta Sen Chaudhuri; Publisher: Niyogi Books; Pages: 159; Price: Rs 995/$25
Beads are an integral part of tribal day-to-day wear and costumes for special occasions, but the sheer variety and spectrum of colours found in Arunachal Pradesh are mind boggling.
To that extent, the painstakingly-researched "Beads of Arunachal Pradesh-Emerging Cultural Context" is a scholars' delight and serves as a definitive work on the customs and traditions of a northeastern state about which little is known outside the region.
The northeast, particularly Arunachal Pradesh, has a special place as far as beads are concerned, the authors say in the introduction. The state's geo-political location, with 26 major and several smaller tribes and their innumerable migration stories added a new dimension to the tradition of beads.
"Beads are part of the oral tradition of every tribe. Beads talk about their historic linkages across the political and cultural boundaries through trade, economic status of an individual in a society, as well as medium of exchange, and obviously help identify the tribe to a great extent," say the authors, Sarit K. Chaudhuri and Sucheta Sen Chaudhuri.
Sarit K. Chaudhuri is Director of the National Museum of Mankind, IGRMS, Bhopal, with nine books and 52 research papers to his name. Sucheta Sen Chaudhuri is Dean of the School of Cultural Studies and head of the Centre for Indigenous Culture Studies at Ranchi's Central University of Jharkhand with four books and several research papers to her credit.
In most tribes, say the authors, "there is a distinct gender variation in using beads for personal adornment. A few beads are, however, used by (both) male and female members. Largely, beads are related to women and are important items of exchange during marriages. Even today, original beads are considered highly-valued movable property which, by and large, is inherited through the female line. Most tribes are guided by their customary laws where we find small variations from tribe to tribe in such laws of inheritance".
Noting that there is a strong perception of fake and original beads among the tribes, the book says most tribes have people, generally the elderly, who can distinguish between the two varieties.
"This differentiation is very important as it has a direct relation with their pricing. The originals are old beads which the community acquired through trade or obtained from countries like Tibet, Burma, Bhutan or China. These could also have been obtained from the plains of Assam by trade or bartering with local products of hill tribes.
"Such trades, especially with other countries, came to a halt with a change in the political climate of the region and due to relocating the political boundaries in the post-colonial northeast. This also means that no original beads can be obtained. Currently available beads circulate among families or between generations through marital relations or kinship bonds," the authors say.
There are also some tribes, such as the Wanchos, Noktes, Tangsas and Tani, which believe in life after death. "When somebody dies, they bury his or her personal belongings along with the body. This causes disappearance of the original beads and ornaments from the collective possession of the communities."
This has resulted in a situation where the Tangsas of Changlang district "hardly have any original bead though people claim that they used to have a huge collection of original beads at one point of time", the book notes.
What might come as a surprise is that the concept of fashion shows is integral to the state, cutting across communities or cultural boundaries.
"In contemporary Arunachal, while celebrating tribe-specific popular festivals, one can see such fashion shows or walking on ramps across the rural-urban divide which has gained huge popularity, especially among the younger generation.
"This has created a huge new cultural domain where traditional costumes, especially textiles and beed ornaments, have received a new meaning in the form of innovative designs while most tribes try to maintain their tribe-specific identity markers by using tribal motifs or wearing traditional bead ornaments or even using other forms of traditional body arts (tattoos)," the book says.
The book is undoubtedly an anthropologist's delight but there is much for the lay individual too in its profusion of images.
(Vishnu Makhijani can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)