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The Tripura Project

Craft Research

The Tripura Project is a research-oriented project that aims to revive the craft of backstrap loom weaving practised by tribal communities in the northeastern state of Tripura. This project was initiated as part of the “Crafting Futures” programme of the British Council in 2018 under a grant awarded to Tilla for working in the region towards improving women’s livelihoods. The revival brings into focus the Risha or breast-cloth, by re-purposing it as a stole or scarf.

Each individual piece uses tribe-specific motifs and layouts that establish the weaver’s identity and continue ancient family traditions. Our fieldwork is centred around two villages, Lefunga and Gamchakobra, with approximately 40 weavers. Working at a macro level to improve the quality of raw material and infrastructure, and establishing better market links is a long term commitment we have made to this region.

Tripuri woman weaving one half of a Rignai (traditional wrap skirt) with a white border on a ri thanti, or backstrap loom. c. 1974
Young Jamatia girl spinning cotton, seated on a finely plaited bamboo mat called yang khum or sital pati. Girls start learning how to weave very young, around 10 years of age. c. 1974
Wa Wo, meaning ‘Bamboo Making’, refers to basketry craft and is the role of men in indigenous communities in Tripura. c. 1977
L: Century old cotton and silk Rishas from the Tripuri Royal Family. Rishas worn by royal family members were typically made in silk with motifs in silver and gold thread inlaid in the extra weft technique. | R: New Risha woven in eucalyptus fibre (Tencel) in packaging made from bamboo strips.
Clockwise from left: Sandhya, a weaver from Lefunga Village, Tripura, weaving a Risha on her backstrap loom. 2018; Two girls from the Deb Barma community wearing their traditional Risha. c. 1974; Paddy fields, Gamchakobra village, Tripura.
Kitchen gardens and small ponds are common outside every house in the villages of Tripura.
Fruits from the Muphrai plant (Basella alba) is used to produce red and purple natural dyes.
Clockwise from left: Parts of a Ri Thanthi (Backstrap Loom); Draping of a Rignai (traditional wrap skirt); A traditional Rignai from the Reang community is typically a combination of red, black and blue colours and consists of thin stripes along the body of the skirt with thick borders on either sides.
A Risha from the Reang Community.

Risha: A Narrow Piece of Cloth

Exhibition and Catalogue

The project documents a rare collection of archival photographs from two sources: the royal family of Tripura dating back to the late 19th century and the Publicity Department Archive, Government of Tripura, c. 1970; along with 34 traditional textiles that have been catalogued in the form of a publication titled “Risha: A narrow piece of cloth”. The catalogue accompanies an exhibition by the same name, designed as a travelling display that can be showcased at galleries and museums the world over to raise awareness and create an interest in this remote region.

Technical notes and a vernacular glossary of motifs and natural dyes are included in the textile study. The photographs serve as a valuable reminder of a time before tribal identity was assimilated into mainstream Bengali culture, and chart the gradual evolution of tribal weaving traditions on parallel timelines- both in the palace and villages of the state..

Wa Wo, meaning ‘Bamboo Making’, refers to basketry craft and is the role of men in indigenous communities in Tripura. c. 1977
Women from the Deb Barma tribe wearing simple white pasras (wrapped lower garment) carrying water back in clay pots to their village near Teliamura. c. 1977
L: Tripuri woman wearing a short striped rignai and white gamsa, crushing paddy using a wooden mortar (rwsam) and pestle (romo). c. 1977 | R: Deb Barma girl wearing a risha and ganthi bwtang; ganthi meaning beads and bwtang meaning necklace. c. 1974
L: Mogh couple during harvest season with paddy collected from their rice fields. The woman wears a screen printed short blouse instead of a risha. Maitang or paddy is a common motif in Tripuri textiles. c. 1977 | R: Reang couple fetching water from a nearby river. The woman is wearing a plain rignai with patterned borders and traditional jewellery. c. 1974
Reang girls wearing traditional rignais with stitched blouses. It is still common for Reang women to wear coin necklaces as a part of their everyday attire. c. 1978

The Royal Portrait Series

The royals of Tripura saw a stream of art enthusiasts starting from Raja Bir Chandra Manikya, who ascended the throne in 1862. Bir Chandra was keenly interested in poetry, art, music and literature. Amongst his main interests was photography. Owner of one of the first two cameras that came into India (the second one being owned by Raja Deen Dayal), Bir Chandra took several photographs of his wives, children and subjects from his court.

These photographs have inadvertently come to be some of the oldest photographic records in India, all having been taken between 1862 and 1896. The platinum palladium prints show the gradual evolution of dress from the Risha to the saree, lehenga and European styles seen on the young princesses. The prints were never meant for public viewing and are a rare and revealing record of the women in the palace from this era.

Raja Bir Chandra Manikya
The king is wearing an angarakha of patterned silk, with a chest opening covered with an inner flap or purdah tied at the waist. c. 1880. Platinum palladium print.
Maharani Monmihini Devi
The Maharani posing like British Queen Victoria in what appears to be an eclectic and creatively staged shot. The Queen wears a plain European dress with one of her own blouses, a silk jacket with long sleeves and a feathered Mughal head ornament that holds a veil down in place. c. 1890. Photographed by Raja Bir Chandra Manikya. Platinum palladium print.
Monmihini Devi
Bir Chandra’s third queen in a silk striped risha, covered with a gauze like plain aanchal. Photographed by Bir Chandra Manikya. Platinum palladium print. c. 1890
Monmohini Devi, with her third daughter, Princess Mrinalini. Photographed by Bir Chandra Manikya. Platinum palladium print. c. 1890.
Princesses Kumudini (left) and Nalini (seated right), daughters of Monmohini Devi, in formal Indian costume with European influences. Photographed by Bir Chandra Manikya. Platinum palladium print. c. 1890.
Princess Nalini Devi
First daughter of Monmohini Devi, wearing a pleated silk dress cut in European style, with long sleeves. c. 1890
Princess Mrinalini Devi
Third daughter of Monmohini Devi. c. 1888
Princess Mrinalini Devi
Third daughter of Monmohini Devi. The princess poses in a studio with a painted backdrop of an open landscape. c. 1888
Manmohini Devi
Photographed by Bir Chandra Manikya. The young queen wears an elaborate silk Risha (right) and a fabric patterned with long, inlaid floral butas draped as a skirt. Platinum palladium print. c. 1888

The Tripuri Collection

This collection showcases the versatility of the Risha as an accessory. Used as a belt or sash, turban and bandeau, the Risha gives each look a distinct Tripuri identity when used in conjunction with traditional Reang coin and bead necklaces.