So much heat has been generated on the Jainsem recently with the infamous incident at Delhi Golf Club where a Khasi lady was asked to leave as her traditional attire was found unsuitable by uninformed Club officials. I am reminded how excited I was to find the Jainsem still in fashion when I went to Shillong after a hiatus of thirty years. And how it became the subject of my first radio programme there. I dug up the piece below from my journal of 2012.
Shillong rolled out a purple carpet for me that summer of 2012. All the way up from Barapani. Masses of purple clouds on the treetops, a gentle purple rain as the petals fluttered down…pooling into soft purple rugs beneath. The jacaranda was in full bloom. As if to welcome me back. After thirty years. Back from Delhi on a two-year tenure transfer.
From my “Room on the Roof”* of All India Radio’s North Eastern Service, I could look out on a hill side flecked with the same purple. From my office window I was looking straight across a hollow into the windows of Saint Mary’s College, where an 18-year-old had gazed out from a classroom once.
It is good to be back, I told the ghost of that girl. And turned away from the window to take stock of my new assignment. Content generation for the English and Hindi women’s programmes on radio. But how and where would one begin? What are the trends and topics of this town, of the North-east? Who would be my talkers, my experts? How was I to find them? I knew not a single soul in town. Assailed by waves of doubt, I decided to go for a walk.
Ambling past the ornate gates of Rajbhavan, my feet took me around a bend of the Ward’s Lake – as green and serene as I remembered it. I crossed the old tea planters’ clubhouse, paused to admire the gracious proportions of a period church, and then found myself among the teeming crowds of Police Bazaar.
My eyes were making a note of the changes. Gone were many of the classic Assam type houses –nestled in a garden with hedges – with their bright red tin roofs, chimneys, gurgling rainwater pipes distinctive windows with a profusion of glass panes, so typical of Shillong once. Ugly Lego blocks of newer constructions were conspiring to block out the sky everywhere.
Change is the only constant, I tell myself. And then I see something that hasn’t changed! Fluttering and flapping in the sharp breeze, they crowd into my vision. Like so many butterflies. In jewelled tints and pastel hues. Bold geometric motifs and soft floral patterns. I notice them in swelling numbers in the busy lanes of police Bazaar. The jainsem—traditional dress of the khasi women—is still very much in vogue!
Here is a topic, I tell myself. This unique, attractive, practical garment—a dress for all seasons. And all reasons. Made simply of two strips of rectangular cloth, tied crosswise over both the shoulders and dropping neatly down to a little above the ankles.
|AIR Shillong staff proudly sporting the Jainsem|
Meghalaya, so rich in lore and legend, would throw up one on this dress from ancient times, I am convinced.
Dr Anita Panda, acclaimed teacher, author and broadcaster, would later put together a much appreciated radio talk on the legend of the jainsem. Dr Panda and I agree that this is a distinctive dress, and is donned proudly by the elderly as well as the young, modern, globalised Khasi women.
Flipping through some anthropological tomes in the library of All India Radio, I realize that both in villages as well as towns, that chief features of the traditional women’s dress are still retained from the times P R T Gurdon and other scholars who recorded their observations. And that the Khasi female dress is very peculiarly their own and cannot be related to the apparel of any neighbouring people.
I am told that the radio talk – “Jainsem - Ek Parampara, Ek Pehchaan” still plays on, and I am happy to see on visits to Shillong that the Jainsem goes on!
*Ruskin Bond’s first novel.