New lens on old ways

Meghaa Aggarwal | Updated on December 14, 2018

Listening circle: Elders in Ze, a Naga village in Manipur, meet members of The Kohima Institute during a film studies course   -  ZHOTO TUNYI

Co-founded by an American scholar, the Kohima Institute seeks to rediscover significant chunks of indigenous knowledge lost in the mists of time

In 2002, when American anthropologist Michael Heneise first visited Mokokchung, in Nagaland, he became a dreamer. “It seemed that dreams were on everyone’s lips. In the morning hours, people young and old would share their dreamtime experiences, and a relative would step forward and begin to interpret them. People really believed their dreams, and I found this incredible,” he recalls.

Later, he adds, he understood the significance of dreams in Naga folklore and mythology, and even everyday decision-making, when he was invited by the Naga poet and author Easterine Kire to spend a few days with her family in Kohima. He ended up pursuing a PhD from the Edinburgh University, focusing on the anthropology of dreams. Heneise, who married a woman from the Angami Naga tribe, returned to Kohima in 2012, and set up The Kohima Institute, which seeks to rediscover lost indigenous knowledge.

“With Indian independence, and the start of the Indo-Naga conflict, Naga areas were cut off from the world, and have only recently opened up. So, in many ways, anthropologists like myself are taking stock of what happened, looking at cultural continuities and transformations in that 70-year period, and what kind of work can be done now, especially with traditional ecological knowledge,” he says. Pointing to Nagaland’s geographical location as a vital link between South and Southeast Asia, one that passes through Kohima and the Naga hills, he wonders how this would impact the region’s indigenous communities. “In the next 15 to 20 years, this area will be critical for studying the changes that come about as traffic between the two regions expands,” he tells BLink during an interaction in Kohima.

A meeting of minds

It was sheer serendipity that led Heneise to the Naga academician Kekhrie Yhome, with whom he co-founded not-for-profit The Kohima Institute in April 2013. “Kekhrie was doing a PhD in continental philosophy at Delhi’s Jawarharlal Nehru University, and I was doing a PhD in South Asian studies at Edinburgh University. We were both eager to connect with the intellectual community in Kohima, meet and exchange ideas with other scholars. But this space had not yet been created.”

In December that year, the two scholars organised a meeting that was open to anyone who wanted to share their work. “The response was overwhelming — historians, anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, philosophers — scholars from all over travelled to Kohima. A few months later we compiled the best papers into an edited volume, Passing Things On: Ancestors and Genealogies in Northeast India, to keep the conversation going,” he says.

In 2014, Swiss anthropologist Dr Marion Wettstein launched her book Naga Textiles: Design, Technique, Meaning and Effect of a Local Craft Tradition in Northeast India at the institute. She had scoured museums in Britain and other parts of Europe for old Naga weaves from colonial times. “Dr Wettstein had created meticulous sketches of these patterns, which she showed the original communities. Many of these had long fallen out of use, but seeing them again reinvigorated many weavers to recover them,” reminisces Heneise. Dr Wettstein agreed to donate some of her sketches to fund a Kohima Institute project.

Starting off as a forum for ideas, interdisciplinary dialogue and collaborative work, the institute has grown to attract local researchers and organisations willing to support research work. For instance, it partnered with the Nagaland government, Oxford Policy Management and the World Bank to conduct surveys on the effectiveness of the recently launched Nagaland Health Project in over 50 villages. It also signed an agreement with the Tomo Riba Institute of Health and Medical Sciences in Arunachal Pradesh, and the University of Leeds in the UK, to study health systems across Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur.

Turning to causes

Chief among the organisation’s interests is education, particularly in the indigenous areas. Heneise’s pet project is the Bamboo Curriculum, a childhood education concept rooted in indigenous knowledge and implemented using innovative models from around the world. He cites the ‘lab school’ at the University of California in Los Angeles, where the classrooms serve as laboratories for exploring innovative ideas about teaching, learning and child development, as also the ‘Green School’ in Bali where the children grow their own food, and cook and serve it during mealtimes.

“American scholar and political activist Noam Chomsky believes that the only communities standing between humankind and environmental catastrophe are the world’s indigenous communities: First Nations in Canada, indigenous people in Bolivia, Aborigines in Australia, tribal people in India. The idea that indigenous knowledge could save human civilisation is incredible, and it may be true... We need to ramp up our efforts to listen, to respect, to give room, to allow those who can offer a different way the power and agency to do so,” he says. .

Meghaa Aggarwal works in children’s publishing and writes on education and the environment

Published on December 14, 2018

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