YANA NGOBA often lapses into Hindi when she is animated. It is the language they speak at home in Naharlagun, Arunachal Pradesh, and she is often amused when people react with surprise. “In Arunachal, there are many tribal dialects, but the common language is Hindi,” she explains patiently every time. There is so much about the northeast that the rest of India still does not know.
Ngoba is a self-taught fashion designer. “Style is inborn in me. Even when body-piercing was not common in India, I had gone ahead with piercing my eyebrow and belly button,” she says. She remembers the time Arunachal had its first beauty pageant, around 17 years ago. “My mother told me some people were making girls dance semi-nude at Hotel Arunachal. I told her it was a pageant, but she was convinced they were badmash [devious]people,” says Ngoba. From that time to the present, much has changed in the state. An intrinsically style-conscious people have learnt to patronise bespoke garments, and fashion is seeing a boom here.
Ngoba began her career early, and has showcased her designs across the country and several times in London. In 2013, she was nominated as one of the upcoming designers at a London fashion show. Two years ago, at the Lakme Fashion Week, her entire collection was sold out at the venue itself.
Like most designers of the northeast, Yana prefers working with local weaves. And that is not as easy as it seems. Even after all these years, she faces resentment from tribal leaders, who feel using traditional motifs in modern clothing is akin to desecrating them. Her defence is simple: “I will stop using them once you convince the weaver to stop supplying me.” That, of course, is not likely to happen because, thanks to efforts like hers, the dying art of weaving has got a shot in the arm. Once, weaving was a skill that every girl was taught. It is not so, today. “We have such a great weaving tradition. I feel every weaver is herself a designer,” said Ngoba.
The designer, who was based in Guwahati earlier, moved back to Arunachal Pradesh a few years ago to start the North East India Fashion Week. “It is a movement, more than an event,” she said. Through these efforts, she hopes to expose the weaver to the outside world. The efforts bore fruit, when a year ago, a group of designers came from the US to study local weaves. “They taught us how to make fabric from pineapple fibre. It feels good to know that people are learning about my state through me,” she says.
And, slowly, she is beginning to get sponsorships, apart from Arunachal Tourism. She travels across the Seven Sisters, interacting with weavers, and opening up a global market for them. The world may be the market, but Naharlagun will continue to be home. “I see the stressed life of people in Kolkata and Guwahati. I prefer it here,” she says. “We are a happy people, always partying and merry-making. And, so many more opportunities are opening up here.”