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An illustrator captures North-East folklore in ink and watercolour

Illustrator Alyssa Pachuau is bringing to life forgotten aspects of the region’s folklore

Detail from ‘La Petit Chaperon Rouge'. Images: courtesy Alyssa Pachuau

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There is a riot of colour, whimsy and magic in this Instagram grid. It features Enid Blyton-esque images of plump red and white toadstools; a tree stump cottage nestled among moss and ferns; and a red-faced Fall Spirit who grants wishes to passers-by with a magical teapot tied to his waist. Though all of illustrator Alyssa Pachuau’s work is enchanting, her illustrations of folklore from the North-East are particularly captivating.

Take, for instance, the one depicting a scene from an old Mizo lullaby where a woman, Lalngovi, scoops water into bamboo cylinders when the stream runs clear. Another is an adaptation of Red Riding Hood wrapped in a glorious Chakhesang Naga warriors’ shawl, with a wolf with pierced ears looming over her. Another features a sleeping elf, tired after washing her colourful traditional shawls, which can be seen drying in the background.

Pachuau’s images, in ink and watercolour, showcase her fascination with mythical creatures and the supernatural. But they also attempt to excavate the North-East culture from a pre-Christian era, with many of those customs now discontinued or forgotten. There are scenes featuring the region’s natural beauty, folklore, customs, songs, food and attire: She is attempting to preserve culture and create awareness and curiosity about relatively unfamiliar aspects of the North-East.

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Pachuau, who moved to New York City recently, grew up in Churachandpur, a town in Manipur. Her childhood there, and travels to Mizoram—where her family is from—and other parts of the North-East provide rich inspiration for her work. “We did not have a TV until the 1990s, so we spent a lot of time outdoors—picnics by the river with my cousins, collecting herbs in the fields, gorging on Indian rhododendron which turns your tongue blue, listening to stories or folk tales by my grandfather, and pawnto, which is children gathering on bright, moonlit nights to play,” she reminisces. It was a safe community of multiple ethnicities. Her home, laden with books—from comics and fairy tales to medical and theological books—and filled with plants and flowers, fired her imagination.

‘Man, Devil And The Tiger (An Angami Folktale From Nagaland)’
‘Man, Devil And The Tiger (An Angami Folktale From Nagaland)’

Though she is not a formally trained artist, some of Pachuau’s earliest memories are of drawing by herself. She continued to create art as a hobby but illustration, which eventually became a profession, drew her attention in 2014, when she moved to Bengaluru to pursue a career in the non-profit sector. Her outreach work involved travel, listening to and documenting people’s life stories to develop creative content for her organisation. “This also contributed towards me becoming more focused on developing better creative skills.” Her interest in global folklore naturally fed her art. “I started with my own familiar culture, which I could explore without fear of making too many errors. However, I drew these alongside random narratives, fairy tales and enchanted forests,” she adds.

Accompanied by detailed captions, her illustrations include a depiction of a Mizo tale of two nature spirits cooking pheasant stew and rice for an elderly couple returning from work in the fields; a shy-looking flower spirit in a crimson Naga shawl carrying a delicate Shirui Lily bud in a basket, with fireflies lighting the forest as she tends to the flowers with magical dew. The latter work has been inspired by Pachuau’s time in Ukhrul, Manipur, home to the Tangkhul Nagas. There are, in addition, illustrations of festivals and traditions like the Meitei celebration of Ningol (girl/daughter) Chakouba, where married women are invited to their parental home for a feast and given gifts by their brothers and parents, to strengthen familial bonds.

Pachuau creates artwork on commission and her illustrations are also available for sale through her website and Instagram page. Her captivating work is also part of several children’s books.

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Over time her work has become more focused. “My illustrations convey stories of magic, superstition and fantastic creatures but, also, an unfiltered presentation of our culture and lifestyle relatively untouched by Western civilisation,” she explains, adding that several customs and traditions were discontinued during the transition from an animistic pagan culture to Christianity.

Aside from the historical documents and studies available, these stories became a way for her to understand how people lived earlier. “If you look closely, they reveal values and principles, social structure and hierarchy, the status of women, the class system, housing and farming systems, religion and the afterlife. You can also glean information about wildlife and flora common in the region,” says Pachuau.

Several images describe darker and disturbing stories, many of which Pachuau heard as a child. “Our ancestors were a superstitious people and attributed every anomaly to spirits, either benevolent or malevolent. The characters and creatures may appear unfamiliar to viewers because of their attire and surroundings but this doesn’t make them any scarier than their counterparts in other cultures,” she says. And she intends for her illustrations to encompass these darker features, acknowledging morbid aspects of a prior pagan culture that are part of her cultural identity.

Some of her most striking images are adaptations of well-known stories and characters. Like Red Riding Hood wearing the Chakhesang Naga warrior shawl and the wolf with pierced ears. Or a familiar visual of a pointy-eared, red-capped gnome—but outfitted in a tawlloh puan jacket. There is careful thought behind these inclusions.

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For instance, tawlloh, meaning to stand firm and not go backwards in the Mizo language, is relevant to the illustration of the gnome climbing a ladder and reaching for the stars. “Puan (cloth), especially shawls, have specific meanings, so I think about the theme and then choose a pattern which matches the theme of the illustration. Accessories like jewellery, combs, hairpins and pipes differ among tribes. It was customary for men to pierce their ears and wear a bead which indicates status. The wolf’s earrings make him appear more traditional while preserving his identity,” says Pachuau. Small, subtle details like these, otherwise significant, got lost overtime. It is these details that make her illustrations significant.

Her art also explores more universal themes. “It doesn’t always have to have some deep meaning. A little house in the woods or a door in a tree stump, something that will bring out the inner child and make us feel good,” she says.

Ukepenuopfü, authored by Theyiesinuo Keditsu, is Pachuau’s first picture book on folklore, specifically on Nagaland’s Angami tribe. She has also illustrated stories like What Was That? for Pratham Books, related to the North-East but not folklore. In the future, she hopes to publish her own book of illustrations and create awareness of the North-East. “I want my art to bring people together and familiarise them with these seemingly obscure bits about our lifestyles.”

Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.

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