Kripal Kalita’s short documentary on Jaapi – the conical hat from Assam highlights the importance of this symbol, while making a plea to save this delicate and intricate craft
By Manjula Shirodkar
There are things that stay and there are things that grow. And then there are things which grow exponentially to become symbols of an entire community and its culture. When it comes to Assam -Xorai or Bota (a vessel in which Tamul Paan is offered); Mekhala Chador (the traditional dress Assamese women wear); Gamucha or gamcha(a small hand towel) as its also known across India along with Jaapi – the conical hat from the state are considered most important cultural symbols.
So strong is their presence – especially that of Jaapi, that it prompted filmmaker Kripal Kalita to make a short documentary on it. Kripal Kalita, many of you may recall, is best known for his feature film Bridge which got a special mention at IFFI 2020 and which has been touring world’s film festivals – 28 till date and counting. As for Jaapi – The Roof of Assam, it won the Best North-East Film at the 2019 edition of Chalachitram Film Festival.
Kalita made his short Jaapi… in 2017 and it captures in parts, the significance of the handmade conical hat and its all encompassing presence in the lives of the Asomiya or Assamese people. A hat which while offering protection during rains and from the Sun – is also a symbol of welcome and one which is used to felicitate guests of eminence; it is used on top of temple domes; at the entrance of homes; as home décor and even on ceremonial gates.
Jaapi finds mentions in the works of the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang or Xuan Zang as early as Century 7thAD.It was also used by the royal families of Assam – the Ahom Kings who got them made in silver and gold. Silver Jaapis can be found even today in some households of the state. However, what stuck across the state is the handmade Jaapi created from Takou Paat or palm leaf, bamboo, velvet cloth, wool and coloured or white lace.
“Takou Paat which could be translated as ‘one on top of another’ and also called Jaapi diye (in Assamese) is actually a large palm leaf which is the basic requirement for Jaapi,” explains Kalita. Used from time immemorial by farmers – both men and women, to protect themselves from excesses of weather, Jaapi continues to shelter in its different forms.
There is Haluwa Jaapi, Gorokhiya Jaapi – used by the cowherd boys; Fulam Jaapi – decorative Jaapis used at cultural events like Bihu as well as Pithiya Jaapi and Tupi too. “Jaapi was only a utility item in earlier times and it wasn’t so colourful and decorative as its today. It has been improvised and made stylish as its used now to felicitate guests of honour in the state,” elaborates the filmmaker.
An indispensable part of Assamese traditional life, the Jaapi is created by hand in Nalbari district which is about 60 kms from Guwahati. Jaapi is so integral to the life of the Assamese that it even found mention in the first ever Assamese film Joymoti (1935) directed by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala – also credited as Father of Assamese cinema.
Despite all the accolades and recognition worldwide Jaapi-making itself is facing neglect. Created by artisans who labour for long hours but are not given their due remuneration is slowly pushing this craft out of business. “While each Jaapi is sold for anywhere between INR 200-300 (depending on how intricately it is made), the craftsman only receives about INR 40-50 per piece. You have seen the plight of these skilled workers in my film,” shares Kalita.
Clearly living below poverty line, these excellent craftsmen need support to be able to sustain their craft and livelihood. The Jaapi which denotes immense respect and was once worn as a status symbol by the Assamese nobility and royalty is today under threat.
“We have grown up with the Jaapi. We have seen it since our childhood. My father was a farmer and we have seen it being worn by almost everyone around us,” says the multi-talented actor-producer-music composer-turned-director, Kripal Kalita. “The craftsmen are suffering. Today, there are those who know the craft but tomorrow it could become extinct.”
Its true. A craft which has survived more than 600 years should not be allowed to die this sorry death for purely reasons of commerce.
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Manjulaa Shirodkar (nee Negi) is an established film critic and author, having worked in leading national publications. She is also a Film Selection Committee member for various film festivals.