Spectacles on her nose, eyes are focused with intense concentration. The woman is 88-year-old, Abok Radhe who is crafting anxiously a ‘Potloi’ – a traditional skirt in the Manipuri wedding attire. Sitting in the middle of her home with a piece of cloth in her hand, around her are ribbons, stones, and mirrors that she carefully sews on the cloth.
“Every time I design the Potloi for a bride, I get very anxious. I ask myself if they will like it and if it will make them happy. And when I see a happy bride walk down during the ceremony and people gush over the handiwork, it gives me joy. When they ask who made it, I feel proud of myself,” says the grandma.
She is lovingly called ‘Abok Radhe’ (Abok means ‘grandma’ in the Meitei language). For the past 58 years, she has been working as a ‘Potloi Setpi’ (wedding dresser) based out of the Thoubal district in Manipur and has dressed over 1,000+ brides in her lifetime.
‘Potloi’ comprises a stiff cylindrical skirt, a blouse, a woven belt around the waist, and Innaphi, which is a delicate muslin shawl wrapped around the upper body. One stand out feature about the Potloi is the stiff cylindrical skirt which is made by stitching 9 layers of cloth on the inner side of the embellished skirt and then washed in rice starch and dried in the sun.
Abok Radhe also carefully chooses the jewelry from the market, matching it with her Potloi designs.
The designer shares her journey:
“When I was 25-years-old, a lady in my neighborhood was involved in the art of Potloi making. She was like a sister to me, and I would often help her finish her orders. This is how I first learned the different processes involved in making the wedding garments,” she says.
However, it was when she turned 30 that she got into making the outfits on her own.
“My daughter, who was only seven years old at the time, was taking part in the local Ras Leela drama. In those days, no shop or costume designer sold the costumes. So, I had to design a dress for my daughter,” recalls Abok Radhe.
She designed her daughter’s costume in merely five days! This made her confident enough to pursue dressmaking as a profession.
To refine her handiwork, Abok Radhe trained under Khurailakpam Iboton Sharma – who was multi-talented as he was a dance teacher, involved in local theatre, and also a dress designer.
When the wedding season is over, Abok doesn’t stay idle. She makes dolls in tiny Potloi outfits in different sizes. In addition, she also makes costumes for the Khamba-Thoibi dance which is performed in the Lai Haraoba festival of the Meitei community, celebrated in May. This drama depicts the love story of a boy named Khamba, who belonged to the Khuman clan, and princess Thoibi, who belonged to the Moirang clan.
Abok Radhe is well known for her Potloi work and a lot of students, especially women, come to her to learn the skill.
“I may not live long, but I want the art of Potloi-making to live on. I hope that the skills that I have imparted, help my students to make beautiful designs of Potloi. It is through my work and theirs that I want to be remembered,” says Abok Radhe.