Kohima: It would not be an exaggeration to say that museums in a lot of Western nations would be left empty if the products kept on display there are returned to the people they belong to. The British Museum is a good example. Now, it is unlikely that all these museums will return the artefacts, but at least one US national is trying to do otherwise.
A traditional necklace, belonging to the Konyak Naga tribe, found its way to the state museum in early November months after a 42-year-old artist from the United States mailed it to Nagaland. “I prayed over the necklace, sent it with love and protection for its journey and that it would be received by the right person who will honour it,” Colleen Choi told EastMojo.
Choi recalled that she bought the necklace in 2012. A beaded necklace with a human face, carving pendant from an antique shop in Nagaland after her visit to Manipur. “I was a jewellery designer and metalsmith and loved handmade crafts. I went to India with a friend to explore and learn from artisans,” she recalled.
She faintly recalled that the trip to Nagaland around October-November that year after visiting black pottery artisans in Manipur. Choi recalled that for six months, she toured the country and later volunteered in Ahmedabad for three months. The visit to Nagaland was the beginning of her trip to India.
Choi, whose family is from Hongkong, was born and raised in the US. “When I brought it back to the US and opened up the necklace, right away [I] felt a strong feeling that the necklace wants to be with its land,” she said.
As she felt the necklace wanted to return to it homeland, she promised the spirits she would somehow return it. Choi revealed that she wrapped the necklace in a box of sacred items which consisted of crystals and other handmade gifts she received. She waited to somehow connect with people from the state, but that never happened.
“I ended up moving and traveling quite a lot and the necklace and the box of sacred items remained in storage. During the last few months of lockdown in LA [Los Angeles], I took everything out of storage and found the necklace. Again, the same feeling: it wants to return to its land,” she recounted.
She then decided to mail it to the address of the state museum which she found on the internet. “I knew this necklace was on a one-way journey and it would find it’s way home,” she said. Choi shared her belief that handmade crafts are not just souvenirs, and hoped that artisans should feel a sense of pride for their work.
“The crafts have energy and connection to ancestors and contain wisdom, ancestral knowledge, prayers, stories, love. I honour this a lot,” she said, further adding that one cannot put a price on the thousand years of knowledge passed down through generations which survived colonization, commercialization, and so on. As Choi apologized to the spirits for removing the necklace from its land and people, she hopes to return to the state someday.
Adela, the director of Art and Culture informed EastMojo that the necklace received from an anonymous sender is confirmed to be a Konyak Naga tribal necklace. The human-face pendant tied on the necklace is estimated to be over 60 years old.
She revealed that the department plans to put up the necklace on display at the state museum in Kohima although “nothing is finalised” yet. There are instances of people returning artefacts to the department, she said. A diorama of his personal collections of ETD Lambert, a former SDO in Mokokchung who worked in the Naga Hills in the early 1930s, are exhibited at the state museum after Lambert handed it over to the department in 1994.
“He also maybe felt that whatever he collected from here will best be in its own homeland,” she said. Likewise, newspaper clippings, books on the Naga political issue collected by Dr Gordon P Means, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton in Ontario, Canada are also kept in the state‘s archive.
“Instead of collecting it in their personal homes, returning it back and having it displayed here for more people get to see what things are there and also learn more about their history, is quite a good gesture made by the private collectors” she added.