A traditional lower garment worn by various communities in Mizoram, the Mizo puan is a woven cloth tied at the waist. There are several types of puan, which are used for different occasions depending on the kind of weaving and the design of the garment. The word derives from the Mizo word for “cloth.”
The puan was the traditional attire for both men and women of various Mizo communities till the twentieth century. Earlier puans consisted of an uncut rectangular cloth that was draped over a blouse by women and wrapped around the body by men. By the early twentieth century, following the arrival of missionaries and British administrators in the region, the communities began incorporating the puan with western wear, which informed the present form of the women’s puan, which is similar to a wrap skirt. Subsequently, the puan was incorporated into traditional and formal clothing worn by Mizo women, whereas men only wear puans while performing or in informal or domestic settings.
The puan is primarily woven by the women of the region using the fly-shuttle technique on backstrap looms or Zo looms, although these have been largely been replaced by frame looms. Cotton or wool yarn is used to weave the garment, although contemporary versions use acrylic, rayon and mulberry silk yarn sourced from Assam and West Bengal. A typical puan measures about 36 inches in length and between 44–54 inches in width.
Two balls of yarn are hand-rolled simultaneously to wind them on a bamboo stick, typically at a length of about 78 inches and a maximum width of 25 inches. A porcupine quill is used to untangle the yarn while it is being wound. The yarn is woven using the loin loom technique, wherein the weaver straps the loom at her waist and the bamboo rods hold the warp yarn in place. The loin loom process produces the puan in two parts which are later stitched together. In this process, the weft is handwoven using a shuttle called Themtleng, which is made from the wood of the Meihle tree (Caryota mitis). The shuttle tightens the weave while a wooden slab with grooves, called Tukkrek, holds the warp yarn taut. The decorative motifs on the puan, called zeh, are woven using extra-weft threads of art silk or coloured acrylic thread that use thread work to tie the weave from the reverse of the puan. Traditional puans are woven using the plain-weave technique, while designs such as the striped pattern are woven with wool threads using the rib-weave technique, with patterns inserted through swivel weaving.
For puans woven on frame looms, yarns taken from various coloured bobbins, depending on the design and desired colours, are first wound on a warping drum using a spinning wheel. The yarn is then transferred to a wooden beam set on the loom and passed through reeds and heddles which set the yarn according to the design, with the heddles tied to the bamboo deck below for footwork movement of the loom. The number of bamboo rods differ based on the desired design: five rods are used for twill-weave work, four for double-thread work and two for single-thread work. The frame loom produces single-width puans, as opposed to the two sections woven using the loin loom. The yarn for motif weaving is suspended on a rod above the woven fabric for easy access. The motifs are inserted using the same process as the loin loom, with the threads tied on the reverse.
Common motifs on puans include designs inspired by native flora and fauna, such as sawhthing (ginger flower), stars, roses, saskei or kepui (tiger skin), sinar (geometrical diamond, triangular or zig-zag patterns), kikau (geometrical zig zag pattern), hruih (plain black stripe), kawkpuizikzial (entwined leafy plants), disul (sungrass) and lenbuantham (two or four triangles, signifying the junction of the branches of the Lenbuan tree). The predominant colours on a puan are black, white and red. Traditional puans may also be decorated with gold and silver zari threads sourced from Assam. Handspun puans with bright colours generally have bold stripes due to the warp-dominant structure of the garment.
Different varieties of puans are used for different occasions, most commonly during weddings, cultural and ceremonial occasions and festivals such as Christmas and Easter, and are distinguished by their colour combinations and patterns. It is also worn with the kawrchei (decorated blouse) and vakiria (headdress) by women during Cheraw performances. Notable varieties of the puan include the puanchei, puan laisen (ceremonial costume with a red horizontal middle section), puandum, tawlhlohpuan and ngotekherh. Contemporary design experiments and variations in puan designs have altered the colour palette of traditional puans, incorporating bright colours, artificial diamond needle-work and embroidery. While early puans were woven in undyed white, they eventually began to be rendered in naturally dyed cloth. In recent years, synthetic dyes have replaced natural dyes, making it possible for variations to the traditional colour palette.
The primary knowledge of weaving and units remain generational, passed down within a family of weavers. After the independence of India in 1947, the village of Thenzawl near Aizawl emerged as an important centre of puan weaving, with concentrated efforts to train weavers in the fly-shuttle technique through a Weavers’ Service Centre certificate course instituted in 1979. By the 1980s, it had emerged as an important centre for traditional and frame-loom based puan weaving and has contributed significantly to the economy of the state. Thenzawl puans are typically 45–47 inches wide and between 56–70 inches long. Lengpui village is another important centre for loin loom puans, whereas Zuangtui village consists primarily of frame loom puan weavers. Today, the fabric is also used in accessories such as bags, cushion covers, table runners and tailored shirts, in addition to the skirt.
The tawlhlohpuan, puanchei, puandum and ngotekherh received the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2019. Puans are also held in the collections of museums such as the Museum of Fine Art, Boston; the Yale University Art Gallery; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
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