Although his parents named him Mantri, the world knows him as WangkheiPhee Mantri! The proud owner of the Wangkhei Phee Studio located at Wangkhei Meihoubam Lampak‘s real name, we found out, is Koijam Mantri Meitei. A Masters degree in Manipuri dance and a MBA in Marketing was not enough for this dreamy eyed-lad whose dream and passion remained elsewhere in his roots. An aficionado and an ardent supporter of the Meitei arts and culture, Mantri understood from a very young age that his real calling lies in preserving a tradition which was slowly dying in front of his own eye.
The only son of Koijam Bimol Singh and Koijam Ongbi Kamala was always fascinated by the age old traditional style and weaving technique of the Wangkhei Phee. As a matter of fact, his grandmother Koijam Ongbi Kumari and his great grandmother Koijam Ongbi Madhumati were all involved in the business of the once staple daily-wear- the cotton inaphi woven in Wangkhei! Inspired by this tradition he fought tooth and nail to bring back the glory of the once forgotten Cotton Wangkhei Phee!
Koijam Mantri and his Wangkhei phi became the talk of the town after his maiden fashion show Sinnai Leichal was staged. Sharing about himself, he says, “I am a lover of arts. Since my childhood, I have grown up watching my elders and people around me weave the Wangkhei phi.” Although professionally, he did not get any training in design, it was his grandmother who exposed him to the arts first. It was his grandmother who taught him the nuances of this inaphi tradition which had almost died out in the late nineties and he credits his grandmother for what he calls “the love for the Wangkhei tradition”.
He adds, “I seek inspiration from the folk, the art and mostly dance.” Mantri explains that “our daily life, the culture that we have embraced, everything is encoded in the Pheesarol. And this is why I am eagerly pursuing a PG in Laiharaoba from Shree Shree Govindajee Nartanalaya Government Dance College for culture lies in these traditions.” Trying to balance a career in both designing and Dance is not all that easy but for Mantri it is part of a process which will help him understand the art of weaving and handloom in a better way.
However what intrigued us is the designer/ dancer/ research scholar/ businessman has also managed to find time for the Manipuri Film’s costume designing and song writing. Amused at our amazement, Mantri says, “it so happened that I was asked to write a lyrics for singer Raj Elangbam, who is a good friend of mine. And after I wrote the song, they approach me to design the costume. I think it was my luck or was it written in fate that the music album (Ureinung) became a hit and people started noticing the costume and the details.
Going back a few years, it hasn’t been a joy-ride all the way for Mantri. His parents did not support him in his dreams and he had to scarp up whatever money he had and put up his first collection. Mantri recalls, “you know as the only son of the family, my parents were dead against my taking up this profession. It wasn’t manly enough, you see. And I really wanted to take up this work. So, shameful and bad as it may sound, I stole my mother’s jewellery and got some money from there. I can’t quite re-live this shame though. But I was that helpless.” Nevertheless, the designer/ businessman has struggled enough and learnt the trick of the trades by now. His collection is a sold out every time and he has a long list of clientele who are always on their toes when it comes to his newest collection.
Mantri’s design stands out particularly for two reasons. First, each and every inaphi is different from the other. And second, he gives us a flavour of our own tradition in unimaginable colours and style. He says he painstakingly tries to make each and every inaphi unique; taking inspirations from what he learnt from his grandparents, mother and aunties who have been making this since was little. “I didn’t need to do much research on books actually. But yes, I do refer books in crucial time. If you see, in the past, the inaphi were really simple and didn’t have many designs. Like a simple Moirang Phee or the Waikhu matha: an appliqué technique. But with changing trends, I pick up designs from various inaphis which my grandmother weaved try to put them together.”
For Mantri, the one thing he is very particular about is the traditional beliefs and codes. “I wouldn’t give a Lamthang Khuthat athonbi to just anyone or put it on a Pheijom (Dhoti). It’s against tradition. Something which our forefathers regarded as sacred and put it on their head shouldn’t be used for anything else.” But with changing times, the feisty designer has found ways to accommodate the demands of the fashion world.
“I try to stick to the traditional motifs and belief system as much as I can but the demands of the modern society has made me incorporate certain elements or change a motif or element to suit the client. Like some of the designs which cannot be worn by some clans needs to be made for the general public. Then I make a few alteration here and there so as not to break the whole design structure as well as satisfy my customers/client. Then there are times when I have to create a totally different design.” Easier said then done, this talented flag-bearer of Meitei Arts and Culture has brought in a different yet noteworthy change to the fashion Industry in Manipur.
Since his first show, designing for Manipuri Films and an endless search for knowledge, Mantri has also been designing for Manipuri Brides. He understands that each and every person has a different sense of style and challenging that it might be Mantri hasn’t been reluctant. “I give the whole package from Heijingpot till Mapam Chakouba or sometimes only the Potloi. And as for the Potloi, the price is different according to the type of Potloi, the bride wants.”
As for the Heijingpot and Mapam Chakouba ensembles, the collection flies out in no time. Clients new and old look for the latest trends and colour at all times and according to the designer, “one should never wait for the wedding season to shop. The reason being: by then most of the collection is sold out. You either have to shop before the advent of the season or order during the off-season!”
The signature style of the Wangkhei Phee Mantri can be easily identified from the border work on the Inaphi. If not obvious Mantri’s work focuses mostly on traditional designs and patterns which are being used since time immemorial. He also takes personal care that the each inaphi is woven with care so that the newer generation would understand the value of the inaphi. But his concern lies with maintaining the same quality while making a profit to sustain a good business atmosphere.
“I do find many difficulties regarding the labour, maintaining quality of the Phi and then the raw materials. The raw materials itself is imported by the Government in limited amount so getting it in abundance is not possible.
In the past, the Meiteis use to grow three different types of cotton and the best cotton was used by the women folk to make cotton inaphis. But now there is a scarcity of the raw material itself. There is hardly any raw material enough for the demand we are facing today and hence, the price tag too. Nevertheless, Mantri’s spirit are not to be dimmed. “At the end of the day it’s my work and since I love it so much, I keep all those aside and find happiness in what I have and try to improve myself each day.”
“I always keep my hopes and faith up in making my effort of keeping the trends of Wangkhei Phi alive for many generations to come. With this mind, I try to give the best training to all the weavers to give quality products. Even though it may create a dent in my pocket, I always find happiness in giving quality products and my weavers does a good job”, says this smiling entrepreneur who’s already won our hearts with his dedication.
He has definitely come a long way since his first show where he had to struggle to put up a show during the demonetization days. Now he is all geared up to aleast try and put up a show show every year if God willing. And we promised we wouldn’t miss it for anything!
We wound off our chit chat by asking him to share a little tip for the new and upcoming designers.
“I feel that research about the tradition and design is one of the most important points to know which is right and wrong while designing. Culture Through Age by Mutua Bahadur, books by K Sobita and Pandit Kulachandra are some of the most important ones to get started on your research.”- Mantri
And we learnt “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” – Albert Einstein
Do leave us a comment how you feel about our encounter with Mantri Koijam. And if you are looking for more on him you can watch his interview here.
Excerpts from the conversation with Nikita Laipubam and Sanjeeta Aheibam.