Applique is originally a French term meaning putting something onto another piece. The technique is a kind of textile decoration by cutting out a piece of fabric and stitching it onto another fabric that acts as base. This is with the idea of accentuating the cut-out motif in a more solid and compact manner than possible with plain embroidery. For the Meitheis of Manipur, there is no separate or specific terminology for Applique and it only comes under their generic term "Phiriba", where "phee" implies cloth and "liba" or "reeba" means hemming (hemming of clothes). This indicates that the technique is the decorative part of an otherwise plain dress and does not form the main dress.
The significance of Applique is not only for its newness and high grade of needle workmanship on the part of the female artisans, but also for the significant part it played in contemporary religious, socio-cultural and political setup. For an economically backward state like Manipur, the ranks from the highest to the lowest have to craft something worthy for the chief out of common materials used for common people. This demands superior workmanship and design and this necessity was fulfilled in their textiles, with fabrics of everyday use being employed into the job. Thus, wearing apparels - their quality, size and colour, designated different status in the social hierarchy. The ruler became a patron of the artisans and later formed a guild for them that later became the Loishang. Due to ethnic culture and influence of the surrounding flora and fauna, the Meitheis had sober designs. In colour, they opted for clean hue of low intensity. Different clans of Manipur use different colours for their identity and there lies the significance of Phiribi.
Unlike the rest of India, the class distinction in Manipur is negligible. Though Lois are considered low in the social hierarchy, they are not considered untouchables except by some select Brahmin families who are generally conservative. Being descendants of persons coming from outside Manipur accompanying Vaishnavism, they brought certain elements of untouchability with it. In such a situation, the craft is not considered as work of women of low caste, but a creativity which was adopted in Manipur by women irrespective of class, provided they had talent for the craft. Therefore, the artisans of this craft are highly skilled and trained; their products going to the temples and the house of the ruler. This gives a good image of mild temperaments of Meitheis and their mature aesthetic sense.
The Meithei chief used pale silk cut-out on thin white linen base, and hemming was done in white colour with simple stitching. In case of metal work on Phiribi, the Meithei chief and his consort used gold colour. For the Angom clan, the design can be the same but the fabric and metal works are to be white. The restriction is also observed in the chief’s family. Only his consort (Maharani) was entitled to gold colour sequin and threads on her “chaddar”, its ends and hemming. The other wives are entitled to silver only. The daughter living with the chief was entitled to "Reshom Phurit" (velvet blouse) studded with gold sequin while other daughters were entitled to silver ones.
During the reign of Maharaja Joy Singh (Bhagyachandra Karta), costumes for Rasa dance that was performed in the installation ceremony of Shri Govindajee’s idol at the central market place then. The dance so performed exposed the traditional Meithei finery embodied in the delicate and exquisite needle embroidery emphasised in the costumes. They were made within the enclosures of the palace guild, thus not exposed to common people. The art of Phiribi was gradually brought out from the precincts of the palace during the reign of Maharaja Nara Singh (1844 to 1850 AD), who took up encouraging people to have Rasa performed in their local mandaps. This liberation of Rasa performance to the locals increased the demand for Rasa costumes, which in turn demanded more participation of the people in making them. And in order to meet this demand, a guild of professional female artisans gradually sprang up with the emerging craft. The demand for the common spot where people could easily procure the necessary items required in costume making, enhanced the establishment of a sale depot which shaped in the form of “Phiribi Potphom”, meaning the plot of women embroiders. The Potphom so established stood at the heart of then Meidingngu Sana Keithel and Lallonphom markets. Khawairamband Keithei is today the central market place in the capital, constructed in May 1869 and inaugurated on the first day of July the same year. Both Meidingngu Sana Keithel and Lallomphom were shifted to the newly established site. The present Lallomphom market place that houses the Phiribi Potphoms, is located in Purna Bazar, 10 metres east of the Naga rivulet.
During pre-merger period in Manipur, the Applique work was meant for the temple, the officers and the royal family, thus material used were of high quality. The crafts would go to the chief of the clan, with only persons of high rank entitled to use them, designating their place in the social setup. To benefit the status of the user, the cream of craftsmen were engaged in work. The artisans became members of Loishang (crafts guild) under the patronage of the chief. They were invariably women, some of the ruling family, and enjoyed prestige and respect under the chief and his consort, who was the leader of Loishang for women. The materials - silk and linen, and later velvet flannel-gold and silver threads, gold and silver sequins, mirror and golden threads, all were of the finest quality. No cowries, beads or shells were used. Designs were intricate and hemming was done with needle, with usage of white or coloured threads. Stitches applied were satin stitch, button hole stitch and in some instances, herringbone stitch using silk or golden threads. The technique was the same as in Phiribi outside Manipur, but the motifs were totally different, with no natural forms and all motifs being "Khoi" and its derivatives. The workmanship and motifs reflect the nimble hand of Manipur female folk. An artisan would fold the silk or linen material in two or three folds, take up the scissors and without any draft or mechanical scales, cut out the pattern and when unfolded, the motif and design were a perfect circle or an ellipse. The Meitheis used Applique pieces as an auxiliary decoration and did not make cloth wholly appliqued as done in other places in India. Thus, Phiribi of the Meitheis encompasses delicate motifs demanding meticulous needle work and cannot be considered as time saving hard weaving work.
Applique Art of Eastern India
Textiles of Manipur
Crafts of Manipur
Weaving and Dyeing Craft