A Grotto of One’s Own

A man must have hobbies and a grotto of his own if he is to express his creativity and sense of design.

By Jessica Jakoinao

Historically, women-folk have dominated the sphere of interior design and décor. But here’s a man doing his bit to break the ceiling on that disproportional representation of his gender, chisel by chisel. In Phalee, situated in the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hot-Spot Region of the world, with the ultimate ‘man-cave’ is Mr. Shimreiphang Ramshan. In the hill-top village that hosts a rich traditional practice of artisanship including weaving, stone and wood carving, blacksmithing and bamboo weaving among other crafts, you could say he is a man of the earth with a very specialized hobby.

Mr. Shimreiphang Ramshan as an artisan, works with both wood and stone. And as a mentor to his son who, taking from his father, handcrafts wooden cutlery and crockery, Mr. Ramshan (snr.) is making sure to keep alive the dying art of handcrafting traditional items of our culture without really even trying.

Mr. Ramshan (snr.) specializes in fashioning meiphu and meithalung by hand. A ‘meiphu‘ is a traditional heater made of stone that holds hot coal to keep warm in the cold winters while a ‘meithalung’ is a traditional stove for cooking. Every household has one of these, if not made of stone. The stone blocks from which he sculpts and carves these out, as you’ve guessed correctly, are sourced from his grotto.

I heard that he could spend hours by himself there, working in quiet solitude. And as I got to know more about his work, I realized that contrary to how I’d looked at ‘man-caves’ this grotto was the source of warmth that brings a family together at the end of the day. Here was a man embodying the idea of hearth and home. And with his handiworks supplying the homes and kitchens across the village, many can share in the family bonding that happens by the hearth. Such is the functionality of his artisanal creations.

I wonder if Mr. Ramshan knows, that his grotto is a cultural marvel and an ecosystem in the making for community art. Just take a look at some of the works, or shall I say, cave paintings.

But I suppose, keeping to the conventional idea of the man-cave, caves have been spaces for men to express their creativity and sense of design (in interior spaces of the home) through painting on the walls of the cave…is it not? No, not really…there’s new evidence that three-quarters of handprints in ancient cave art were left by women, suggesting that women may have made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings. So I guess there’s no space really, for ‘just the boys’. Or were the earliest cave art made by children, like in the case of this man-cave? I know for certain that I was the first to draw on the walls of my home at age eight.

Mr. Ramshan and I did not exchange many words owing to his more silent disposition, and my laughable vocabulary when it came to actually conducting the interview in my mother tongue, but there wasn’t so much to say as there was to see. To see it all in a new light. I’ll thank him for that.

Mr. Shimreiphang Ramshan inside his home. In the background is a majestic canvas by his daughter (early works). Not much of a smiler, I managed to capture one with a prompt in my mother tongue “Do you want to try smiling?” which instead came out as “Are you finding this funny?”

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