Meet the art collector retracing history through combs
They were used to say, I love you, We’re married or, He’s gone. Chiselled out of buffalo horn, wood, or metal. Covered in bird motifs, lions, flowers, fish and rhinos.
There are 1,500 tribal combs in Niranjan Mahawar’s collection. All handmade, all once used by a tribal man or woman somewhere in Gujarat, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Karnataka or Chhattisgarh. The smallest is the size of a finger, the largest, the size of your palm. And each one tells a story.
“The tribes made combs from whatever was available,” says Mahawar, 81, a retired businessman, an art collector and author of Bastar Bronzes: Tribal Religion and Art. “In the cultivated plains of Bastar, the Murias used tin as decoration, and aluminium to make hairpins. But in the same state, the Dhurwas living in the dense Sal forests could only use its leaves and fibre to weave modest, two-sided combs.”
Combs are part of myth and history. In West Bengal, they are still used as ritual objects and are part of puja offerings to the goddesses, says Nabakumar Duary, a Kolkata-based anthropologist with the Anthropological Survey of India, who specialises in tribal art and craft.
They hint at a community’s grooming standards too, he adds. “In Jharkhand, many tribal groups used compact wooden combs with thin spikes very close together. This shows that they were using combs for delousing, which suggests they were particular about hygiene.”
SYMBOLS OF LOVE, LUCK
Among the Murias, a Gond tribe of the Bastar region, unmarried boys would make ornate wooden combs and present them to their favourite girls. The girls would flaunt each piece they received in their hair until the day of marriage. Once married, they would preserve the one gifted by their husband and return the rest.
Among the Kukis – a hill tribe from Manipur – men wear long hair fixed in a knot with wooden combs that they treasure. Losing your comb is considered unlucky. During wedding ceremonies, the priest presents a comb to the couple. “It’s considered a sacred object. They preserve this comb for the rest of their life,” Duary says. Only man and wife may use the same comb, states British scholar LA Waddell, in his book, The Tribes of the Brahmaputra Valley (originally published in 1900). “When a man dies, his comb is buried with him, and his relatives break their combs and go about with dishevelled hair for days.”
The finger-sized combs in Mahawar’s collection were used by Bhil tribals to curl moustaches and tame beards. “They kept them tucked in their turbans,” he says.
The Gwarias of Ajmer in Rajasthan carved a peacock and a mango into the comb presented to a bride on her wedding day, as symbols of fertility.
“Over the past few decades, plastic alternatives have flooded the market. So it’s rare to find a tribe still making such combs,” Mahawar says.
Mahawar began collecting combs in the early 1960s, soon after he moved from Madhya Pradesh to Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region to set up a rice mill.
He had graduated in economics, but a keen interest in art led him to explore the bronze sculptures made here using the lost-wax technique. That’s when he discovered the tribal combs.
Over the next four decades, he travelled across the region studying tribes and their art, and also slowly adding to his growing collection of combs. His findings — including some of the rarest combs he came across — were published by Abhinav Publications in 2011, as Bastar Bronzes.
About 150 combs from Mahawar’s collection will also soon move into a museum being built for his collection at the Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University in Raipur. In a few months, a 5,000-sq-ft hall will hold bronze sculptures, traditional masks, paintings and combs.
“Mr Mahawar’s collection is rich in meaning and symbolism,” says Arun Kumar, professor of prehistoric archaeology and paleoanthropology at the University. “It’s important to preserve these rare artefacts.”