Bunisa-eje* is a master of traditional craft from the highland village of Sary-Mogol in the south of Kyrgyz Republic. Together with other artisans from the community, for many years she has been working on the revival of traditional wear of Alai Kyrgyz people and passing her priceless knowledge to the new generation.
*Eje is an honourific reference to a woman in Kyrgyzstan [literally translated from Kyrgyz as ‘older sister’]
My name is Bunisa Termechikova, I was born in Chon-Alai district.
Almost all women in my family were engaged in needlework and craft: my mother, grandmother, and my mother-in-law... At that time, everything was done not for sale but for the family, for the house. But their skill level was so high that the quality of their products was just as that of factory-made items.
As a kid, at the age of nine or ten, I started to help my grandmother by spinning yarn for her. It was my grandmother who introduced me to the world of craft for the first time, but my aunt Ajar helped me develop my skills. I am forever grateful to both of them for sharing their knowledge with me and giving me a grounding. So my journey of learning the secrets of nomads’ craft started from making yarn and weaving.
In Kyrgyz weaving art there are many different styles and types of patterned cloth — the taar: kajary taar, terme taar, double-sided taar, and others. We use both wool and cotton yarn to produce fabrics. In our work, the quality of the fibre used is extremely important. Therefore, everything starts with a careful choice of raw cotton and wool.
I don’t have a favourite type of craft; whatever I do, I put my heart and soul into it. But I guess I could say that I enjoy weaving the most: nothing calms me better than working with a spindle.
In my mind, I still have the image of people wearing traditional costumes during Nooruz celebrations in mid-1970s in my home village. I moved to Sary Mogol after getting married in 1981, and back then people here would also wear the national dress at Nooruz. But later, this tradition disappeared and got lost for so many years. I had inherited some traditional silver jewellery from my maternal grandmother, but at some point in time they were all just put into a chest and forgotten. And unfortunately it was a common practice for that period of time.
The situation changed in 2012, with the help of Dinara Chochunbayeva. It was Dinara-eje who helped us re-discover the world of craft and traditional wear. She had given an impulse to our community that eventually led to the revival of our traditional culture that we witness today.
Dinara Chochunbayeva started to organise and implement various educational programmes for us; she invited artisans from our region to the craft festival. She persuaded us to demonstrate our own works to people, and also to draw the forgotten treasures crafted by our ancestors out of the old chests.
Dinara-eje suggested that we wear our traditional clothes at the festival. At that time, it felt unusual and even awkward. But eventually we agreed and all wore the national costumes. There are no words to describe the public reaction! Everyone’s attention at the festival was riveted on us: people were approaching, taking pictures with us, asking questions about our craft, carefully examining the details of our costumes and jewellery. Never did we think that our work would draw such a keen interest from the audience.
All the festivals and educational programmes helped us not only recognise our own potential as artisans but also sense the value and importance of what we do. People at such events expressed genuine interest and were eager to learn more about the traditions and craft of Kyrgyz people. It helped us understand that it is our duty to preserve the wealth of knowledge and traditions that our forbears passed down through the generations. After some time, we came to the idea of reviving the Kyrgyz national costume.
In 2016, my daughter invited designers to collaborate in a creative experiment she had come up with. The resulting joint project turned out to be really interesting: they managed to combine traditional craft and contemporary design.
Gradually, we began to reveal and demonstrate our traditions to tourists travelling through our region by conducting small ethnic shows with national clothes. This aroused great interest not only amongst tourists but also within our community.
I think that the biggest problem of the young generation these days is lack of interest in anything; they spend all their time immersed in their smartphones. But I am glad that now the youth is becoming interested in our craft.
Both of my daughters have been engaged in the world of craft and traditional wear from a very early age. I passed all my knowledge and skills to them. They know everything I know. Now, other young ladies, too, reach out to me to learn the basics and secrets of craft. Last year, I worked with schools and trained around 20 girls. I teach them the basics of handicraft, such as embroidery. Together, we are revitalising the traditional costume. All of this was made possible largely due to the support of the idea by such organisations as Helvetas and the Institute of Sustainable Development Strategy.
Previously, a girl could take off traditional wear only if her mother-in-law allowed her to do so, or when the dress was inconvenient for some household chores, such as milking yaks. Currently, we are working on the ways to adapt the national costume to modern life so that the people, especially the young people, would wear and promote our traditional fashion. Because when you try the traditional clothes on, you immediately feel different: your posture changes, even your inner world changes. It is just so beautiful!