There was a time when during the wee hours of the morning, around 4am to be precise, you could wake up to the sounds of the ‘tick-tack’ of the shuttle on the loom. This time there were hardly any sounds of the shuttles flying across the width of a loom. In fact I had to really look around hard for weavers & also looms. The ones who were available were under huge pressure to meet local demand so it became a challenge to find free looms!
My abok(grandmother) laments on how the craft of weaving is now dying out and erstwhile weavers are trading their craft for other quicker and less tedious forms of earning a livelihood. Many have randomly opened up shops selling sweets, snacks and bottled drinks. Some have opted to sell bora(vegetable fritters) and singju(Manipuri salad) on the roadside & outside temples which requires less capital to start up and the returns are quickly achieved. The lack of jobs and decent earning opportunities have put more strains on women who in the midst of juggling cooking, collecting water(tap water is virtually non-existent here), growing vegetables(or shopping for them), looking after children & the house in general, have hardly any time left to weave. And the little time they get, they’d rather be selling bora than weaving sadly.
Looms sitting silent as the poultry cackle around it
Its worrisome no doubt that weavers are hard to come by & good weavers especially so. Perhaps seeing the appreciation for their work by people outside Manipur might help them realise they are sitting on a treasure! I realised that because Abok was so shocked when I informed her that the towels she wove were much appreciated by my friends. She couldn’t believe that her work was special. It took some convincing and towards the end she smiled and said that well..her towels were the most sought after at the renowned Ima Keithel or Ima Market. She wasn’t wrong for when we visited the market, the lady selling the towels much to my delight told me exactly that without knowing that I was related to the weaver.
The dwindling number of weavers also means that the other related services for them like dyeing of yarn and setting up of warp have suffered and they too will be eventually forced to look for alternative modes of livelihood.
Every piece I came across in the markets, every yardage bore with it the struggles, the triumphs, the hard work of each woman who toiled over it under the light of a solar lamp or oil lamp. I shudder to think that we may lose weaving as a craft specially handwoven home linens. I hope to lend a voice to the weavers and expose their craft to as many people possible so that they too may see how truly wonderful their craft and textiles really are.
A whirlwind 3 weeks’ trip to india later, the exhaustion of all the traveling is finally wearing off. 8 flights, 3 different domestic sectors, 1 international return flight and so many memories that my heart brimmeth over.
12 days wasn’t enough really to do all the research, development & sampling I needed to do but I got valuable information and insights into the textile industry in & around Imphal currently.
I shall try and do full justice to the trip and update my posts at the earliest.
Watch this space!
I’m on my way to realising the woven dreams now and I’ll be back to share my findings, the challenges & the realised products soon enough. I may not have internet access for next couple of weeks or the time to upload or update my posts so please bear with me for a bit.
Excited but a bundle of nerves anyway!
Every trip to NE India meant I could go looking for craft & textiles products and there were always amazing items on sale each time. Here are some I from my last visit. The stoles were woven in Nagaland but sadly the lady at the shop wouldn’t tell which part of Nagaland from. They were a tad bit secretive. Oh well, I’m sure they had their reasons.
Stoles woven on back strap looms from Nagaland. Traditional shawl patterns were used to create the stoles which are a relatively newer kind of product.
Gorgeous brass head pendant bead necklace from Nagaland. The brass head till a few decades ago signified mortal victories in tribal wars.
Gorgeous wallets from Guwahati, Assam, made using beautiful Assamese textiles. Assam has a wealth of textiles like no other. Apart from the fact that they produce the most incredible muga & eri silk items, the state has an amazing diversity in cotton textiles and cane crafts too.
I’m sure there are many entrepreneurs and craftspeople in this region who will in the near future forge ahead and give their craft a rightful place. And I’m really looking forward to it happening soon!
Here I’d like to mention three entrepreneurs who have made a positive impact in and for textiles and crafts from this region. WOuld love to hear about more so please feel free to add to the list :-
~ MORA by Ritika : http://www.mora.co.in
~ NEST by Arpit Agarwal : http://pinterest.com/arpitdib/nest-by-ar…
~ XUTA by Shilpi Mahendroo : http://Www.thexuta.com
Three cheers to these fabulous people making a difference!
One of the greatest influences for me to jump start my craft aspirations is my grandmother or Abok as we call her in Manipuri. She’s probably way into her 80s at this point in her life. I’m unclear as to what her real age is but she’s old enough to have seen the aircrafts in formation flying over Imphal during World War II and hasn’t aged past 65! She lost her husband very early in her life when my mother was only 6 & has pretty much managed to raise my mother on her own.
My earliest memories of Abok as we call her is that of a petite hard working lady who managed an entire field, 2 buffalos, a loom, a pond full of fishes & a typical tiny hut all by herself. She used to make sugarcane syrup fresh from the sugarcane growing in her little field and cooked lovely fish for us. She still loves to dress up & dress up well and is always game for a good deal on goods in the market too. Very feisty and up for adventure too, she instils awe in all of us including my mom. She still weaves every day waking up at 4am. In fact she procures yarns, dyes them, makes the warp, weaves & even takes the products to vendors.
The towels she wove for us – for my friends & me, are truly special for that reason. The red & green checks on a white background and the absorbent cotton that somehow gets better every time you wash it… it’s my favourite kind of towel. Not many people know about these traditional Manipuri towels and I hope to spread the word about it to as many people as I can so that others can enjoy and appreciate these lovely hand woven products.
Meanwhile Abok is still going on strong and still haggling over prices whilst wearing nice phaneks(Manipuri sarong) and occasionally dyeing her hair jet black 😀
Through design school, I discovered one very important thing and thats that the study of north eastern textiles isn’t very in depth. In fact its missing so many important details. To broadly categorise a region as wearers of sarongs which are in different colours and signify different things cant be enough. The region uses different kinds of looms for the production of woven textiles and also different designs and colours represent a gamut of associations from being married/unmarried, a warrior, a priest, a King, a tribe & its hierarchy to name a few! In fact there wasn’t even the mention of the intricate embroidery used in the Manipuri phanek or woven sarong skirt. Each pattern of embroidery was representative of different distinctions.
Its also interesting to observe that not many people from this region who live elsewhere in the country or in other parts of the world wear their traditional attire that frequently. Of course in India, its long been associated with racial discrimination so its understandable that people have avoided wearing their traditional attire and limited it to wearing during festivals and special occasions. Thankfully though this trend seems to be waning now.
Apart from the costumes and attire of the region, another aspect has largely been ignored and thats that of its woven home linen. Much of the home linen thats used in Manipur has been woven in Manipur. Woven towels, bed sheets and bed spreads are still popular despite the growing competition from Mill woven cheaper bed sheets and the influx of linen from across the border. The only other homes where I’ve seen Manipuri bed linen being used is in the households of the Indian Armed Forces personnel who have traveled or been posted there for a while and they always share their endearment with these items. In recent times I’ve seen Manipuri bed linen in state run emporiums in New Delhi but they seem to occupy a very small corner in these vast emporiums. Who knows when was the last time anyone bought any of these items.
There’s a desperate need to market these textiles more appropriately & in a more widespread fashion. How many people really know how unique the textiles of Manipur really is; or the entire northeastern region as a whole! Weaving in Manipur is done only by women. Women not only procure all the raw materials needed for weaving, but also prepare the yarn for dyeing, do the dyeing themselves, weave & market their products. The most amazing place on this planet is the amazing market where the ‘Imas’ or mothers sell the fantastic hand woven textiles. I don’t have images of the market yet as I wasn’t able to visit there the last time but I will definitely be updating this time.
Yarn drying after being given a whitening wash
Waiting to be drawn into a warp
Traditional woven towel pattern
A shawl weaving in progress
It’ll be a while before these textiles reach a global market but we’ll take that one step at a time and now we’ve just only started taking the first step!
More than a decade ago, one of my professors at college asked our weary class of 20 weary girls what we’d do if we were handed Rs.25,000 apart from jumping around with joy of course. It was by no means of a small amount of money and amidst all the conversations about spending half the money & donating the rest, all I could think of was how that sum of money could help my female relatives get their woven products to the larger domestic market if not the global market. That was when this idea first got incepted in my head & it has stuck.
I graduated. Worked in the booming telecom industry briefly before being egged back into the world of weaves & patterns in a leading fashion institute. After an amazing 30 months at design college, my batch-mates and I were thrown into the cruel world of the indian furnishings exports industry. It was a rough start filled with disillusionment to say the least and it did seem like this was the end of my career as a textile designer as I moved continents with my husband right after getting married.
Years have passed since we moved but somehow that dream lived on albeit a bit suppressed and sometimes gnawing at the edges of my thoughts till I fell asleep. Few months ago, I read a quote that brought my dream back nudging it into reality. It said: “The trouble is you think you have time”! Of course there’s no better time than now and I had to get to work. The choice of following my dream was clear but taking the decision of leaving the comfortable means of life in pursuit of my dream was a hard one.
I hope to bring Manipuri textiles – hand woven home linen to be precise, to the global market; to show the world the beautiful designs lovingly woven by amazing women who have kept this culture alive for centuries. The textiles of this region I belong to has been either long forgotten or undiscovered even by the mainstream and of course taken for granted by the locals who don’t see it as anything special. I of course don’t agree as in my time studying textile design, I’ve realised how special the textiles of Manipur really are.
Feeling enthused and hoping to be able to do justice to this long awaited dream project of mine.