Weaving as Tradition

text: Shaina Shealy

“Weaving is our tradition,” Suschila explained to me, raising her voice over a ruckus click-clack coming from a nearby weaving shed at the Action Northeast Trust (The ANT) campus in New Boingaoan, Assam. Suschila and I sat with steamy chai talking over a relentless composition guided by dozens of hands pounding wooden shuttles against their handlooms in a steady beat.

The ANT is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that addresses a  sweeping range of livelihood concerns for marginalized communities throughout Assam’s Chirang District, also known as Bodoland. The ANT’s programs are comprehensive, ranging from monthly community mental health camps and organic agriculture workshops, to legal services for internally displaced persons and forest dwellers. One of its central efforts is women’s empowerment, which has been addressed with the establishment of Aagor, an independent weaving collective for women housed under the ANT’s wide umbrella of programming.

Relative to other parts of India, Chirang District keeps a pleasant climate year round. A strong river separates its people from the misty hills of Bhutan and supplies fish,  rich soil for agriculture and plenty of lush greenery and tall trees to sustain its residents. In parts of India where the resources are fewer and draught and hunger are pervasive (such as Kutch, Gujarat), mere survival has driven craft producers to milk their craft skills and organize around their economic drive. In such resource-poor areas, craft production often implies an appetite for business, which has led to intrastate and international import/export partnerships and marketing and design initiatives.

In contrast, the production of Bodo weaves in Chirang District was isolated as a local cultural tradition until recently. Walking along the rocky paths of New Boingoan, it’s rare to see a woman who isn’t donning the Bodo cultural woven textile dress called Dokhna. The locally thriving market for handwoven products suggests less urgency for outside marketing and business collaboration.

Yet, the ANT recognized the craft skill of Bodo women as an opportunity of income generation and economic independence. The ANT established Aagor, an independent entity run by Bodo women, to facilitate a small but successful operation of design collaboration and marketing assistance to widen the market for Chirang District’s handwoven fabric. Today, Aagor’s weavers produce fabric for customers throughout India, North America and Europe.

Suschila Basematary joined Aagor in 2006, when she was twenty-one years old. She had graduated from school five years earlier and had done nothing but cleaned her house since. Now, as a production supervisor at Aagor, she manages warp preparation for special clients, such as Sustainable Threads and Rubina.

What does income generation mean to Suschila Basematary?

I can save for my future. With money [made from weaving], I have purchased land in town.

If Suschila has a daughter, she will teach her to weave.

It [weaving] is part of Bodu culture. It is very important to know how to weave… If you have weaving knowledge, you get respect. Suschila has high hopes for her future and the future of her children.

Suschila defines empowerment as the ability to depend on herself. Before joining Aagor, Suschila had little motivation to earn her own money; she had never been taught to value economic independence and did not know how to collaborate with others in order to improve her future. She depended completely on her parents, but now she is able to depend on herself, which makes her happy.  If she leaves Aagor, she knows that she would be able to start her own shop, where she could sell weavings to local customers.

For now, Suschila is focused on improving Aagor’s products to widen its market — she has an active voice in product design and wants to connect with Aagor’s international customers so she can improve the products. Suschila is curious about Aagor’s market: Are the people who are buying more women or more men? People in high society or middle society?

Aagor’s participants range from eighteen to thirty-five years old. When ANT employees survey villages during their livelihood-improvement initiatives, they keep an eye out for women (especially those who are vulnerable to domestic servitude — a common and harsh source of income generation for Bodo women) who are eager to reach economic independence via their weaving skills.

The collective structure of Aagor provides benefits including fair wages for its weavers, assistance in the establishment and management of collaborations between Aagor and domestic and/or international markets, design marketing and assistance, safe working conditions including room and board for weavers, access to raw materials, life-skills workshops, financial education, health care, etc. At ANT development workshops, Suschila learned how to make detergent powder and mushroom pickle, which she can now make for her family or choose to sell.

Many participants of Aagor live on The ANT campus as part of the training program. Susita Narjari, an Aagor participant in her twenties became giddy as she explained her experience living with other weavers at The ANT, “friends comment on my work, the cloth is getting good, which I like.” Susita has formed many friendships at Aagor.

Susita learned how to weave from her aunt when she was twelve years old. Her favorite thing about weaving at the ANT is that all facilities are included so she can stay there to learn comfortably. At the ANT, Susita learns weaving skills, eats meals, sleeps and builds friendships. If she could do anything in the world, it would be to make cloth and bring it to the market.

The ANT staff assists Aagor participants in opening bank accounts, and holds workshops on savings and financial management. While the intended duration of Aagor’s training program is 6 months, many participants stay at Aagor longer because they face crises such as violence at their homes. Participants also know that that they can earn more money if they stay at Aagor, because Aagor provides links to outside markets. One of the challenges that Aagor faces is in helping its participants leverage their independence outside of the collective structure.

In my mind, I often think of craft production as a mostly solitary activity accessible to individuals from wherever they may be. But as I watched the process of warp preparation each afternoon that I spent at The ANT, I realized the value of teamwork in craft production.

To prepare a warp, one woman walks back and forth, wrapping threads in a circle around steel poles while another woman stays at its base, carefully counting and crossing the threads to build a strong foundation for the intricate cloth it will become. Both women calculate thread counts out loud, balancing concentration with laughter. Once finished, the warp is passed off to Aagor’s weavers who are learning, together, how to improve their skills on the loom. Colors collide with loud forces of numerous wooden shuttles that are thrown in collective ambition.

This article first appeared as The ANT: Empowering the marginalized of Bodoland in Rubina Magazine.