The Mising tribe women keep alive the Assamese tradition of weaving on bamboo looms
On National Handloom Day, travel with Gaon Connection to a Mising tribe village in Lakhimpur, Assam, where every household has a bamboo loom on which women and young girls weave the traditional Mekhela Sador.
Ashwini kumar shukla 7 Aug 2023 6:41 AM GMT
Kalakuwa (Lakhimpur), Assam
For Opuli Narah, her bamboo loom is a constant companion. The 17-year-old has been weaving since the age of seven. And by now, she is an expert at weaving Mekhela Sador, the traditional attire of Assamese women in northeast India.
Almost each of the 110 households in her village Kalakuwa, on the banks of Subansiri River in Lakhimpur district, Assam, has bamboo pedal looms on which women weave. These weavers live in Chang Ghar — houses built on bamboo stilts — and there is the non-stop and rhythmic thak thak thak of the handlooms that reverberates in the village.
These women belong to the Mising tribe, the second largest group of Schedule Tribes in the plains of Assam, and weaving is a part of their tradition and culture.
Opuli learnt weaving from her mother 45-year-old Kumaldoy Narah, who also spends a large part of her day on the bamboo loom.
Weaving Mekhela Sador — a two-piece attire with Mekhela tied around the waist and Sador draped over the shoulders — is hard labour. A woman takes up to 30 days to finish one set, but the earnings are a pittance — Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000.
Showing the diamond pattern she has woven on a background of black, Opuli said it was a traditional motif. “I am going to now weave in flowers in different colours,” she said. She has so far made four Mekhela Sador. “I want to make six more by the end of this year,” she added.
“If she weaves well, she will find a good match,” her mother Kumaldoy told Gaon Connection. Opuli is the youngest of five children, and has three brothers and a sister.
“She will carry away the Sador she weaves along with the handloom when she gets married,” teased Opuli’s father, Jeewan Narah, laughing as Opuli blushed in confusion, but carried on with her weaving.
The Mising women of Kalakuwa village work on the traditional loom, locally called 'Bha' or 'Dibang bha'. It is made up of a bamboo frame with tightly stretched vertical yarns, the warp. Opuli uses an oval-shaped bamboo shuttle, the 'Maku’, to weave the weft. After each pass, she tightens the weave with a bamboo paddle.
A thread running through the centre of the loom is the most important, Opuli explained. To the untrained eye it appears to be just tangled threads, but on closer inspection, it is the main anchor point on which the entire design rests.
"The hardest part is tying this thread knot, it took me almost a week to prepare the frame before I could start weaving," said Opuli. She said it takes her about a month to make one Mekhela Sador.
“The Mising community's connection with nature is reflected in their designs, which include geometrical shapes, lines, triangles, and natural features like the sun, moon, and birds,” said Nitul Kumar Gogoi, professor, Department of Anthropology, Dibrugarh University. "The Mising textile represents an ancient and exquisite tradition, specific to their tribe,” he added.
However, things are not easy for the Mekhela Sador weavers who are on a decline. The number of weavers in Kalakuwa village has reduced by a third in the last 20 years, said weaver Anuj Kumar Doley. “The women continue the tradition. But the low profits and the regular flooding of the area are reasons people are abandoning weaving,” the 32-year-old added.
According to the weavers, they have been left out of schemes that might have given them a legs up. Last year, the Assam government launched a scheme called Swanirbhar Naari, an initiative of its Directorate of Handloom & Textiles, to procure a list of handloom items directly from the indigenous weavers without involving any middlemen. But the Mekhela Sador is not one of the 31 products listed.
Not too far from Opuli’s home sits Nayon Moni Patir Payang weaving a Mekhela Sador. Her husband, Mohito Nath Payang, works as a daily wage labourer earning about Rs 500 a day.
Originally from Majuli, Assam, 22-year-old Nayon moved to Lakhimpur after marriage three years ago, and they have a one year old baby girl.
"Making Mekhela Sador is now very costly," said Nayon, who has been weaving for over a decade. “The yarn costs Rs 800 per kilogram, and each coloured reel costs thirty rupees. To make one Sador, it costs me about Rs 1,000,” she said.
Nayon takes one month to make one Sador and once it is ready, she travels five kilometres to the Lakhimpur market to sell it.
“I don’t get more than Rs 2,000 or Rs 3,000 for one Mekhela Sador. That is too little after we spend so much time and effort on weaving it,” she told Gaon Connection.
The prices get just a little better during the Bihu festival, she said. Last year she earned Rs 20,000 after selling 10 Sador she had woven all through the year. She has kept away a part of the money for her daughter's education.
The price of the Mekhela Sador varies based on the quality and design. "A Sador can even go up to Rs 5,000 but it takes more time to make," said Romita Payang, a 30-year-old from the same village. “Weaving is what I know how to do in order to earn money, nothing else,” she told Gaon Connection.
The Mising women also weave the traditional Gero (upper cloth), Dumer (gamcha or towel), Ugon (dhoti) and Gadu (blanket) but it is the Mekhela Sador that earns them the most — Rs 2,000 or Rs 3,000 after month-long labour on their bamboo looms.
Hem Kantha Medhi, Lakhimpur District Administrative Officer, Directorate of Handloom Textiles & Sericulture was unavailable for comments on the welfare of the Mekhela Sador weavers.