Rabha is a tribal community based in the districts bordering Assam and West Bengal and belonging to the Indo-Mongoloid group. In West Bengal, they are forest dwellers spread across the Dooars region.
Rabhas traditionally depend on agriculture and non-timber forest produce. Women of the community, although skilled in traditional weaving, are shy in nature and were thus unable to bring their works to the art aficionados so far. Now, under an initiative taken up by Delhi-based NGO Hast Karigar Society, the creations of Rabha women are undergoing a revival of sorts.
Sharmistha Lahiri, secretary, Hast Karigar Society, said. “Each year, we identify and take up a new cause of reviving the lives of one tribe. In 2014, we chose the Rabha tribe. At the request of the North Bengal Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, we visited the villages of Buxa and Cooch Behar forest divisions to conduct a preliminary survey.”
“In 2014, we initiated a pilot project with four Rabha women from a village in Buxa forests. Later, we were able to convince 24 women and today, many women from the tribe have joined us. This year, women of Mendabari village of Chilapata forests have joined in,” Lahiri added.
There are 27 Rabha villages in the forest areas in and around Buxa National Park and Tiger Preserve. The forest dwellers who have lived in this area for more than 100 years do not have any ownership rights over their homestead or cultivable land. Even after the Forest Rights Act of 2006, these communities remain extremely poor and access to basic amenities like drinking water, sanitation, healthcare and education is negligible.
“Besides old practices like cultivation and hunting, weaving is a traditional occupation of Rabha women. However, with no external support and lack of market opportunities, they have not been able to transform their exquisite skills into a livelihood option,” Lahiri iterated.
“Therefore, through our annual exhibitions conducted across the country, we help them earn a living and create marketing opportunities,” said Lahiri. During the workshops, the women are also taught basic business operations and a better understanding of production, such as managing timelines, quality control, stock taking, record keeping and sales.
Lahiri said Rabha women are skilled in weaving with colourful and flowing floral and geographical patterns. While most fabrics have a simple weave, some weavers are also skilled to weave floral and geometrical motifs.
“We initially helped them with production of shawls and dupattas, and sold them in exhibition sales in major Indian cities. After receiving good response in the initial exhibitions and with additional marketing support and training, we started production of sarees, looms and yarns,” said Lahiri. The works are currently on display at an exhibition titled Impressions, being held at The Monalisa Kalagram, Koregaon Park, till March 6.