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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

When the looms burned

Sualkuchi is where much of the golden yellow Assam silk gets woven. Last weekend,this village near Guwahati erupted in protest over the sale of Benarasi silk in the name of Sualkuchi silk. Samudra Gupta Kashyap finds weavers struggling to keep alive a generations’ old trade in the face of rising raw material costs and absence of government policy.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Published: April 7, 2013 3:24:53 am

In January 1946,when Mahatma Gandhi reached Sualkuchi village,about 35 km north-west of Guwahati across the Brahmaputra,and spent a couple of hours watching the weavers at their looms,he said: “Assamese women weave dreams on their looms.” Sixty-seven years later,the dreams and the looms of Sualkuchi are on fire.

Last week,Sualkuchi erupted as weavers clashed with the police,leaving many injured. They were protesting against the sale of Benarasi silk in the name of Sualkuchi silk,complete with traditional Assamese motifs.

“We have no problem if people buy Benaras silk or for that matter any other silk. But if this silk comes with typical Assamese designs and is passed off as Sualkuchi silk,that is something we can’t allow,” says Mrigen Kalita,a fourth-generation weaver of Shanti-tol in Sualkuchi who has 50 other weavers working for him. “Once the market is flooded with duplicate Assam silk,where will we go? This is a traditional industry that provides livelihood to about 25,000 people in Sualkuchi and to over 50,000 people across the state. We will all simply get wiped out.”

***

Rongali Bihu or the Assamese New Year is less than a week away. This is the time for the delicious pitha made of pounded rice,gur and coconut powder. For women,both young and old,it’s also the time for a new set of mekhela-chador (a traditional Assamese dress worn by women) made of paat or muga silk. However,with the rhythmic clap of the looms mostly silent and shutters of showrooms down,there is little excitement this Bihu season.

Manoranjan Kalita,whose silk was one of the first to be rejected last week by the showrooms in Guwahati,has not only shut down his looms,but is now under arrest. He was one of those who led the protests last weekend,when the crowd turned violent and pelted stones at the police,followed by a lathicharge and bursting of tear-gas shells. Kalita is now lying in a hospital in Guwahati after he was hit by a bullet as the police later fired at the protesters.

Kalita’s 20 looms,for which he had hired 25 workers,now stand idle. “The closure of the looms is a disaster for us. I am worried about paying the workers for Bihu and about the future of our two children,” said his wife Himadri.

Over 12,000 weavers from different districts of Assam are settled in Sualkuchi. While a majority of them are Bodo tribal women from Baska,Chirang,Kokrajhar,Nalbari and Udalguri districts,several hundred Karbi tribal women from Karbi Anglong come here as migrant workers,going home on a 15-day vacation for Rongali Bihu.

Akoni Konwar of Bakaliyaghat in Karbi Anglong district,about 200 km from Sualkuchi, has been working in Sualkuchi for five years. “Bihu is when we get the biggest pay packet because that is when a lot of paat and muga mekhela-chador sells all over Assam. We also get a flat bonus during Bihu,which depends on the sales. But this time,sales are already down and so I will have very little money to take home,” says Akoni. There are at least 30 women from her village who work as weavers here.

Workers get paid by the number of mekhela-chador they weave. “The current rate is Rs 900 for a chador,Rs 400 for a mekhela,and Rs 150 for a riha. It takes four days—10 hours a day—for a person to weave a paat or muga chador,which means about Rs 225 a day,” says Mrinal Das of Shanti-tol suba,who employs 15 weavers for his 13 looms.

***

While cheaper silk from outside the state has been trickling into the market over the past five to six years,it was only last week that Sualkuchi erupted. “There is a bunch of people in Sualkuchi who do not own looms,but carry five to 10 sets of mekhela-chador and other silk products to Guwahati every day. They sell them to different silk outlets in the city and earn between Rs 300 and Rs 1,000 a day. But for the past few days,the retailers and wholesalers in Guwahati have refused to take their silk because the mekhela-chador they get from outside the state is much cheaper,” explains Jogendra Nath Bharali,a retired headmaster who,like most other Sualkuchi residents,owns looms. His wife Prabhabati Mahanta manages their 10 looms at their home in the Lakshminath Nagar locality.

On March 29,the younger weavers of Sualkuchi raided some of the traders in the main chowk,pulled out hundreds of sets of “Benaras-made Assam silk” and set them on fire. The next day,the protests grew bigger and the main bazaar chowk of Sualkuchi witnessed a huge bonfire of Benarasi silk. The police opened fire when the protesting weavers tried to raid two silk shops at Noapara locality. Several people were arrested,an indefinite curfew was clamped and the Army was called out. A week later,though curfew has been withdrawn and the arrested protesters released on bail,the silk village’s fabric remains frayed.

“Yes,there are reports about silk made in Benaras and other places being passed off as Assam silk made in Sualkuchi. We have already constituted special squads and also asked department officers and the police to conduct checks,” says state Sericulture and Handloom Minister Pranati Phukan. “But as far as my information goes,some of these people who have been selling Benaras silk as Assam silk belong to Sualkuchi itself.”

Tirthanath Kakati,former president of Sualkuchi Tant Shilpi Sanstha,a weavers’ association,says,“The entire industry here has come under the grip of a few traders who have been dictating terms. While some of these traders belong to Sualkuchi,a few who have come from outside and have set up large showrooms across the state are also responsible for this crisis.” He alleges that these traders are the ones who have been passing on traditional Assamese designs and motifs to silk makers in Benaras and other places where the production cost is lower because of powerlooms as well as cheap labour.

***

Sualkuchi does not rear silk-worms or produce the yarn for paat. “While the bulk of the silk—paat or the mulberry silk of the silkworm Bombyx mori—originally came from states such as Karnataka,Andhra Pradesh,Tamil Nadu and West Bengal,what we get today is mostly Chinese silk routed through Karnataka and Andhra,” says Sailendra Baishya,one of the biggest wholesalers of silk yarn in Sualkuchi. “What makes the Sualkuchi fabric different from that produced elsewhere,including in Benaras,is the typically Assamese motifs and also that these are 100 per cent handloom products.”

Muga silk—got from the silkworm Antharaea assamensis—is on the other hand typical to Assam. It has a glossy fine texture,is highly durable and cannot be bleached or dyed,thus retaining its warm golden colour. A traditional three-piece set of muga mekhela-chador-riha gets handed down through many generations in most Assamese families. While muga is reared and the yarn produced in Sivasagar,Lakhimpur,Dhemaji,Goalpara and Kamrup districts of Assam,the bulk of it comes to Sualkuchi,where this gets converted into silk fabrics,mostly the traditional mekhela-chador.

Sualkuchi’s 18,000 looms produce about 35 lakh linear metres of handwoven silk fabrics worth about Rs 100 crore every year. About 70 per cent of this silk ends up as mekhela-chador,20 per cent as saris and 10 per cent as jeinsem,the traditional dress of Khasi women of Meghalaya,and the gale of the Adi tribals of Arunachal Pradesh.

A number of weavers also work with cooperative societies. Sualkuchi has at least two dozen such cooperative societies that have outlets across Assam. “Hundreds of customers come to Sualkuchi every month from all over Assam to place orders for weddings,while we get regular orders from showrooms in Guwahati and other places. But with Benarasi silk being sold as Sualkuchi silk,our businesses have taken a hit,” says Dwipen Baishya of Assam Samabay Resham Pratisthan,a cooperative society formed way back in 1948.

In the face of such stiff competition,a few younger weavers in Sualkuchi have been quick to move away from the mekhela-chador and other such traditional weaves. “We don’t make mekhela-chador. Instead,we have specialised in jeinsem,dokhona (worn by Bodo women) and gale,besides making wall hangings,stoles,ties,scarves,bed covers,sofa backs,curtains,file covers and purses,” says Sanjita Kalita of Kalitapara who,along with her husband Hiralal Kalita,has tied up with a number of outlets in Kolkata,Delhi,Bangalore and Shillong to sell her products.

In 2008,Jalukbari legislator and minister Himanta Biswa Sarma,whose constituency covers Sualkuchi,helped set up the Sualkuchi Institute of Fashion Technology (SIFT),which,under a tie-up with NIFT-Kolkata,has already trained 24 batches in textile and fashion design.

“SIFT is working towards creating a Sualkuchi brand,besides improving the livelihood of Sualkuchi weavers,most of whom still work in the same traditional manner,” says Partha Sarathi Barbora,director of SIFT. “We get students from all over the Northeast,where tribal communities use a lot of Sualkuchi silk for some of their traditional clothes.”

But the high price of raw silk and the absence of a government policy to revive Sualkuchi silk have pushed weavers here to the brink. There have been demands for a yarn bank,a subsidy on raw materials,the introduction of a weavers’ credit card and a duty waiver on imported yarn. But so far,there has been little progress.

In 1970-71,the state government set up a muga-rearing farm on a 1,212-bigha plot on a hillock near Sualkuchi. But over the years,nearly half the land has been encroached,leaving only about 700 bighas under the muga farm. Whatever little muga it produces—about 1.30 lakh cocoons a year—hardly meets Sualkuchi’s demand.

***

Exactly 60 years after the Mahatma’s visit,Sualkuchi hosted another high-profile visitor,then President A P J Abdul Kalam,on October 17,2006. On one of the walls in Renu Baishya’s house is a photograph from that presidential visit. But Renu doesn’t have happy memories of that visit. “Ours was the first of the three households that President Kalam visited during his two-hour stay in Sualkuchi. While the district administration informed us about the president’s visit about 10 days in advance,my husband Bancharam Baishya spent about Rs 80,000 re-doing the electric wiring and repairing our loom-shed that had 28 looms. The government also made several big promises about how they intend to help the Sualkuchi silk industry. But as the prices of raw materials went up,our debt too soared. In April 2008,my husband killed himself,” said Renu.

The looms in her house remained silent for more than three years after her husband’s death. Renu’s son Samin is now attempting to revive them. “While Samin looks after the five looms that we have today,my other two sons do not want to get into this mess,” she says. While her eldest son Nayan has left home to become a mechanic,Dhiraj,the youngest of the three,is now working for Rs 3,000 a month as a salesman in a silk store in Tinsukia. Every day,as Dhiraj lets the soft silk slip through his fingers,he probably knows it is not from back home in Sualkuchi.

Silk roots

Sualkuchi is a cluster of over 100 suba or suburi (Assamese for neighbourhood) under two revenue villages called Sualkuchi and Bamun Sualkuchi with an estimated population of around 45,000. The tradition of manufacturing silk fabrics dates back at least to the fourth century BC. Local historians say Sualkuchi silk finds a mention in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. “Sualkuchi in the ancient times was referred to as Suvarnakudya and with time,the name changed to Swarnakuchi and finally to Sualkuchi,” says Migren Kumar Das,headmaster of Ganesh Das High School in the heart of this thickly populated village.

Assamese scholars and historians also take pride in claiming that 7th century ruler Harshavardhana’s best dresses were made of Assam silk—paat and muga woven in Sualkuchi—gifted to him by Kumara Bhaskaravarman,the ruler of Kamarupa. Great Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang,who visited India during the time of Harshavardhana and Kumar Bhaskar,is also said to have carried back with him several rolls of paat and muga silk from Sualkuchi.

Recorded history says it was during the reign of Dharmapala,a 10th century Kamarupa king,that 26 tanti or weaver families were given special settlements at a village close to the capital city of Pragjyotishpura (modern Guwahati). Subsequently,Momai Tamuli Barbaruah,a visionary administrator under Swargadeo Pratap Simha (1603-1641),a king of the Ahom dynasty,is credited with giving Sualkuchi the shape of something that is akin to the modern-day Export Promotion Zone,the village being located just outside Guwahati.

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