29 March 2013 is a date the Sualkuchi weaver of Assam can never forget. Or rather, will never forget. The day marked the beginning of a three-day protest against the circulation of Benarasi silks being passed off as authentic Assamese silks in markets across India. “It was a revolution and every household participated in it,” says Hiralal Kalita, a weaver from the Sualkuchi. The village, about 40km from Guwahati, is recognised world over for its indigenous silk weaves (eri, muga and paat) produced on traditional handlooms.
However, for about a decade now, the weavers have been dealing with cheap imitations sold at the same (and sometimes lower) rates as the originals. The 2013 protests, which turned violent at the end of the first day, led to the army being deployed, followed by an “indefinite curfew” in the area. “The trend of ‘fakes’ started around 2006 — with some local Sualkuchi residents conniving with outsiders,” says Kalita.
In June 2013, Kalita got together with some other weavers and formed the Sualkuchi Tant Silpa Unnayan Samiti, a non-profit organisation instituted to battle the problem of fakes in particular, and promote the indigenous craft of weaving in general. “Our main aim was to protect the xipinis (weavers) — they earn about Rs 300-400 for 7 hours of work a day,” he says, “Power looms threaten the indigenous hand-woven cloth by these weavers putting them in a very difficult position.” Every household in Sualkuchi has a loom, and the entire village subsists on this one occupation.
It was in September 2013 that the Sualkuchi Tant Silpa Unnayan Samiti first applied for an official trademark for the products. “The process was long. We then had to prove that our products were indigenous,” says Kalita, who along with the other members of the committee, sent the woven products for forensic examination to prove their authenticity. “With the help of the Silk Mark Organisation of India (under the government’s Central Silk Board), we inaugurated a testing lab in 2015,” he says. In 2016, the trademark was approved by the government.
Yet it still took over two years for it to be officially inaugurated. In the interim the organisation held surveys to determine the number of looms, the types of looms and discussions to identify which products really deserved the tag. “Finally on May 26, 2018, the trademark was officially launched,” he says.
“From June 4, the stamp will be rolled out in shops as well,” he says, adding that not all products in Sualkuchi are 100 % silk, and only the ones that are will bear the trademark. Assamese actress Barasha Rani Bishaya, who was present at the official launch on May 26, has been chosen as the brand ambassador to promote this initiative. “It will help safeguard the indigenous industry,” she says, adding that the problem of fakes is rampant all over Assam. “All these years, even I have been duped into buying fakes. But this must stop. If I am paying for 22 carat gold, then I would want 22 right? Why would I be satisfied with 16 carat?” she asks.
For Kalita and the Sualkuchi Tant Silpa Unnayan Samiti, the struggle is not yet over. Their next fight is to earn a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for world renowned Assamese bridal paat wear. “If we achieve that, Sualkuchi will live on.” he says