In 2016, right after Bipasha Basu claimed on social media that the Mekhela Chador is simpler to wear than a saree, Sanjukta Dutta’s fortunes turned. Basu had just walked the ramp in one of Dutta’s red and white Mekhela Chadors — the two-piece Assamese attire — designed for the Lakme Fashion Week 2016. “That was it for me,” says Dutta. From Basu to Priyanka Chopra to Dia Mirza, the traditional Assamese attire became the buzzword for the season.
Two years later, Dutta wins the title of the “Best Fashion Designer” in the Dada Saheb Phalke Excellence Awards 2018 on Saturday. This award ceremony, held in Mumbai every April, is organised by the Dadasaheb Phalke Foundation acknowledging members of the Bollywood industry.
For Dutta, who comes from the small town of Nagaon in Assam, the moment is precious. “I started with 3 looms in an atmosphere where the weaving industry had practically disappeared,” she says. In 2014, the indigenous silk industry Assam is so well-known for was withering. “In Xualkuchi, the picturesque village of Assam, the weavers were moving away from their primary occupation,” she says.
Xualkuchi is about 30k from Guwahati, and a haven for Assamese silk fabrics: muga, paat and eri. “I realised that the weavers were underpaid, and were not being able to sustain themselves on the craft,” she says. Dutta then hired a three weavers. Today she has 113 looms, 13 factories (eight in Xualkuchi and five in Guwahati) and 150 weavers. They are provided food, lodging, education and healthcare.
“No one knows Assam silk. They might know Chennai silk but Assam is nowhere on the map,” says Dutta. This was the narrative she wanted to change, and in 2013 she gave up her job as an engineer in the Public Works Department (PWD) of the Government of Assam.
“I have always wanted to do something to promote Assam silk. I am thrilled beyond measure,” she says about the award. Dutta’s creation will travel to the Cannes Film Festival next where some Hollywood celebrities have ordered for gowns to be custome-made out of traditional Assamese silk.