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Weaving Peace in Bongaigaon, Assam

THE ANT | |
The ANT a registered charitable trust set up with a mandate to work towards development in the North Eastern region of India. Based in the refinery town of Bongaigaon in lower Assam, its work is concentrated in direct intervention with village communities, a resource organisation involved in capacity building and training of other development organizations and socially committed youth.



The Project: WEAVING PEACE
Design Student: SMITHA MURTHY, SRISHTI SCHOOL OF ART, DESIGN AND TECHNOLOGY
Location: BONGAIGAON, ASSAM
Duration: 6 MONTHS - MAY 2002 TO NOV. 2002
Sponsor: THE ACTION NORTH EAST TRUST (ANT)

BACKGROUND

About the Community
The BODOs, a tribal community in Assam, have been involved in a political struggle against the Assamese for the last two decades. The ethnic conflict has been exacerbated by the erosion of farming land of the tribal community by the main rivers, thus creating a struggle for resources between different communities.

Many landless families survive on the men's daily wages and the sale of vegetables by the women in the local haats, both not being reliable or steady sources of income. Reaching the markets takes much time and energy, as the women have to walk many miles.

Almost all BODO women can weave as the craft is passed on from generation to generation. As weaving is a household activity, every home has a throw and fly shuttle loom. Traditionally the women wove textiles for themselves and their families in their spare time. Using acrylic yarn, that was easily available, the woven items were the dokhna and chaddar, an unstitched traditional garment, around 50 inches wide and 3 meters, long that is draped from the chest to the ankle and is tied above the chest and at the waist.

Almost all BODO women can weave as the craft is passed on from generation to generation. As weaving is a household activity, every home has a throw and fly shuttle loom. Traditionally the women wove textiles for themselves and their families in their spare time. Using acrylic yarn, that was easily available, the woven items were the dokhna and chaddar, an unstitched traditional garment, around 50 inches wide and 3 meters, long that is draped from the chest to the ankle and is tied above the chest and at the waist.

THE MISSION
Women weavers, especially the landless, needed a market to transform their weaving activity into a significant source of steady income. This required a market that appreciated hand woven products; product diversification and adaptation of the colours and designs to suit customer preferences - a risk that individual landless weavers were unable to take.

It was hoped that through this project, the women who otherwise supported their family income by selling vegetables, would now get a constant source of income.

OBJECTIVES
The project was called 'weaving peace'.

  • Promote the traditional weaving craft of rural BODO women to create a significant and sustainable source of livelihood by design and market intervention.

  • To enhance and build a positive image of the BODO tribe by promoting their rich weaving tradition as against the currently existing militant image.

METHODOLOGY

The methodology and the process to be followed to achieve the objectives was left to the designer.

PHASE 1
An attempt was first made to spread the idea to all the villages involved. Textiles woven by weavers of other states were shown to the stake holders. This actually boosted their interest in the project. The idea of urban people wearing and using textiles woven by them fascinated them the most.

Simultaneously the designer started a thorough research into the variety of traditional motifs, colours, raw material, the origin and stories behind the creation of each motif. With this knowledge the acceptability of traditional motifs and colours for a probable market was identified and studied. Documenting traditional motifs and designs of the BODOSs to create a reference point for future development became an ongoing process throughout the project.

A number of villagers and people with different issues relating to the BODOs were spoken to for feedback and information.

PHASE 2
The designer studied and learnt the weaving technique practiced so that developments could be demonstrated on the loom rather than conveyed verbally or through drawings. While she was there at the behest of ANT, the designer had to gain the trust of the weavers and establish her own equation with them. In her own words, she was completely paralyzed due to the language barrier.

The process started with Smitha, the designer, communicating first with the men of the community, establishing her credentials and gaining the confidence of the women. What helped was the fact that she was from Bangalore, where many of their own children were studying. She ate and drank whatever they offered, keen not to give offence to anyone. Seeing Smitha's daily struggle of commuting 30 kms on a bicycle to reach their communities, weaving herself, making the prototypes - and all this without knowing their language - won the respect of the weavers.

PHASE 3
After studying the old, heirloom dokhnas and chaddars, four main motifs that the weavers were familiar with were chosen which were mixed and matched to create new designs. The colour pallet was retained for its close identity with the community. Each of the five traditional colours ranging from lemon yellow, orange to deep red had its own significance and its own local name.

The borders used were traditional - on both striped and plain cloth. Experimentation was carried out with uneven borders and different pattern were created using the same warp.

PHASE 4
Sampling Stage - 4 months
The beginning was made with five weavers in one village using cotton yarn, which itself was difficult, as the cotton yarn broke and faded more easily when compared to acrylic or synthetic yarn they had gotten used to. Slowly the cloth was woven. The women were paid for their time and effort - an amount much higher than that paid to other Assamese weavers.

PHASE 5
The initial products developed were unstitched textiles like shawls, stoles and scarves which helped the weavers adapt to further developments and initiated them into commercial weaving for a distant market. The warps were planned in a way they could be turned into skirts and garments similar to those worn by Manipuri women, a culture they were familiar with.

The next stage was the production of garments: Prototypes of the stitched and completed products were made and included jackets and skirts. This excited the women who admired and tried out each garment. Production of ready make garments was a different matter altogether and it was imperative to find somebody close by. Eventually they located a boutique in Guwahati, in Assam that could stitch the garments.

PHASE 6
The textiles and products were exhibited and sold at 'Nature Bazaar', an exhibition organized by Dastkar in New Delhi November 2003. The products received a very good response from a distant urban market.

In Retrospect
Smitha Murthy, Designer, Weaving Peace Project
December 2004

Today when I look back to the journey from the five weavers we started sampling with to the 130 weavers we support today I feel one big achievement has been that women now see weaving as a constant source of income and not just a leisure activity. There has been constant appreciation for the designs and textiles from consumers and I see great potential ahead.

The weavers are now registered under a different name- 'aagor', and have formed a managing committee of their own. I would however call this project truly successful when I see the women running this weaving program successfully on their own.

I hope the day is not too far when people identify the BODOs as creators of classic textiles with vibrant colours and intricate weaves and not just as people fighting for their right and land.



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