Every winter, Sumi Pegu, a 50-year-old Mising woman, runs single ply yarn into exquisite horizontal patterns. A narrow paddy field in Gohpur’s Mising gaon, about 230 km from Guwahati in Assam’s Sonitpur district, leads me to her loom. If you walk some kilometres further, you can get a serene view of the hills of Arunachal Pradesh. The sounds of the working looms takes over the chirrups of tiny sparrows looking for some grains. The grain providers, mostly Pegu’s neighbours, have to tend to the poultry and pigs regularly. Their children go to nearby primary schools and are fluent in the dominant Assamese tongue. Yet, all through the year, there is someone or the other tending the fibres of the loom.

Pegu’s children know how to weave using a back-strap loom (xoru-xaal) – a practice that is alive perhaps only among the state’s ethnic groups. They are taught the basics in their Mising language, which they mellifluously use to recall, remember and revive an entire ancestry. “I gave it to my daughter as a plaything, so she could wrap it around her waist,” said Pegu. “Once the fingers are stronger and the grab steadier, it makes her job easy at the future xaal.” Womenfolk in the village believe that not knowing how to weave brings bad luck. Pegu has seen the ege – a garment worn from waist to ankle level with a minimum of two-three pleats – go through decades of changes in terms of designs, superstitions and thread quality.

The traditional Mising loom is a wonder made out of bamboo and tree wood, and both these raw materials are sacred in a poignant way. Even when the looms show signs of wearing out after years of usage, they are not broken down to light the kitchen fire – a tradition that even the poorest of Mising homes follow. Special care, like placing the loom constituents on top of the dhuasang or clay stove, is taken to drive termites away. “When we spin the yarn it is considered inauspicious for small boys to cross it,” said Pegu. “It not only puts the thread at risk but tears off the wheel and we have to redo all over again.” She points to me. “You see this hunchback? It is testimony to my dedication towards the most meticulous of designs. I regret I cannot go into the wild now to collect plants that were used to naturally dye our threads. The artificially-dyed reels in the market are not to be trusted entirely.”

Sumi Pegu.
Sumi Pegu.

Growing mechanisation

Over the last six-seven years, there has been mechanisation of handloom in the village. The mass entry of mill-made ege has gradually influenced the aesthetic appeal of the fabrics. The signature Mising diamond pattern, for instance, is getting indistinct and smaller. The butties, on the other hand, are chaotically mixed with tree motifs and they no longer have artistic finesse. Clothes that are transported to the urban areas with their ubiquitous synthetic assemble reveal these modifications clearly. “I am not competitive by nature, but the generation [that] my daughters-in-law [belong to], they want to make a few more bucks,” said Pegu. “I really cannot blame them, as they sincerely manage the fields, the household and the loom single-handedly. They hardly get any praise from their spouses.”

As Pegu plays around with the maku (weaver’s shuttle), her granddaughters try to help around the sang ghor. “In the summers, young girls are seen sowing rice saplings, and due to the humidity weaving takes a backseat,” she said. “The ideal time begins end autumn, though we weave in every season. These fingers are so accustomed to the loom that they begin to hurt if unused.” Pegu’s grandchildren have inherited memories of these textiles, which have been passed on through oral stories. They tell me that the colours in the clothes that their granny weaves represent nature. The geometrical designs come paired with a range of motifs – fish heads, animals, flowers, butterflies, trees and stars, among others. “It does not matter whether you are working on zero ply or single ply – if your hands are efficiently experienced, you can ace the motifs,” said Pegu. “My own grandmother used to weave one gasor [an upper garment] a day. Probably the pace is reduced when one has to multitask, and has fewer hands to help.”

Xaal.
Xaal.

The fading of older designs and motifs is not simply because the tribal women have been overburdened with other work. It is also due to the soft cultural appropriation by the dominant Assamese elites. This has created a tussle over who owns the authenticity of the craft. “My ege do not yet have the silk mark, so they probably won’t do very well in the market,” complained Pegu. “But the silk has been reared from scratch by me, and the motifs are distinctly Mising.” Literary thinker Nilamani Phukan mentions in his collection of essays that tribal motifs like diamond, triangle and square, and the configuration of star/fern motifs into dominant Assamese weavers, came through years of borrowing. Isn’t it ironic that once a dominant identity labels a particular textile as their own, the other stories of the weavers, like their ethnic evolution, recedes to the background?

Fading traditions

There are differences in the way married and unmarried women among the Mising community dress up. According to Pegu, “The old ladies at home use the segreg to wrap around their busts. The girls who attained puberty wear the finely textured ku: pobis to wrap around the body, beneath the armpits, covering the upper part of the body. Married women, on the other hand, pull the ege till their breasts and tie a firm methoni.” Talking to Pegu, I realise that when we describe the traditional wear of Assam as a “three piece” mekhela sador, the nuances are lost. These inadequate translations, an attempt to make the meanings clearer for non-locals, end up causing semiotic damage. The supposed “three piece” of women’s wear has a long folk history.

Among the Koches/Koch Rajbanshis in Assam, the traditional weave patani used to be worn in tin-tekia format (in three parts or layers: the agran, headgear and patani). The riha, which is now worn as a sador, was initially a breast cloth. It came in different types, such as the boroi-loga, gariyali and gunakata. Over time these diverse forms of breast clothes were replaced by blouses and brassieres and marked as traditional and civil components of attire by upper caste women. I can recall an incident in Jalukbari when a local fish-seller in her late 30s was given blouses to wear as she would not cover her breasts. The women were convinced they were doing something very noble for the seller, whom they perceived to be poor. When I spoke to her about the episode a few years later, she explained that nobody in her native village ever wore blouses. “It wasn’t a taboo at all in Belxor, Nalbari district,” she said. “Even men wouldn’t bother us – be it [in] public or private spaces. When I was nursing my children, it was rather helpful. I still am uncomfortable with blouses.”

Policing and standardising the “three-piece” as the traditional wear had its micro and macro context. Nandana Dutta, in her book Questions of Identity in Assam, makes careful note of an example from the Assam Engineering College in 2007. Speaker Ismail Hussain had made associations with cultural affiliations and attire. It was reminiscent of the Assam Andolan days, from 1979 to 1985, when there was tremendous insistence for women to adopt the mekhela sador as daily wear. “It was declared and implemented by self-appointed leaders of protesting groups, especially those carrying out dharnas and strikes or taking part in processions,” wrote Dutta. What happened, as a result of this, was its continued (secret) abuse in spaces like college hostels and primary schools. My aunts, who were born in the late 1960s, vividly recall how ragging sessions in their educational institutes would involve whether they knew how to wrap the mekhela sador with propriety. The tribal students were affected the most as humiliating remarks were made on their preconceived “barbaric ways” of dressing up.

It was during the same time that mekhela sador draping rules (full-sleeve red blouses) for female dancers of Bihu (a folk form) were laid out. Gradually, as these folk forms were standardised, they began to represent the dominant Assamese attire in all its rigidity. Around May 2017, this debate fuelled up yet again, when the state government employees were urged to wear traditional dress (mekhela sador for women and dhoti kurta for men) on the first and third Saturday of every month. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, in the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, had hoped that such a move might enhance the spirit of regionalism and unity. It was rightly opposed on the grounds of exclusion – as it limited traditional wear of so many ethnicities in the state to the mekhela sador. In the midst of these contentions, what went missing was the life of a handloom weaver. Her weaves became agents of the identity battle, but she was effectively erased from that discourse.

Doubtful future

Gayatri Das, a seller of mekhela sadors in Beltola, Guwahati, thinks the future of handlooms is bleak. “The common people, who used to weave aeons ago, have forsaken the looms for the dream of white-collar jobs,” she said. “Women now have to think of economical viability. When I was a kid, I remember my mother from Sirajuli would set the loom for two attires simultaneously. Among the final products, one would be hers and the other would be sold for Rs 1,000. This sustainable practice is no longer present, not even in rural areas.” Das herself has to convince customers with half-truths about the weaves that they buy as traditional wear. “In my 10 years of having met so many female buyers in Guwahati, only three have enquired about the raw materials of their clothing,” she said. “Rest were in a rush and enamoured by the glittery threads that make up their mekhela-sador sets, which they finally chose.”

The politics of threads and lack of knowledge about it has created a gap among the weavers, sellers and buyers. While hand-woven cloth may speak of tedious hours spinning the wheel, duplicates replace them because a class of the society chooses to make accessories out of them. It is important to question why hand-weaving isn’t empowered via local methods and instead readily replaced by a faster, capitalist mechanism. According to Rita Barua, an intermediary between the weavers and urban sellers from Gohpur, “The problem lies in the inequity of distributing income here. As opposed to the popular notion that middlemen eat up all money, I earn negligibly. To transport crafted goods is a hectic affair, and when floods hit, I alone have a lot to manage. During festivities, the pressure increases, and consequently, weavers have to readily produce twice the number of sets. It leaves them little time to weave something of their own. Time is money.”

Barua says that many things have changed after the imposition of the Goods and Services Tax on handloom items. The rates may have been revised, but the fear still gnaws at weavers. “Though I don’t know of any impactful protest against it in Assam, sellers of traditional items have developed innovative ways to resist,” she said. “Many have taken down hoardings on the highway – it’s their bread and butter, let’s not forget.” Today, the government showrooms also sell duplicates under the banner of traditional handloom – it is a sign of insecurity, which can put an end to the rich culture of weaving one’s identities.

From Gohpur’s Mising gaon to state-funded arts and crafts showrooms in Guwahati, handlooms clearly are a vulnerable industry today. As older motifs and stories about them keep falling from the weaves, one wonders if women like Pegu will even be remembered in another decade. The folk traditions of the Mishmi tribes of Arunachal Pradesh retell one such story – about their first weaver, Hambreelmai. Hambreel is, in Mishmi, a species of little fish, and it is said that the butterflies, birds and fishes were so attracted to her weaving that when her loom broke, the broken parts metamorphosed into varied forms of life. Every single day, looms of weavers like Pegu and Hambreelmai are being replaced and wiped away in Gohpur. Some remain glorified in folk tales and legends, while most are made to look pretty on glossy magazine covers so that businesses are lured into the region. In the words of Pegu, “These photographers, they come and they go. My daughters are now accustomed to posing for them, though we never make the headlines of any local daily. The spinning wheel goes round and round, just the usual.”

The author is a Guwahati-based researcher and independent writer.

The article first appeared on kochrajbanshicentre.org.