Tangled Threads: The Uncertain Future of Sualkuchi Silk Weaving

If this old and valuable part of Assam’s heritage is to be preserved, its  guardians – the weavers of Sualkuchi – must be given their due.

A mekhela being tested for authenticity. Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

A mekhela chador being tested for authenticity. Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

North of the Brahmaputra, about 35 kilometres from the capital city of Guwahati, in Assam’s Kamrup district is Sualkuchi. With narrow lanes that open onto built roads, this place between village and town has been known and admired for its silk weaving, especially for the eri, muga and pat silk varieties.

Looms are a common feature in homes here. Mekhela chadors, saris, gamusas – all are produced on the town’s handlooms, using cardboard cards punched with intricate designs that remind one of Braille. Assam has many silk weaving centres. But the reputation Sualkuchi has earned over the years – it was famously visited and appreciated by Gandhi once – for its quality, design and technique sets it apart. Its proximity to the state capital is an advantage, as it adds to its accessibility.

But like other artisan communities in the country, Sualkuchi too has not been able to remain indifferent to the strong winds of free market economics. Customers who value authenticity and tradition still exist, but overall sales have inevitably been affected by cheap substitutes. This trend in turn affects wages while the cost of the raw material, the silk that is woven, continues to rise.

My visit to Sualkuchi in November 2015 aimed to understand how its workers have coped with this difficult transition.

In my prior experiences documenting labour conditions in different sectors, workers would pour forth torrents of information on issues they wanted to share and on which they wanted to be heard. Whether they were hopeful that my documentary efforts would help spread the word about their concerns or whether they remained cynical about the usefulness of the documentation of their lives, they spoke freely and passionately.

Sualkuchi proved to be different from those other places I had studied in that it mostly refused to indulge me, a phenomenon that underlined the limits of my experience. The workers I interviewed were patient and cooperative but did not seem overly interested in sharing information beyond answering the questions I asked. Their answers were also measured and to the point.

Earlier during my trip to Assam, in Guwahati, I met Sriparna Baruah, head of the Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship (IIE), an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. “The weavers are not so aware of market realities. When they do participate in the market tie-ups and training sessions we provide, they are simply grateful,” she said, with concern in her voice. The IIE’s work involves credit linkages, capacity building of weavers, development of value-added products and providing a market for the woven goods. The institute recognises that while elsewhere in Assam weaving may be a part-time occupation alongside other occupations like agriculture, in Sualkuchi it is mostly a full-time vocation and therefore, the needs and struggles of the practitioners have to be understood and evaluated accordingly. Baruah continued, “Our endeavour is that the weavers realise the true worth, the market value of their products. We connect them to entrepreneurs, help them participate in international fairs and introduce start-up funds, for instance, 15,000 rupees for a loom.”

The first place I entered in Sualkuchi was a weaving centre. It was a big hall with a mud floor housed in an ordinary building and had around eight looms. It was called a ‘factory’ by the weavers and the owner, but it looked nothing like the factories I have seen in cities, in which signs of constant, cardiac arrest-inducing anxiety abound. It was around lunch-time and a couple weavers, both women, were chopping vegetables for their meal. The owner told me that the workers enjoy the benefit of flexible schedules and take breaks when they need it, sometimes leaving for a little while during the day, at other times working late into the evening. He added that factory owners have their own problems, when workers ask for a part of their salary or the whole of it as an “advance,” take leave and sometimes never come back, because of which some of them, the smaller business owners, lose all their money. Since I did not know of advance payments as a common practice in employer-worker relations, I asked him more. He explained that since people are poor and regular wages often do not allow them to make ends meet, it is difficult for the employer to refuse when an employee asks for an advance.

A worker in a weaving 'factory.' Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

A worker in a weaving ‘factory.’ Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

A weaver in her mid-thirties who has been working there for several years slowed her weaving down so I could understand the process. But the coordination of the multiple levels of interconnected threads, the hand and foot movement and the punched patterns on the cardboard sheets was far too complex for me. Each time a pattern emerged on the cloth I couldn’t help but marvel at the result.

Next on my itinerary were some household centres, where often all the adult members of the household take turns at a single loom or work simultaneously at multiple looms.

I asked them about how business was going and they shrugged, saying that it was all right, that one had to make do. In one of the homes, a small, makeshift hut in which the walls, corners and the floor beneath the bed were being used to store possessions, the sole resident was a woman in her seventies. She told me that because she is no longer able to bend over the loom for hours at a stretch, she does not weave elaborate silk mekhelas but only simple cotton products like gamusas. When I asked her if she had any I could buy, she told me that she makes them only on order; after a few are ready a middleman buys them from her and sells them elsewhere.

For an elderly worker, weaving gamusas is the least strenuous option. Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

For an elderly worker, weaving gamusas is the least strenuous option. Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

In order to resolve some of the issues the handloom industry faces, the government initiated the Weavers’ Service Centre, back in 1978. Its office in Guwahati has a signboard that greets visitors with the message, ‘Hindi bhasha, sabki bhasha’ (literally, “the Hindi language, everyone’s language”).

Somewhat surprised to find such a message in Assam, where Hindi is not the first language, I headed to director Sunder Lal Singh’s office. Inviting me to sit down, he wondered aloud if he should call a technical officer to answer my questions. Sensing his wariness, I clarified that my questions were not particularly technical and proceeded to ask him about the centre’s work. The director said that the number of handloom weavers has been steadily decreasing; the younger generation especially did not want to practice this craft because other jobs generate better incomes. This reminded me of my conversation with a junior government officer in Sualkuchi who spoke with pain and bitterness about how the previous generation in his family, who all wove or did associated work, had struggled to survive and raise their children, and how he would never want to go back to weaving himself.

The government has several schemes, said Singh, implemented through block-level handloom clusters. The service centre imparts training (in designing, weaving, dyeing) and skill upgradation. The trainers are often skilled weavers from the same block. This training is given in accordance with new design trends and demands emerging in the market.

Singh also said that workers could be supported financially through government loans.

While he patiently entertained my questions, I got a sense of vagueness about and distance from the issues being discussed. The forthrightness that ensues from a passionate involvement in the issues being discussed was missing here.

I also tried to contact other government officers, but many of them were unavailable because of impending state holidays, while others referred me to certain books and papers on the subject.

Everyone knows that schemes exist on paper, but when it comes to implementation there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Mahua Bhattacharjee talks about these failings in her paper Gender in the Silk Industry. She points out that these schemes are often not advertised widely enough for weavers to become aware of them. Then there are malpractices, like the raw silk yarn being bought in the name of weavers and sold instead to the market.

An assortment of popular mekhela designs. Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

An assortment of popular mekhela designs. Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

When I returned to Delhi and visited the Assam Emporium, one of the sales assistants there, Dipali Sharma, said that a weaver easily deserves to earn 1000 rupees per day rather than the standard 200-500 rupees per day. This discrepancy happens, she said, because weavers are unable to market their own products. “I am from Assam and I can tell you about this material. But can I really describe it better than the weavers who made it? No. The workers need to be brought to the cities by the government through exhibitions and also get training and experience in salesmanship.” She added that in her opinion, if there had been greater freedom and mobility in terms of marrying people from outside the weaver community in Sualkuchi, the art would probably have spread to other places and grown much more, commercially.

But this appearance of all being quiet on the eastern front, of Sualkuchi weavers having resigned themselves to fate and accepting whatever came their way, was badly shaken in April 2013.

Banarasi silk products, complete with the traditional motifs of Assam, had entered the Assamese market and were being sold locally, at much lower prices than their Assamese counterparts. This was a push-comes-to-shove moment for the already struggling indigenous weaving community. There were massive protests against this imitation and infiltration, and the foreign silk was forcibly taken out of many shops and burnt. At one point the agitation grew violent; the army came in, a curfew was imposed and there were arrests. One of the main demands from the state government was to put a ban on the sale of the Banarasi products.

In one of the factories I visited in Sualkuchi, where all the weavers are men, the memory of the betrayal by fellow weavers and business owners who sold the Assamese designs to Banarasi markets was still fresh. The weavers’ stand was unequivocal, as was their unapologetic assertion of their association with the protests. “What was happening was a death blow to our work and lives,” was what several of them said. Their conviction probably also came from being part of a collective, the Tat Silpa Unnayan Samiti, which fights against imitations entering the market and for the stamping of all authentic silk with the government-approved silk mark.

The silk mark laboratory in Sualkuchi was small, but well-equipped and organised. It is an initiative of the Silk Mark Organisation of India, which operates under the Central Silk Board, Ministry of Textiles. Customers of silk can get their buys vetted here, too. Samples of different varieties of silk, both cocoon and yarn, are displayed. The trained personnel in the lab do not want to divulge the minutiae of the testing process but broadly explain how samples are checked either through microscopic examination of cross sections or by burning and then testing the resultant fibres and odour. The challenge is to spread awareness among the general public so they do not buy products that have not been duly certified through this process.

Trial by fire at the silk mark laboratory. Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

Trial by fire at the silk mark laboratory. Credit: Uddipta Sankar Pathak

When Sualkuchi was established in the 17th century by the Ahom kings, it enjoyed the patronage of the rulers, who especially favoured muga, the most expensive variety of silk. Sualkuchi today will no doubt have to come up with options that suit a more mixed market, and to cater to customers who value and are willing to pay for the more expensive varieties both in India and outside, the traditional material will probably have to take new avatars.

Nihar Ranjan Kalita, who teaches at SBMS College, Sualkuchi, and is associated with the Unnayan Samiti, feels that this can be done with government interest and participation. To ensure the weavers get a fair price for their handmade goods, Sriparna Baruah said: “The ultimate answer is cooperatives or producer companies.”

E-commerce is another area that has not been explored enough. Kalita explained to me how many of the schemes that exist do not work so well for Sualkuchi because they are designed generally for the entire state of Assam. It must be recognised, he said, that many Sualkuchi weavers are still weaving because that is their traditional familial occupation, and also that they may not have the necessary modern techniques and market acumen to make it a sustainable profession. The government’s focus is more on self-help groups and individual entrepreneurs. “It may be possible for an individual to get a loan for a loom. But what if a person wants to establish his own workshop with twenty looms?” Kalita pointed out. Apart from training in skills, workers need to know more about marketing, accountancy and distribution. Kalita added that for the migrant workers in Sualkuchi, there should be guidelines to ensure they are not deprived of their social security rights as below-poverty-line or food distribution beneficiaries.

Issues faced by the weavers Possible solutions
Lack of awareness about government schemes Ads in multiple media, local languages and remote areas
Sale of cheap imitations in market Use of silk mark by sellers and verification by buyers
Limited information about rights Formation of workers’ collectives to understand rights and demand implementation
Lack of market acumen Training in marketing and distribution
Access only to local markets or middlemen Participation in national/international exhibitions with governmental help
Low or minimum profit margins Producer companies/cooperatives facilitating direct sale without middlemen

Sualkuchi weavers have been the subject of many research papers and surveys by textile and design students. Apart from reports of the agitation against Banarasi imitations, however, there has not been much documentation that captures the voices of the weavers themselves. One hopes that both governments and non-profit organisations will work more in this direction, by putting their ear to the ground, and that in the coming years there will be multiple workers’ collectives who will be able to make themselves heard. If this old and valuable part of Assamese heritage is to be preserved, its creators and guardians – the weavers – will have to be given their due.

This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast, April 2016.

Ankita Anand is a Delhi-based writer and co-founder of the street theatre group Aatish.