Assam’s age-old, indigenous silk fabric — be it the Pat, Muga or Eri — has, with age, gracefully adapted to the changing times. “If you want to survive, you have to adapt to changing trends,” states Hemkanta Baruah, a shop owner in Guwahati. “Therefore, as people’s tastes change, so do the garments made out of Assam silk. From the traditional mekhla chadors and Eri shawls, the fabric is now fashioned into exquisite saris, salwars, scarves, dresses, shirts, jackets and much more. We get many customers who want dress material in Assam silk.”
Silk production and weaving are an intrinsic part of Assamese culture. Traditionally, a girl’s weaving skills determined her eligibility for marriage. Such was the significance of the woven cloth in this society that a man, before he went to war, wore clothing that was hand-woven overnight.
In this northeast State, sericulture is dominated by mulberry (Pat) silk, which is white; the golden Muga; and the warm but coarse Eri. It accounts for the country’s entire production of Muga silk and 98 per cent of Eri silk.
Muga, often called the pride of Assam, is produced by the Antheraea assama caterpillar. Its beautiful golden hue lends itself for artistic weaving. The continuous silk filaments are mostly used for mekhla chadors, saris and dress material, while the handspun yarn is used to make shawls and home furnishing.
“Muga silk is one of the strongest threads, and so it ages with the owners and sometimes even outlives them,” remarks Suman Das, who owns a boutique in Tezpur. “My mother was gifted a beautiful Muga mekhla chador by my grandaunt during her wedding, which she wore many times before folding it away for good. Once, when she was cleaning out her cupboard, I saw it. After all those years, its brilliance was untouched, and I decided to stitch a salwar out of it. Today, whenever I wear that piece, it invites many compliments.”
Eri, the “poor man’s silk”, had limited use until recently. Purely handspun in the past, the coarse yarn was used to make shawls and jackets. Today, with the advent of Eri spinning mills, the finer yarn can be woven into mekhla chadors, saris and other products. The beauty of this silk is that although it does not have the shine of mulberry, it has anti-fungal properties, is a good insulator, and a hardy fabric. Its texture is like cotton, but it is warm like wool.
According to the Central Silk Board, Assam’s overall silk production has risen thanks to robust Eri production. In 2011-12, the State produced 2,109 tonnes of silk, next only to Andhra Pradesh (6,019 tonnes) and Karnataka (7,800 tonnes). Apart from 115 tonnes of Muga and 18 tonnes of Pat, the production was dominated by 1,976 tonnes of Eri.
Says Sarat Deori, joint secretary of the Central Silk Board — Northeast, “There is a lot of scope for product diversification using silk, since it can be blended with other fibres. Eco-friendly silk had a huge international market.”
In response, weavers are blending silks into a single fabric, such as Pat-Muga, and even combining silk with cotton. “Indigenous Assam silk is timeless. Its brilliance cannot be matched, and today, when people are eager to reconnect with their roots and love anything ethnic, Muga, Pat and Eri are winners all the way. This is probably why the mekhla chador, too, has not gone out of fashion. Instead, modern designs and contemporary shades have kept it in sync with changing tastes and times,” says Manjulika Borah, a young, Guwahati-based fashion designer.
The demand for modern designs finds a ready supplier in Gautam Chandra Das, who has 10 looms in Sualkuchi, the silk village of Assam, and supplies mekhla chadors to shops in Guwahati, barely 35 km away. “Often, shop owners tell us that customers want modern designs. So, instead of only traditional motifs, like the hingkhap or jaapi (Assamese hat), we also have contemporary geometric designs on mekhla chadors. Traditional motifs on saris and dress material are popular too. There is a lot of mix and match.”
During the festival season, especially the harvest celebration Bihu, and during the winter wedding season demand for mekhla chadors multiplies. This provides employment to migrant workers from the nearby villages.
While the fabric's popularity and demand are on the upswing, the number of weavers is alarmingly dwindling. “Weaving is no longer given much importance, as it does not pay much,” says Das. A Sualkuchi weaver working on a traditional loom earns between Rs 2,500 and Rs 4,000 a month.
Reminiscing his childhood, Das says he and his siblings were given weaving lessons at home every day after school. “We are a village of weavers, and learning to weave took precedence over everything else. Today, as cost of living is high, it’s a different scenario. Children prefer to take up a job instead of becoming weavers. Hence, the number of weavers is falling — from about 25,000 in Sualkuchi at one time to less than 10,000 now,” he says. Incidentally, most of the weavers are women.
Although traditional looms dominate, there are a few power looms too. “If the number of weavers continues to dip, I guess we will have to rely on power looms. But, frankly, the cloth from power looms tears faster. I tried it once, but it didn’t work for me,” Das adds.
What could rescue the weavers from this dire state is the Chaneki, a device introduced by the CSB as part of its loom upgradation programme. The device can maximise the weaver’s skill and increase productivity by threading the weft bobbins for spot design or motif making. On traditional looms, the weft thread is inserted manually and takes time. Also, the thread often snaps and the process has to be repeated.
“Silk and hand-weaving are Assam’s heritage, and every effort must be made to preserve this tradition. Despite all the challenges, I am happy that people, especially youngsters, have not lost their love for silk and are willing to adapt it to changing times,” Das concludes.
© Women’s Feature Service