Seeking lost tradition… seeking COTTON!

“Weavers weavers everywhere… not a bundle of cotton to weave…”

I agree and I whole-heartedly accept your grimace on what disgusting “sounding” sing song manipulation of words I just subjected you all to!

But it came more out of habit than anything to do with creative inclination or motivation!

I AM JUST TIRED OF SEEKING COTTON… and I AM JUST TOO IMPATIENT SEEKING OUR LOST TRADITION!

while the north east india absolutely stumped me with its beautiful weaves and the skilled weavers who worked on their traditional loin looms in most hill regions and the frame loom in the plains, what I missed the most in the north east India while I was travelling there was COTTON… “sooti dhaga”

at some level, though I completely protest the idea of killing the traditional looms by introducing more commercially viable looms like fly shuttle loom and Jacquard ones, the biggest threat to textile industry that I could sense is actually gradual disappearance of COTTON from the face of north east Indian textiles.

Where did it all go?

What happened to the cotton plantation in the north east India which was in abundance at some point of time, a decade or a little longer back?

Why have weavers suddenly lost complete trust in COTTON and swear by synthetic yarns?

Why is the tradition of weaving with cotton almost dying in the north east india?

These are some of the questions that haunted me during my trip to the north east India when I travelled to many remote parts seeking traditional weaves… On the face of it, you see looms in almost every household, women dedicated to weaving those age-old traditional designs, women and men still draped in their meticulously joint loin loom wonders… but what hides beneath those lovely weaves is a tragic tale of poverty, manipulation and at some level even misfortune!

My repeated trips to the textile ministry and numerous calls and e mails to the textile experts have given me no solid answers to these queries instead they have baffled me more with their collective silence…

The questions I ask, do not have a simple answer but the mystery behind missing cotton needs to be given a serious thought… I NEED THOSE ANSWERS TO FIND THEIR SOLUTIONS… if I am rebuked a thousand times to get even one of my questions answered or my observations critiqued, I will be successful in writing this piece…

Somehow I prefer the question- answer format. my journalist friend Swastika, made me realize this.

After reading the Majuli blog, she sent me the following questions and wanted me to write like it is, no edits, no censure! So, here it is… like the mind and thoughts flowed…

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S:  Hey some thoughts after reading your Majuli Blog –

News Point of your travel into the northeast – The tradition of weaving with cotton almost dying in Majuli and other places in the northeast India.

– No one knows about this as this has not been advertised here in the cities at all.

R:   tradition of weaving is gradually becoming a dying art form because people in the northeast India have been introduced to “easier and more economical ways” of living … and at some level even more “commercial”.

But at the same time there are still many places in the north east India where the tradition of weaving still exists and people still wear what they weave. It’s still considered one of the most important attributes or qualities/ skills that women should master to get married.

What has changed in a big way is the YARN and the LOOM. The age-old cotton of weaving cotton on loin loom has almost disappeared. What has replaced it is synthetic yarns like Thailand, “dulia”, acrylic etc.

About 15 years back, cotton was grown, hand spun and even woven by women…

Now there is almost no cotton plantation… and thus no cotton-weaving and obviously championing of synthetics.

What are reasons behind discouraging and disappearance of cotton from the northeast? THEY who are behind it only know…

Questions –

S: Thailand synthetic yarn – the cost of this versus the cotton yarn – how much of it has been circulated and at what all outposts – which department of the govt deals with this segment of trading.-

R: because the cotton plantation has almost disappeared from north-east India, the cotton needs to be imported from other region, which makes it expensive. Then to bring down the cost, cheap quality dyes are used which run colour. Some NGOs and organizations like NHDC- National Handloom Corporation Ltd. do have good quality cotton with good dyes but they are so exorbitantly expensive that even people like us leave alone an average weaver can hardly afford it. They have started some schemes whereby privileged groups get cotton at discounted rate but what about people like me or a weaver… how do we have access to that good cotton available at an affordable rate… do the government-run organizations or the organizations backed by govt. Are the only ones that can get access to it??

Also, the wages for weavers are comparable to a pittance and cotton-weaving is much more tedious than synthetic because of the elasticity and strength, therefore the amount of work churned out in a day with synthetic yarn is relatively more than cotton, which is another reason why the use of cotton is automatically discouraged. Summing down 4 most important reasons:

  • Almost no cotton plantation
  • lack of good quality imported cotton available at an affordable rate
  • less wages for weavers
  • because of bad quality dyes, weavers and wearers are automatically inclined towards using bright (evergreen) synthetic yarns

therefore, North Eastern market has slowly been inducted into using, weaving and wearing only synthetic. it’s almost “the most difficult” thing to find quality cotton yarn or weaves in the north east. to the point that I have gone door to door looking for old pieces… they were sometimes as old as 200 yrs to as new as 20-25 yrs… which clearly states that cotton-weaving has long been a dying affair.

I have seen that during the expos, exhibitions, handloom centres and state bhavans within north east and outside that weavers and organizations bring synthetic weaves with them. while I am saying that they do sell because of the intricate designs but they don’t usually land up doing serious business in a market outside the north east. That is because the city’s high paying crowd is generally more aware of the hazards of wearing synthetic and chooses to wear only organic handlooms. At the same time, according to the export laws, only organic handloom should/can be exported out of India. Export Council does take liberties on that but has not been able to do serious trading owing to limited good quality products from the northeast. Because of all these reasons, weavers are generally the hopeless, poor lot slowing moving towards more paying off job/ occupation options.

So, in a nut shell, What is available is either the ugly but affordable synthetics… or very cheap quality cotton or decent quality cotton dyed with cheap quality dyes, or good quality cotton with good dyes that are so expensive that it’s almost impossible to an average weaver to afford them.

And if I was asked which department deals into this… can I just take this huge risk of saying certain things- if the government is against the use of synthetic why are they promoting it in their expos… why is this synthetic yarn being imported from the neighbouring porous/ almost porous borders? Why was the cotton plantation discouraged?

I will not blame the government- state or central hardly makes a difference if I get convincing answers to these…

S: okay – when was synthetic introduced?/

R: there is no definite time or date to when it was introduced. it was a very slow process of discouraging cotton plantation, and because weaving is the way of living in north east, to recover from that synthetic yarns was introduced. From the face of it, it looks like it’s been about 15 years. But it’s really been a very slow death of tradition and quality. Weavers (the old timers) still sometimes go back to the glorious days of weaving cotton and yearn for availability of good quality cotton and buyers who would be able to afford them.

I met such a case in sagolpara, Garo hills, meghalaya where I met the only man weaver I saw in the whole of the northeast. He shared his woes on not being able to weave cotton anymore. When I asked him if he would be ready to weave cotton for us, he was more than happy. I really tried to get someone to help me supervise this in garo hills… but it’s as if the Garos along with others have want to wipe the tradition of those beautiful diamond designs… it saddens me to see that happening… and how I wish to find someone there to help me…

There I met Daisy, a designer who uses indigenous Garo weaves and in her own way tries to revive Garo tradition, but she too is finding it difficult to find Garo loin loom weavers…

I sense a slow and terrible death of this tradition… I FEEL THIS TERRIBLE URGE to sometimes go shake up the associated authorities to take notice of this… I scream out to them to hear me out asking them to HELP me or just LEAVE ME ALONE and let me do what needs to be done!!

CAN WE DO SOMETHING TO BRING BACK COTTON TO THESE WEAVERS WHO REALLY WEAVE DREAMS ON LOOMS AND ARE WASTING ALL OF THESE ON GHASTLY SYNTHETICS?

S: which year and how cotton was phased out – how did the govt target the tribal population to get them converted into synthetic yarn….

Tribal population, all over is anyways the most vulnerable lot. They depend and sustain through their skills whether it’s to do with weaving or basketry or woodwork.  a lot of what they weave is what they wear. They were an easy poor helpless target not only because at some level they still follow their traditional ways of living (I highly respect this innocent allegiance they offer to their tradition)  but also there is an absolute lack of opportunities for people in the north east… they are forced to make do with whatever is available to them amidst the confusions created by the over ground Indian army vis-a-vis central government, or the underground army vis-a- vis the rebel groups and the martyr of all armies- the Christian missionary groups. While they all have their valid reasons for doing whatever they do but all of their head strong visions clearly leave an average north east Indian confused about who to trust, that obviously leaves them as a vulnerable target.

Now on my repeated queries on why the tribal population of simple weavers was targeted for this commercial trade of synthetic, no one seemed to have an answer. Met such a handloom officer in Kohima, Nagaland who wanted me to get cotton in Nagaland but wanted commissions on that!

And why in the world would I give commissions to a Greedy govt. officer to bring back the right of his own people. I was very disappointed in him. JUST LEAVE YOUR OWN PEOPLE ALONE. They deserve better not only from you but everyone, in fact especially from you!

Govt. obviously denies any participation in discouraging cotton plantation. They actually have no answer.

S: how is the raw material made available to the tribal population – the synthetic stuff I mean.

R:that’s the only thing available in markets. an average village weaver will weave what is available to them. they neither have the resources or urge to go looking for anything better.

S:Why is the synthetic yarn bad?

R: synthetic yarn does not let skin breathe which means the sweat in that humid weather never dries up. And is thus extremely harmful for your skin- most people suffer from mild or extreme skin allergies. Prolonged use is even cancerous.

S: What is the good thing about using the cotton yarn?

R:its organic. good for skin. has this age-old grace that is incomparable to any other fabric. Cotton weaving/ products will also encourage more trade and commerce not only in india but also abroad because their weaves are way too precious to be wasted on synthetics.

S:Why not buy synthetic make more money and get better lifestyles?

R:That is a short-sighted vision villagers have been inducted into believing. What they don’t realize is that there is a much bigger market outside their villages or guwahati for that matter where people will pay them their due wages (hopefully!). where they sell is where almost everyone weaves. why will they pay a good price to another weaver??? to encourage real trade and commerce- quality products are a key.

And above everything else, it is for their own health and betterment.

When I went to the small villages to tell people how important it is to weave/ wear cotton, there was indifference first, then ridicule, then reluctance and finally “almost acceptance” when I offered decent wages/ advance money to work on cotton.

What I realize is it is all about surviving and sustaining. If cotton gets them enough to survive… then cotton it will be…

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Listing down things I want to do (like now, right now!):

– I must understand the economics behind phasing out the cotton yarn and bringing in the synthetic yarn

  • Find an agriculturist who can help me phase out the reasons for disappearance of cotton plantation in the north east and help me figure out ways to revive it.
  • Find enthusiastic entrepreneurs from the villages who wish to take initiative with us to revive their traditional weaves on cotton.
  • Find a market here for a sustainable project of cotton promotion in the north east which means we need to find stores/ organizations that would help us ensure a certain order every month to be given to these weavers
  • Find enthusiastic individuals within the north east and outside to help us discourage people from using the synthetic yarns… for this we need to reach out to the weaving clusters.
  • To bring those beautiful weaves revived on cotton to the mainland and let people know there is more to the north east than just what they read and see.

I feel extremely strongly about the issue of cotton-weaving in the north east and any help/ advice/ suggestions/ contacts/ volunteer service will only help us work better.

Waiting to hear from you all…

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20 Responses to Seeking lost tradition… seeking COTTON!

  1. indian yarn says:

    You know it better than i do -that cotton yarn is exported. since the last 5 years or so when US relAxed their textile exports from india, box chains thronged india and now we do not get to buy good quality cotton cloth in india…it is definitely a treasure hunt…( not that it was eazy earlier either – the best have always been exported since the last 200 years or so .. think bengal cotton and muslin

    and kudos to your 3 month journey to the north east ( related to one of your posts ) — much less is written about north eastern weaving tradition. one page here and there each tribe has something unique that is being lost and replaced by cheap synthetic yarn.
    MONSAnto in india. ….does it ring a bell?

    And above all there needs to be incentive for cotton farming in india – favorable policies and agricultural incentives ..it is not very far when we we have lost all these ..We already have lost so many since they are passed down by oral tradition and lost cultural practices. In a country where there are infinity amounts of weaving techniques and patterns , is there even one school dedicated to it ?

  2. indian yarn says:

    and this year floods have destroyed 30 – 40% of the cotton.

  3. Radhika Paruchuri says:

    I felt like my heart fell out as I was reading whats happening to these weavers. Can we start a non profit organization that promotes there cause and bring governement attention to these issues and may be some grants to subsidice the cost of cotton so that it makes more affordable? I know I don’t have any innovative thinking here. We need to bring awareness in people who are buying synthetic materials as oppose to cotton for a cheaper price. There is nothing wrong in people thinking to buy cheaper product when they don’t know the benefits or effects of their choices. Not only synthetic material not good for your body, its not good for the environment. With people thinking green now, these sure can be a one of the green moments. I wish Government do something to protect these weavers, their lifestyle and this unique art. Hope I can be of some help. Thank you for dedicating yourself to protect and promote this art.

  4. SuhaelAmrita says:

    Hi Ritika.

    I can feel the anguish in your words. While you have covered the concern around cotton I sensed a similar sentiment around Kantha; again a rapidly dieing art of the east.

    I will be more than willing to participate in your ‘seeking cotton’ project. Let me know how we can proceed on the same. Will look forward to your mail.

    Regards,
    SuhaelAmrita

  5. Mayuri says:

    Hi , Came across your blog through artnlight. The vibrant colours of Mora’s collections caught my eye.Do you retail in Mumbai? My compliments to you on your efforts in trying to revive interest in cotton garments.

  6. SuhaelAmrita says:

    Hi Ritika.

    I feel so good to have met you at Kala Ghoda yesterday. The collection is beautiful and you are a true ambassador of your work. The passion in your cause is evident and I wish you all the success!

    Will hopefully see you again sometinme during the week. 🙂

  7. Deepa says:

    Hi Ritika,
    I chanced upon your website from an0ther blog. Do you guys ship all over the world? Can you please email me your catalog and the pricing for sarees? I love your collection, keep up the good work!

    Deepa

  8. sudha says:

    loved the post!!

  9. nbc says:

    I chanced upon your website from an0ther blog. Do you guys ship all over the world? Can you please email me your catalog and the pricing for sarees? I love your collection,.would love to buy your saris

  10. nbc says:

    Do you guys ship all over the world? Can you please email me your catalog and the pricing for sarees? I love your collection,.would love to buy your saris

  11. Kashmira Lad says:

    Hi,
    This is very interesting although sad that cotton is losing its grip due to synthetics. I would rather purchase these exquisite materials rather than opting for the mall culture. I myself work in Instant Batik, which is my Mom’s creation, very different from traditional Batik. WE require pure cotton cloth to work on and this somethings is tough to find….

  12. itiriti says:

    Hello Ritika, A friend told me about your fb page and I have become a fan of yours. I am an ardent fan of cotton fabrics and love Rani Handlooms collection in Imphal. I am sure you must have visited Rani Handlooms … their cotton stuff is amazing and the colours both pastel and bright are something to die for. Other than that, the Manipuri silk is very different from the silk we find it in the eastern region. Its rather smooth 🙂 I hope to wear one our creations someday.

  13. Hi,
    Just back from ‘Along the Bramhaputra’ prog. We have traveled Guwahati to Pasighat. I got ur website link, when i was searching ‘Eri Silk’. Got many insights . Lovely writeup .
    i am working on Revival of Desi Cotton Varities in collaboration with Sahaja Samrudha-Organic Farmers association of karnatka. So far we collected more than 13 desi cotton varities and planted in farmer fields.
    Assam Cotton or Comila Cotton is very unique and best cotton variety suited for Surgical cotton.
    Have you seen any cotton plants or met cotton farmers in Garo hills?. I am keen to learn more about NE cotton Diversity and culture .
    Visit our website wwww.sahajasamrudha.org

  14. Gowthami says:

    Hi…. I am really impressed with your ideas and motto can yoyu tell me where i can get hand loom fabric

  15. wow
    such a nc page 1 should definitely love dis n cn learn by anothr tribe vry easily

  16. 1 should definetly lk ds page bcoz anothr tribe can easily learn it

  17. Soumik says:

    Comilla cotton is being grown by some farmers in East Garo Hills…………but in the absence of markets…….it is gradually dying……if we could develop possible markets…….a lot could still be saved……

    Soumik

    • Dear Soumik, it will be great to make this connection and survey the unit. my email id is mittal.ritika@gmail.com… Please update me on information you think might support the farmers to sustain… thank you, ritika

      • Soumik Banerjee says:

        There are some Comilla Cotton farmers in the East Garo Hills of Megahalaya, I had come across when I was doing a study on indigenous Paddy last year…..

        The sad part is that Cotton growing is gradually becoming less lucrative in the area due to vegetables and most have already left cultivating the same………only some old farmers and also the ones who follow tribal religion continue to grow cotton as it is offered to the gods…..

        The ginning is also rarely done now……..(will send a video tomorrow in your mail..)I think over a few years this all would be extinct……….

        The best time to visit this area would be Jan/Feb as the crop (planted in Apr) is harvested then and ginning is also done.

        Cotton sells for Rs 70/kg in local markets there…….if there are markets offering fair and attractive prices (vis a vis vegetables), things could be encouraged…

        Please let know how we could help strengthen this heritage and ensure returns to the farmers…………

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