“Weaving is our tradition,” Suschila explained to me, raising her voice over a ruckus click-clack coming from a nearby weaving shed at the Action Northeast Trust (The ANT) campus in New Boingaoan, Assam. Suschila and I sat with steamy chai talking over a relentless composition guided by the hands of dozens of women pounding wooden shuttles against their handlooms in a steady beat.
The ANT is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that addresses a sweeping range of livelihood concerns for marginalized communities throughout Assam’s Chirang District, also known as Bodoland. The ANT’s programs are comprehensive, ranging from monthly community mental health camps and organic agriculture workshops, to legal services for internally displaced persons and forest dwellers. One of its central efforts is women’s empowerment, which has been addressed with the establishment of Aagor, an independent weaving collective for women housed under the ANT’s wide umbrella of programming.
Relative to other parts of India, Chirang District keeps a pleasant climate year round. A strong river separates its people from the misty hills of Bhutan and supplies fish, rich soil for agriculture and plenty of lush greenery and tall trees to sustain its residents. In parts of India where the resources are fewer and draught and hunger are pervasive (such as Kutch, Gujarat), mere survival has driven craft producers to milk their craft skills and organize around their economic drive. In such resource-poor areas, craft production often implies an appetite for business, which has led to intrastate and international import/export partnerships and sophisticated and/or scrappy marketing and design initiatives.
In contrast, the production of Bodo weaves in Chirang District was isolated as a local cultural tradition until recently. Daily, Bodo women wrap themselves in their cultural woven textiles in a dress called Dokhna; their locally thriving market for handwoven products suggests less urgency for outside marketing and business collaboration.
Yet, the ANT recognized the craft skill of Bodo women as an opportunity of income generation and economic independence. The ANT established Aagor, an independent entity run by Bodo women, to facilitate a small but successful operation of design collaboration and marketing assistance to widen the market for Chirang District’s handwoven fabric. Today, Aagor’s weavers produce fabric for customers throughout India, North America and Europe.
Suschila Basematary joined Aagor in 2006, when she was twenty-one years old. She had graduated from school five years earlier and had done nothing but cleaned her house since. Now, as a production supervisor at Aagor, she manages warp preparation for special clients, such as Sustainable Threads and Rubina.
What does income generation mean to Suschila Basematary?
I can save for my future. With money [made from weaving], I have purchased land in town.
If Suschila has a daughter, she will teach her to weave.
It [weaving] is part of Bodu culture. It is very important to know how to weave… If you have weaving knowledge, you get respect.
Suschila has high hopes for her future and the future of her children.
Suschila defines empowerment as the ability to depend on herself. Before joining Aagor, Suschila had little motivation to earn her own money; she had never been taught to value economic independence and did not know how to collaborate with others in order to improve her future. She depended completely on her parents, but now she is able to depend on herself, which makes her happy. If she leaves Aagor, she knows that she would be able to start her own shop, where she could sell weavings to local customers.
For now, Suschila is focused on improving Aagor’s products to widen its market — she has an active voice in product design and wants to connect with Aagor’s international customers so she can improve the products. Suschila is curious about Aagor’s market: Are the people who are buying more women or more men? People in high society or middle society?
Aagor’s participants range from eighteen to thirty-five years old. When ANT employees survey villages during their livelihood-improvement initiatives, they keep an eye out for women (especially those who are vulnerable to domestic servitude — a common and harsh source of employment for Bodo women) who are eager to reach economic independence through their weaving skills.
The collective structure of Aagor provides benefits including fair wages for its weavers, the management of collaborations between business owners and domestic and/or international markets, design marketing and assistance, safe working conditions including room and board for weavers, access to raw materials, life-skills workshops, financial education, health care, etc. At ANT development workshops, Suschila learned how to make detergent powder and mushroom pickle, which she can now make for her family or choose to sell.
Many participants of Aagor live on The ANT campus as part of their training program. Susita Narjari, an Aagor participant in her twenties became giddy as she explained her experience living with other weavers at The ANT, “friends comment on my work, the cloth is getting good, which I like.” Susita has formed many friendships at Aagor.
Susita learned how to weave from her aunt when she was twelve years old. Her favorite thing about weaving at the ANT is that all facilities are included so she can stay there to learn comfortably. At the ANT, Susita learns weaving skills, eats her meals, sleeps and builds friendships. If she could do anything in the world, it would be to make cloth and bring it to the market.
The ANT helps Aagor participants open bank accounts, and holds workshops on savings and financial management. The intendended duration of Aagor’s training program is 6 months, but many partipicants stay at Aagor longer, because they face crises such as violence at their homes. They also know that that they can earn more money if they stay at Aagor, because Aagor provides links to outside markets. Aagor faces the challenges of helping its participants leverage their independence outside of the collective structure.
Warp preparation is a team effort. As one woman walks back and forth with wrapping the threads around the warp, the other stays at its base, carefully counting and crossing threads to build a strong foundation for the intricate cloth that other weavers in Aagor will create. It’s a lot of math, and I’m blown away by the women’s abilities to balance concentration with giggles and chatter. After the warp is prepared, it’s placed on a loom and colors collide with loud forces of the shuttle.