The banks of the Brahmaputra, the only antecedent river flowing through Assam, conceal myriad mysteries just as they reveal natural and manmade magnificence. The people and their culture on its banks, much like the great river, have evolved with the changes which have come their way. Some of their cultural traits have been stamped by climatic conditions wedded to the fertile, alluvium rich valley of the river.
One such ancient tradition that has overcome the ebb and flow of time is traditional weaving. Much before the discovery of oil and the proliferation of the Indian one-horned rhino, it was muga, paat and eri, which defined Kamarupa, the ancient identity of Assam.
Today, in a world flooded with silk of a bewildering array, the state still possesses the halo of a silk producer extraordinaire. And in the epicentre of this allure is the township of Sualkuchi. Several visits to the place to photograph the weavers and their art have made me realise – Sualkuchi is a celebration of craftsmanship, an ode to human ingenuity!
Situated about 35 kilometres northwest of Guwahati city, Sualkuchi is home to about 10,000 taat xaal, hand looms made mainly of wood and bamboo. Most of the families have looms, some as many as 10 or more. The weavers are locals as well as from other areas. The one element that unites them is the knowledge of weaving honed and passed down over generations.
Sualkuchi has its secrets! Few outsiders will know that many family members get involved in carrying out different phases of weaving, a practice that has continued over a long period of history. In today’s time of fractured families, the act of getting together in a work that is economic and artistic is rare. It has impressed me since my first foray into the township where the sound of the taat xaal is part of the people’s circadian pattern.
Muga, in particular, has always been prized in Assamese culture. Although costly when compared to most other handmade textiles, it is long-lasting and retain its glossy, shimmering hues for a lifetime. Muga actually acquires more lustre after every wash. Since the time of early chronicles of Assam, they have also been part of the traditional attire of the Assamese bride.And Paat, obtained from Bombyx textor silkworms, can be draped in this raw and sublime form as kensa pat or nuni pat or allowed to soak the dyes and‘metamorphosizes’ into an exquisite version of itself – a flush of bright colours shimmering, with intricate traditional textile patterns adorning the body of the fabric.
I reflected on the route from the time of raising the cocoons till the emergence of the lustrous folds, a journey made possible by great visualisation and artistic endeavour, which are remarkable. For the uninitiated, silk making is a gentle and patient act that starts with hand raised silk worms wrapping themselves in cocoons.
The transformation of silk extracted from cocoons into the sensuous texture of a garment is a highly regimented process. It begins with the boiling of the cocoons at high temperature with addition of alkaline in right amount; when the cocoons become soft, they are sundried. The threads from the dry and soft cocoons were earlier manually extracted, a task now made easier by spinning machines. The threads are then passed on to different devices, mostly handmade, where the fibre can be made smooth and ready for weaving.
If the threads are to be dyed, they have to be thoroughly drenched in natural or artificial colour, again a controlled procedure using a variety of pigments. Turmeric, indigo, tea leaves, fruits, barks and roots of some trees are just a few of the sources from which colouring agents are made. The wide range of plant-based pigments clearly indicates deep insights about local flora in particular.
The threads which form the length of the weave are called deegh while the threads for the breadth are called baani. The woven cloth can be made into different attires among which mekhela sador is especially popular. The painstaking and time-consuming process of preparing the yarn coupled to the fine skills of the weavers are reasons for their high cost.
Weaving by itself is no mean task. The weavers can work on the loom hours at a stretch, some humming softly and lost in their immersive act. I was enthralled to watch them and reminded of the Mahatma’s words, “Assamese weavers weave dreams on their looms.”
As a photographer, expectant but unhurried, I was captivated by their perfect hand-eye coordination, not to forget the sprightly movement of their legs. The movement of their adroit hands at times resemble the nimble grace of a classical dancer. It is a sight to behold!
While traditional weaving is alive and well, some new practices have also been adopted. A few loom owners have experimented with what is called ‘Ahimsa silk,’ or non-violent silk. According to Narmohan Das, an expert in weaving, it is made in a way that the silk worm is not killed to extract yarn from the cocoon. The yarning starts only after the silkworm leaves the cocoon. The process requires more time, but there are people who are willing to wait.
The hoary past of Sualkuchi awaits detailed research. But historians would suggest that the place being a nucleus of weaving has roots which can be traced to AD 11th century, the reign of the Pala dynasty. It is from then onward that some of the producers of silk had earned royal patronage. There are also references in history mentioning that fine silk items from the area were among the privileges of royalty and aristocrats.
On my photographic assignments, the range of woven materials I witnessed told their own tales. The magnificent muga, the pristine paat and even the humble gamosa were all part of a legacy born from efforts to fulfil necessities of a society that appreciated functionality as well as aesthetic value.
The motifs indicate keen observation of Nature and traditional artefacts. Gosa, buta, lokapara, junbiri, kolki – the patterns are innumerable and each is symbolic of some aspect of Assamese culture and belief systems. Various flowers, plants, animals, jewellery and religious words and icons can all be represented in the weaves. Geometric patterns are among the common ones, perhaps loaned from the traditional designs used by nearby tribal communities. According to an expert, “Though most motifs and patterns found in the silk garments do not necessarily have a meaning nowadays, many are basically contemporary in style.”
Most of the weavers are women and it is hardly a surprise – they have the patience of job and memories hard to beat. A weaver may be illiterate; some of them are. But they all are blessed with great visualisation and can create a motif without taking recourse to a written word or an illustration. A few would mention that they have seen new motifs in their dreams.
Being a woman, I had a natural inclination to linger on with the clothes which were displayed by their proud producers and I had the occasions where my fingers would quietly caress the fabric in appreciation. It is also a wonder how the rich colours can combine in the finished products. The hues and textures of muga and paat and eri are all different. In a world overwhelmed by machine-made items, the weaves of Sualkuchi are sensory examples of brilliant human conception and capacity.
I wondered how this sequestered part of Assam could emerge as a hub of traditional weaving. Why Sualkuchi and not any other area of Assam? Assam has been described as the land of lahe lahe (languid pace), then why this concentration of skilled labour and sincerity?
A friend of mine hinted that it may be something to do with their deep belief in Vaishnavism as propounded by Assam’s patron saint Srimanta Sankardev. The faith he propounded was one that was egalitarian in nature and cooperative in spirit. The numerous naamghar which punctuate Sualkuchi have been promoting that message since the time of Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva. Perhaps the naamghar has been a sustaining force for the people in their lives and in pursuing their traditional livelihood.
It is an irony that beneath the fabled vista of traditional weaving there are undercurrents of some worries and disenchantment. In conversations carried out over some” ronga cha” with the weavers on few occasions, they revealed how the made in Assam tag was endangered by the advent of power looms and machine-made yarn produced in other states.
Today many artisans are facing penury because their skills are not required anymore. The art of dyeing the local silk yarns is almost lost in Sualkuchi. Importing yarn from other places of the country and use of power looms have also undermined the traditional craft. These developments send an ominous message to the young generation – there is less opportunity and respect and profit.
There is also a clamour for more government support. Sometimes the weavers are generally unaware of Government schemes designed for their benefit. And even when they do, the red tape and the corruption keeps them away. The presence of middlemen and their machinations add to their woes as a substantial part of the profit is siphoned off. A few unscrupulous members of the fashion industry have also hurt many weavers of the town. The myth of superiority of city- dwelling, English speaking, book-learned people casts like a shroud over their rural living, traditional skill, inborne artistic sense. Often, they are thought unintelligent or irrelevant to become a part of brainstorming and decision-making processes organised by many agencies.I heard a few tales of breaking spirits, one or two desperation driven suicides.
Still weaving continues unabated in the town, still the Brahmaputra flows past its southern side; its waters rising and falling with the seasons. Sitting on a rocky, elevated area on my last afternoon of the assignment, watching the red Brahmaputra flow below, I remember the song Akaxi Janere by Bharat Ratan Dr Bhupen Hazarika, in which he alludes to the Brahmaputra as a gamosa with its curls and curves. I watch the few boats lend an idyllic charm. Again, a reminder of a time when the town was greatly reliant on the boats which enabled trade and connections to other parts of Assam.
Sualkuchi, the town, is a tactile experience not difficult for a visitor to absorb. The sights and sounds do create a distinct ambience. But it is also an idea infused with traditional knowledge, imagination and human ingenuity, which combine to weave a charismatic tapestry of Assam’s cultural identity. I realise that I may have needed just a few days to take pictures of the town. But I will certainly need weeks, months or even years to understand the real picture of Sualkuchi and its craft people.