Magical weaves from Assam

Magical weaves from Assam


Magical weaves from Assam

Assam holds its silk in as much sentiment and value as its tea and the one-horned rhinoceros.

The muga silk skirt-like mekhela and riha (a garment) add magnificence to the Bihu dance. Sattriya dance, one of the Indian classical dance forms that evolved out of the Xatras or Vaishnavaite monasteries of Assam, is performed wearing paat silk.

And every Assamese agrees that a girl looks best on her wedding day, dressed in a white or off-white paat silk mekhela chadar (two-piece attire worn like a saree) with motifs in guna (zari or golden thread).

Tultul Bora of Ritu’s Boutique in Guwahati tells me that acid is not used in the production of Assam silk. “This makes the silk last longer,” she says. “Also, our production processes include organic methods like vegetable dyeing.”

Muga, popularly known as Yellow Silk outside Assam, has a golden texture and is one of the costliest silks available in the world. It is produced from the cocoons of the worm Antheraea Assamensis which, in the whole wide world, is found only in Assam.

Paat silk is extracted from mulberry silkworms raised on the leaves of the mulberry plant; and Eri or Endi is another popular Assam silk that is made from the Samia Cynthia Ricini, a worm fed on the leaves of the castor oil plant. Eri, also called the ‘poor man’s silk’, is soft and warm, best suited for winters.

A homemaker from Guwahati, Minoti Bhuyan, who is in her early sixties, remembers how her mother, grandmothers and aunts used to weave and wear fine cotton chadars with muga or paat silk mekhela at home. “Till our mothers’ time, there used to be a handloom in every home. This is the case even today in most households in the villages.”

Households usually have the throw-shuttle loom; but for commercial weaving, the fly-shuttle loom is used. Anju Buragohain, an entrepreneur who has set up a small scale industry in her house in Guwahati, started out 13 years ago with two throw-shuttle looms. Today, she has 20 fly-shuttle looms and 20 weavers from all across Assam.

Anju tells me, “Muga threads and eri threads continue to be produced in Assam; but the paat threads are nowadays purchased mostly from Banaras and Bangalore. Fertilisers used in the tea gardens of the region are spoiling the cultivation of the worms required for paat silk.”

Giving me a tour of her small industry, where workers are busy sorting threads, dyeing them and picking patterns on the looms, Anju informs, “A muga mekhela chadar today costs a minimum of Rs 14,000.

Muga is available at Rs 1,300 per metre, paat at Rs 600 and eri at Rs 500–600. We purchase the threads in bulk for our production; and muga threads come for Rs 12,000–12,500 per kilogram, paat threads for Rs 4,300–4,700 and eri threads for Rs 2,000–2,700.”

As we enter her boutique, small and bright with the dazzle of several mekhela chadars, Anju picks up a mekhela chadar and makes me feel it. “This is eri mixed with tassar silk, also produced in Assam. Earlier, eri was used only for winters; but now, many of us are mixing it with other yarns, mostly tassar, to create garments suitable for summers.”

Silk weaving is an ancient tradition in the land. The royalty extended immense patronage to the craft, the culmination of which is the living example of Sualkuchi, popularly called ‘Manchester of Assam’ — a weavers’ village, 32 km from Guwahati, set up during the reign of Ahom king Pratap Singha (1603 – 1641).

But today, apart from Sualkuchi, almost every town, city and village has a good number of households where commercial weaving is happening. These households, like Anju Buragohain’s or Tultul Bora’s, are regularly visited by the Assamese settled in other parts of India and abroad.

Pointing at a shelf in her boutique, Anju tells me, “These mekhela chadars are specifically for visitors from the Assamese communities in Delhi, Bangalore, Canada and the United Kingdom.”

From her experiences in several trade fairs where she has represented Assam Handloom, Anju shares with me how popular Assam silk is. “My cushion covers in muga and paat sell like hot cakes outside Assam and India. Every time in Europe, my eri shirts have attracted huge sales. In Greece, my Assam silk sarees and ladies purses became very popular.”

But, in the same breath she maintains that it is difficult to adhere to standards in handloom. “Every weaver brings in a distinct character to what she weaves, even if the designs are the same. So, one cannot guarantee uniformity.

This stops me from taking bulk orders for any particular apparel, especially in Europe, where standards of uniformity are strict.” I see her point; but at the same time smile at the realisation that every Assam silk handloom product that I own is but a collectors’ item, one of its kind. She senses it perhaps and nods at me.