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Dr Roli Misra and Parvin Sultana
Date of Publish: 2015-09-30

Cheap Banarasi imposter harming Sualkuchi’s Assam silk

Dr Roli Misra and Parvin Sultana


Pure Assam silk does not come cheap – unless the one you have bought for a song happens to be a pretender from Varanasi or Surat.

The silk industry of Sualkuchi, an expansive village 35 km west of Guwahati, once inspired songs. One of them sung by Narayan Chandra Das in the 1950s runs thus: Khat khat khat khatasalare xabda pran mor nite nochuwai (the click-clack sound of the loom makes the soul of passersby dance).

But the rhythmic rattle of the shuttle flying through the threads of the warp is no longer music to the ears of Sualkuchi’s weavers. Reasons: cheaper fakes passing off as original Assam silk; skyrocketing prices of middlemen-controlled raw materials such as silk yarn and cocoons; and steep decline in the number of skilled weavers.

The weavers could not foresee this triple trouble less than a decade ago. Theirs, after all, was a profession with cultural and spiritual undertones for the Assamese who believe weaving brings the mind closer to god. And a history of excellence was expected to make their hub Sualkuchi overcome the challenges.

Situated on the north bank of river Brahmaputra, Sualkuchi is often referred to as the Manchester of Assam. But this silk village known for its unique golden muga silk, the ivory white pat and the light beige eri or endi predates Manchester. The industry here became organised in the medieval period when Momai Tamuli Barbaruah, a minister of Ahom king Pratap Singha, made spinning mandatory. Patronage of the Ahom kings and queens made the silk industry flourish; muga fabrics were exported to Bhutan, Tibet and China where it found a lot of appreciation.

During his visit to Sualkuchi in 1921, Mahatma Gandhi observed that every young woman was an expert in the art of weaving. The Assamese people, he said, could transform their destiny through weaving. Not surprisingly, handloom became one of the largest economic activities in Assam after agriculture with farm workers finding employment in traditional sericulture and weaving during non-agricultural season.  

Assam is the most ideal place on earth for the culture and cultivation of eri, muga, mulberry and tussar silk. Items made from traditional silk material include mekhela chador, sarees and jainsem (Khasi women’s attire) besides modern additions such as jackets, shirts and neck tie. The woven motifs on these apparels are inspired by the state’s flora and fauna lorded over by the one-horned rhino. Another motif is the jaapi or traditional Assamese bamboo-and-straw hat. The muga and pat items are an integral part of Assamese tradition and festivals such as Bihu.

Sualkuchi’s silk products are popular at home and are being exported too. But the demand has not translated into prosperity for the weavers owing primarily to cheaper duplicate material procured by traders from Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) and Surat (Gujarat). People unable to differentiate invariably take the cheaper fakes home. This has forced the weavers to cut down the price of their original products to a point of unviability.  

Steep hike in prices of silk yarn and cocoons coupled with fall in Assam’s silk production has added to the weavers’ problems. “There is no steady supply of raw material. The pricing mechanism is at the mercy of mahajans (middlemen) who collect ready silk from us,” says Kalpana Kalita, a silkworm rearer in Siliguri area of Sualkuchi.

These two factors have impacted the industry to an extent that women are shifting to alternative employment opportunities that pay more. This has made skilled weavers an endangered species. Lack of proper training, access to easy loans and government support in marketing and promotion are not making things easier. And the control of mahajans on the trade is coming in the way of forming self-help groups and cooperative societies. “I had to sell off a handloom machine due to lack of skilled weavers,” Meenu Kakoti, a weaver, says.

Paresh Rajbongshi, a boutique owner at Sualkuchi, points out how production of raw material has been monopolised by entrepreneurs from outside the state, thus pushing the prices higher. Take the case of pat silk thread that needs to be twisted before being woven into cloth. Since the weavers cannot afford twisting machines, the thread is twisted in Bengaluru and sold in the state for a premium. This impacts the price of the finished products that could be sold profitably elsewhere in India if a proper display and marketing channel existed.

Assam’s Department of Sericulture did initiate the ‘cluster plantation’ schemes in 2005-06. Sericulture-rich pockets in the state were divided into clusters and given financial, technical and training support to increase the production of silk. The department also fixed the sale price of cocoons to shiled weavers from middlemen. The effort has hardly yielded any result.

The crisis in the industry led to outbreaks of riots in Sualkuchi in March 2013. The weavers destroyed silk products brought from Varanasi, giving vent their anger against manipulation of prices of raw material, distress sale of finished goods, monopoly of middlemen, hired weavers, etc. They also resented the role of unscrupulous traders and challenges from big producers.

The weavers’ association subsequently demanded 50% subsidy on raw material, GI (geographical indication) tag for Sualkuchi products to check duplication, increased production of muga cocoons in Assam, technological upgrade and setting up of a muga cocoon depot at Sualkuchi.

Post-riots, a State Level Committee was formed in April 2013 to find out ways of protecting the designs and products of Sualkuchi. A sub-committee was formed in July 2013 and given the responsibility to secure the GI rights for the state’s handloom products. But the GI drive has been slow and the problems of the weavers continue to persist.

Despite the crisis, the silk industry opened up employment avenues for the inhabitants of char (sandbar) areas. Often affected by floods and erosion, the people of Sialmari Char and neighbouring Kurihamari Char have taken up weaving. Though weaving was not their tradition, the char inhabitants bought handlooms from Sualkuchi and mostly trained school dropouts.

( Dr Roli Misra teaches Economics in D.B.S College, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Her interest areas are Gender and Migration.  Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in B.N College, Dhubri of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, Development and the Northeast, Gender etc.)


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