The Mishing people are one of Assam’s many indigenous communities, and a community held synonymous with the handloom weaving practiced by its women. If you visit a Mishing village, it is a common sight to see women working on the loom every day, practicing the craft and weaving garments for daily use. It is a prevalent custom amongst Mishing women to weave a number of traditional garments for the daughters of the household, to be given at the time of marriage. Handwoven mekhela sador (the two-piece garment resembling a saree worn traditionally by Assamese women) thus forms a precious part of a girl’s wedding trousseau.
The Mishing people have an intimate bond with the river Brahmaputra, and are also one of the communities to have faced the ravages of the river’s indiscriminate flooding. For this reason, they live in traditional stilt houses which provide high ground from flood water and also the possibility of rebuilding houses again if they are destroyed during floods. They interact with nature and lead a life that is environment-friendly and flexible to the unpredictable whims of nature. Such a lifestyle is reflected in the designs that the Mishing women translate onto the yarn they weave on–motifs such as flowers, hills and ridges, butterflies and geometrical patterns such as diamonds and stripes speak of simplicity and respectful adherence to social customs. Because Mishing villages are primarily located on the river banks, the people do not have any scope of earning a livelihood based on farming and other land-based occupation. Which is why perhaps, the focus on developing the handloom sector has been such a relevant concern, so that it can become a lucrative option of livelihood for both the women as well as the community as a the whole.
Mishing stilt houses conventionally accommodate the traditional shuttle loom under them but such a set-up becomes inconvenient during floods. Technology came as a welcome rescue to aid the craft out of its limitations and make it a source of income for the people of the community. It was under the initiative of the Mising Autonomous Council and the Centre of Microfinance and Livelihood in conjunction with Tata Trusts that a systematic plan was executed over three years that has resulted in a gradual integration of the traditional with the modern and an attempt to induce sustainable income out of this handloom weaving practice. The aim has been to increase production with efficiency and regularity, without the pauses and losses brought on by yearly natural disasters. The throw shuttle loom has now been replaced in many weaving families with the advanced fly shuttle loom, which consists of a bamboo frame instead of a steel frame and thus bringing down the cost of production (bamboos are a widely ubiquitous plant in Assam). A warping drum has been introduced which lessens the area required for making a warp and also makes the warping process smooth. Close to four hundred women have undergone rigorous training for a year and half, learning to work on the fly shuttle loom and about market demands, changing tastes of people, developing newer designs by retaining the traditional, creating more diverse range of products, and also how to maintain records of selling. All in all, there has been a renewed sense of direction and systematic approach towards this art and craft practice that has given hope to the practitioners for making it a commercial enterprise through their own efforts and creative engagement with both the art form and the contemporary market. The modern loom and the warping drum have made the process of weaving less exhaustive which has encouraged many middle-aged women to come back to the craft form they were beginning to lose touch with, and sparked amongst young girls to learn the traditional craft by making time out of their work schedules.
The most popular form of garment woven is obviously the mekhela sador, but the Mishing community also has its own traditional dresses of both the men and women folk, which the weavers create on their looms. They are the ege (skirt-like garment), the ri:bi (a rectangular striped piece of cloth wrapped on top of the lower garment around the chest that falls on the knees), the seleng gasor (worn alternatively with the ri:bi), the riya (a long scarf) and the niseg (a piece of cloth tied across shoulders to carry a baby). Today, women are weaving contemporary items like kurtas, dupattas, shawls, curtains, pillow covers, table tops and the like, along with the more traditional items such as the gamosa and endi shawl which always mind a steady market amongst the Assamese people. And then, there is the gadu, a textile that requires utmost patience and long hours on the traditional loin loom, resulting in a blanket that is soft and fluffy on one side. It is items such as the gadu, so typically Mishing, that is on the verge of disappearance today. We hope to find a way to retain all such nuances that define them, much as they have found a way around to survive all odds.