This is the story of Nandini Moochahary, Thringing Boro, Rethe Basumatary and others in Assam’s Chirang District, many of them ruwathis – girls who stay with the families who employed them, and are considered not eligible for marriage. But thanks to a weaving project started by The Ant (Action Northeast Trust) in 2002, they finally found freedom. A new world opened where they realised that their traditional weaving skills could be a source of livelihood
Being a ruwathi could not suppress her fiery spirit. Even as she worked relentlessly all day long at her employer’s house, something within Nandini Moochahary said this was not what she was meant for. Entangled in the warp of a tough life, Nandini, however, always felt her destiny lay elsewhere.
Harsh reality struck her early as River Aie swelled up each year near their house in Assam’s remote Chirang District. Everytime Aie refused to subside, Nandini’s heart sank. Every time their miniscule land and house got submerged, they rebuilt it painstakingly with whatever little was left. Until one day in 1977-78, her house caught in the swirling waters of Aie, vanished from her vision forever.
Not left with anything more to rebuild her house, Nandini, just a teenager then, was forced to leave her native place far behind to eke out a living. Not only for herself but for her huge family of four sisters, two brothers and her parents, who otherwise would have faced starvation.
Nandini left for Karbi Anglong, one of Assam’s poorest districts, to stay with her uncle. Like other Bodo girls, she too had to work as a housemaid in one of her wealthy relative’s home, doing everything from sweeping, mopping and cooking to tilling fields and babysitting for just Rs 400 to 700 a month, so that her large family back home could survive.
Called ruwathis, girls like Nandini often stay with families where they are employed. Because of the underlying sexual connotation – of a feeling of already belonging to someone else – these girls are never considered for marriage and become social outcasts in a way.
A weaver at work at the traditional loom in The Ant campus in Pwmari, Chirang. Fabrics produced here are usually exported.
Nandini worked hard all through the day, getting little time for herself. While at work, her memories of her family, her little house by the side of Aie, her banters with her friends and mother while weaving the dokhona, their tradition wear on the home loom, kept flooding her mind. Being a Bodo, she could not forget weaving, an integral and intrinsic part of Bodo culture.
When she returned home on a break in 2002, Nandini’s deft fingers could not resist working the loom and weaving in the intricate unique Bodo motifs like spinach, peacock, water hyacinth, tortoise, mountain and pigeon’s eyes on the dokhona. She seemed to enjoy it much more than being a housemaid.
One of her neighbour’s then told her about Undangshree Dera Camp (meaning An Abode of Freedom), a camp run by Aagor, a weaving project started by The Ant (Action Northeast Trust) in 2002. Aagor means design, literally designed to promote the traditional craft of rural Bodo tribeswomen into a significant source of livelihood.
Nandini Moochahary, a ruwathi who has turned her passion for weaving into a livelihood. Here, she oversees work at the Aagor store in Rowmari, in Assam’s Chirang District.
The camp, specifically of 30 women, was to help the poorest Bodo women and rehabilitate the maids, who took care of their large families. For six months, they would let the women live with them, weave with them and would then sell her handicraft. The fair trade wages they paid left the women with a savings of around Rs 20000.
Nandini says her urge to break away from the ruwathi bondage was so strong that she literally jumped at the God-sent opportunity. She recalls: “I never wanted to be a ruwathi or remain so. I was restless and wanted to break free. And as weaving was a part of our lives always, I grabbed the opportunity.”
Nandini, a master weaver and designer, soon became a permanent staff at Aagor. Today, she can speak English and Hindi almost fluently and has represented Aagor at many international platforms like international trade fairs, and been to expos in Kolkata, Delhi, Rajasthan and Ethiopia as well.
Similar is the story of Thringing Boro, whose husband ran away from home to escape the burden of loans. Thringing was left with a mess of unpaid loans, threatening money-lenders and three young children, without a house. For her, too, her weaving knowledge rescued her from the cycle of loans. Thringing is today one of the most dependable weavers in Aagor, weaving an average of 30 metres of fabric and earning about Rs 1500 a month. She has been able to repay nearly half of the original loan and wants to build her own house in a few years.
Rethe Basumatary, 30, was also a ruwathi till she joined Aagor in 2005. She soon became one of the fastest weavers, producing excellent quality in short amount of time. She is now supporting her siblings’ education.
Weaving on the traditional looms at home practically weaved in a little magic into the lives of these women. The women soon formed a weaving organisation, run by them, and became self-reliant in many ways.
The weaving organisation was formed on the principle that the most effective way to run it was to hand over the reins to the actual weavers, who know the intricacies of weaving and would be able to predict and overcome the obstacles that came along.
An executive committee consisting of only weavers looks after all the departments like weaving, tailoring, accounts, stocks and villages. This has led to women weavers taking more ownership of the organisation, its mission and its output.
Aagor now works with weavers in 12 villages, divided into three clusters, Udangshree Dera, Rowmari and Mangolian to make it convenient to distribute yarn, monitor progress and collect fabric. Each of the three clusters is headed by a cluster coordinator who oversees activity in all the areas and reports back to the manager on a weekly basis regarding the status of the fabric woven and yearn needed.
Loishi, who weaves at her own village along with her friends, says she works not more than three hours at the loom. Rest of the time, she devotes to her household work. And that leaves her with around Rs 1500 per month, which is not much but “better than not earning anything”.
Each of the three clusters has a set of permanent weavers – those who weave fabric worth at least Rs 5000 per year, who are given a health insurance by The Ant and awarded a bonus of 10 per cent per annum. By 2005, the women had set up Aagor Daagra Afad (ADA), a collective for weaving and marketing of Bodo handlooms. It was a runaway success and doubled sales every year for the first six years.
ADA then aspired to enter the retail market, thus the first The Ants Store came up in Bengaluru in 2007. The shop is a retail initiative to showcase Northeast handlooms and crafts and to generate revenue to sustain livelihoods of people from that region. More such shops are on the anvil in the city. Smitha Murthy, designer and founder trustee of ADA, who gives the design inputs for its products, feels the real challenge was create a market for the women weavers’ goods at a price that earned them fair wages. Fair wages and the dignity it provided, made marginalised women like Nandini, Thringing, Rethe feel empowered. Their confidence level now run high, they no longer run away from troubles. Instead they confront them with ease, knowing difficulties can always be overcome.
Says Nandini: “Every Bodo woman knows weaving as it is done in every home. But we never knew that it could become our source of livelihood and make us stand on our feet and give us a voice as well.” With fair wages, the women are also trained to invest their savings from the six-month programme in livelihoods such as weaving, agriculture, and off-farm activities.
As demand for Northeast and especially Bodo handicrafts grow, the number of women who have benefited, has risen over the years. With better incomes ranging between Rs 12000 and Rs 15000 per month, the women now enjoy greater control over their lives. With the mothers empowered, their children now have a chance at education and a better future.