Assam’s traditional Gaseng wrapper goes global as a redesigned four-in-one multipurpose scarf with tribal motifs

Maina Doley, a skilled weaver from Bohikhowa village of Bokakhat in upper Assam’s Golaghat district, had no idea that the Gaseng (a traditional wrapper used by women folk of Mising tribe of Assam, to which she belongs) which her tribe weaves, could be metamorphosed into a four-in-one multipurpose scarf that sells in the United States, Europe and other countries and fetches better price. After New York-based designer Kristine M. Gottilla designed this unique multipurpose scarf by blending designs of a traditional Gaseng with modern attitudes, Maina now weaves this innovative dress more as it fetches her a steady income.

Impulse Social Enterprises (ISE), a social business venture initiated by Ashoka and Aspen Institute Fellow Hasina Kharbhih,roped in Kristine Gottilla to design the innovative handloom product. The news designs are part of ISE’s effort to mobilise textile products based on traditional craft and skills of artisans of Assam and other north-eastern States under one brand, Empower. Kharbhih is well known for her anti-trafficking intervention through her Shillong-based NGO Impluse.

While it takes Maina more than a week to weave a traditional Gaseng, she can weave the multipurpose scarf in just two days. Besides, a single piece of a traditional Gaseng, which fetches Rs. 600 on an average, may require a month’s time to sell. On the other hand, she gets paid by ISE for every piece of the multipurpose scarf she weaves. The ISE also provides raw materials like yarn free of cost to Maina and other artisans through its partner organisations like Dhun Pech of Bokakhat.

On an average, a single designer scarf fetches about Rs. 2,500 to Rs. 3,000 when sold to buyers in the U.S. or Europe. This, however, includes the cost of packaging, marketing, free yarn and payment given to artisans apart from taxes.

How does ISE sell the Empower line of products to international buyers to make the livelihood project for women artisans sustainable?

“Blend tradition with modern attitude and tell the world the stories behind such rich weaving traditions and of the people who have been keeping them alive. Every product sells with a story. If a product is based on traditional Assamese Gamocha, then we tell the buyers the story of the Gamocha. For the designer scarf we tell the story of the Gaseng and of the Mising tribe,” says Ms. Kharbhih. The ISE has also roped in anthropologists to do research based on information on the pattern and the tribe to tell the stories.

“Every pattern signifies a tribe and every pattern also gives the identification of the tribe. Each product packet sent across the globe has on one side a picture demonstration for buyers on how to wear these specially designed dresses, and a write-up about the pattern on the other side. Besides, it has a bookmark about the stories relating to the tribe and the pattern uploaded on our website. Soon there will be barcodes on the products, which when scanned will provide the buyers a direct link to our website and the Empower product line,” explains Ms. Kharbhih, also the CEO of ISE.

ISE has adopted this marketing strategy to help underprivileged women weavers from northeast so that they do not require to migrate to places outside their eco-systems in search of livelihood, as such migration often becomes unsafe and lands them into the clutches of human traffickers.

“Having worked in the anti-trafficking intervention for the last 15 years under the Impulse model, the learning experience has been that the problem of unsafe migration leading to human trafficking can only be overcome if long term economic development is provided to local artisans. This is done by making their traditional skills more employable through a market-based value addition that encourages sustainable economic development within their own eco-system through fair trade engagement and also giving identification of the tribe which impacts traditional motif preservation,” adds Ms. Kharbhih.

To support the ISE’s livelihood project for women artisans, the EXIM Bank organised a 15-day design development training workshop for master artisans. Chairman and Managing Director, EXIM Bank T.C.A. Ranganathan said, at the inaugural function of the training workshop, that getting modern attitude into a traditional handloom product to design and develop marketable products having wider appeal and acceptance helps the artisans not just to earn more, it also makes their occupation more dignified as such products based on their craft and skills become popular across the globe. He said that export of handloom products from India doubled from $265 million in 2009-10 to $544 million in 2011-12 and the increase was primarily due to better price realisation arising out of new product and design development.