The oral tradition of the Mishing or Miri tribe of Assam tells us that the community crossed over into India via the Mansarovar lake in Tibet, centuries ago, but have always adhered to their unique culture. Living in remote villages, they are known for their distinct style of weaving that women carry out in Chang houses, built on stilts.

City-based textile and fashion designer Mousumi Baruah, who hails from Jorhat in Assam, has been working with the Mishing community to market the mekhela-chador that they produce. “They use cotton and woollen yarn in winter and light cotton yarn in summer. You find geometrical motifs — hexagons and stripes, unlike the floral designs normally seen in a mekhela-chador,” she says.

The Mishings don’t have access to market, and at best barter their handloom products. Weaving is the only vocation they know and it takes a month to make the two-piece set (worn with a blouse). “Unfortunately, today the market is flooded with low-cost mekhela-chadors made on power looms, which is affecting their livelihood,” she says.

In her effort to help the indigenous weavers Mousumi, a textile designer, converts the traditional garment into formats city-bred people are comfortable with: salwar kameezes, palazzos, kurtas, skirts, A-line dresses, even lehengas. “The weavers can only create the mekhela-chador; if you ask for fabric for a salwar-kameez, they won’t understand,” she says.

Once she procures the handloom fabric from Assam (she stocks upto 50 sets at a time), she converts the chador in her tailoring unit, into an upper garment, and the mekhela into a lower. Mousumi also sees business during the wedding season, when her ghagra-cholis do well.

She mostly works with cotton weaves for the salwar kurta (₹2,000 upwards). Pat or mulberry silk patronized by the Ahom rulers, eri and muga are expensive (₹20,000 upwards), she says. Pat can be dyed unlike muga, she explains, pointing to a delicate off-white traditional pat silk sari with ‘guna’ or gold-thread motifs. She also sources nuni pat, a blend of the fibre from the nuni (mulberry) leaf and pat silk.

She encourages the weavers to experiment. They’ve done a mekhela-chador in white and red, taking inspiration from the Assamese Gamocha. She herself has tried a tie-and-dye version and even reintroduced it in Assam. There’s also one she’s hand-painted.

“When I worked for export houses I realised that our workers were paid ₹200, the same product in stores fetched ₹5,000. It was then I thought of sourcing handlooms and benefiting the weaver directly,” she says of her 10-year-old business.

Visit the studio at Dwarka;; 9717043357

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2020 12:51:07 PM |

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