Rekha Doley, a master artisan based in the Mishing village of Panbari, Assam, is busy at work on a traditional loom. With her deft fingers, she renders the folklore of her ancestors in the weaves. Her designs are inspired by the landscape around her, stories of the river, of the creation of the universe, and more. However, one motif that finds a way into most of her designs is of the chang ghar, which symbolises a typical Mishing home—a structure made of timber and bamboo on a raised platform, which offers shelter and protection from the swollen rivers during the rains. It is depicted as a diamond shape in the textiles. For over a decade, Doley has been working closely with Shillong-based Hasina Kharbhih, founder, Impulse Social Enterprises, which has been creating income-generation activities for women weavers through the artisan brand, Impulse Empower.
Kharbhih, who has been working in this field for the past 35 years now, started Impulse Empower 16 years ago. She has also been part of an initiative by the Unesco to map the folklore and traditional knowledge of weaving. In recent years, she has taken her work a step further through the “art through weave” initiative. “In indigenous culture, most of the interpretation is oral and symbolic. When we talk about art sometimes, we don’t really connect with the art of the indigenous communities due to the unavailability of information,” elaborates Kharbhih.
In the last couple of years, Impulse Empower has picked up a couple of regions in the North-East to research the art that translates folklore of the communities. “And we have got textile designers on board to dive deeper into the oral traditions of folklore and evoke those in design. The weavers collaborate with fashion, furniture and textile designers to see the best way in which those stories can be interpreted without offending the culture of the communities,” explains Kharbhih. So far, Impulse Empower has worked with eri silk weavers in Assam, the communities in Mizoram and the Kuki and Meitei communities in Manipur. “There is tremendous potential in the intersectionality of the symbolism of the tribes,” she says.
The past 16 years have brought a lot of learning for Kharbhih as well—especially when it comes to operating within the digital world. “Storytelling about indigenous cultures and their folklore and weaves is not happening in the right manner online. Just salespeople pushing designs and sales is not a constructive approach. So, we have entrepreneurs-in-residence, who have been associated with Impulse Empower. They tell the stories of these weaves to the clientele, which makes it more meaningful,” says Kharbhih. “We are still online, but there is a human connection.”
The organisation has tried to address several key issues in its journey—resilience to climate change, economic upliftment, and ensuring improvisation of skillsets, and continuing connect with the storytelling of the ancestors. “That is our role as an impact organisation—to see how vulnerable communities from indigenous populations from the eastern Himalayan belt can actually preserve their art and craft, and how craft can have resilience mindset,” says Kharbhih, who has worked with over 30,000 weavers across the North-East. “We continue to ensure that there is no child labour in the entire process of weaving, there should be fair trade, women should weave from home and not become labourers in weaving and handloom industry.”
Today, weavers such as Doley are proud entrepreneurs. She, for instance, is looked upon as a custodian of the rich heritage of the community’s ancestors. Doley is also a mentor for other weavers in the Mishing village to improvise their skillset. “Besides being economically empowered, women can choose their time when they want to weave. The idea is that they should continue to work on their own traditional loom, weave their own folklore and not someone else’s. And if two tribes choose to coexist together on a weave, there has to be a clear connecting point in the pattern,” says Kharbhih.
The younger generation, which had slowly been veering away from the traditional craft, is getting some of the pride back in their community’s legacy. For instance, two years ago, in a fashion show, weavers got to walk the ramp with the models. Today, an entrepreneurial resident is curating a hub, which brings artisans from different communities together. “The dialogue is now being taken to the next level with entrepreneurs-in-residence at the heart of it,” says Kharbhih.