The traditional handlooms of Assam can play a significant role in ensuring sustainable livelihoods. Jennifer Shaheen Hussain reports from a handloom fair.

There are many things that are a given when it comes to India's handloom sector-from playing a vital role in shaping the economy to being a source of livelihood for millions to accounting for an overwhelming bulk of the world's handwoven fabrics. It, therefore, becomes extremely important to address concerns of the sector and artisans/weavers. The issues are varied- marketing, branding, pricing, among others. What most agree about is that an integrated approach needs to be the key.

It was this integrated approach that formed the base of a fair that was organised recently in Guwahati, Assam on the occasion of the 23rd foundation day of the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd (NEDFi). This North East Craft and Organic Fair saw the participation of artisans and weavers from the handloom-handicraft sector as well as farmers, producers and organisations developed under the Mission Organic Value Chain Development for North East Region (MOVCD-NER) scheme. The five-day exhibition itself was a unique integrated approach in facilitating linkages to the crafts and organic sector of the region. The handlooms and textiles section of the exhibition saw active participation of 25 entrepreneurs from different states of the Northeast.

Organisations and brands such as the North East Network's Saneki and Chizami Weaves, Art Core and Earth Craft, Silk Culture, Ava Creations, Zomil Handloom, Onia Handloom, Prativa Brahma and others exhibited their handwovens. Traditional designs of different communities were displayed with the prime focus being on handwoven cotton and banana fabrics, silk and natural dyes.

Going Bananas

Among the ensemble of fabrics what caught attention of most was the display of banana fibre products by NEDFi. The corporation's deputy general manager Asim Kumar Das remarked about the initiative, "NEDFi has always been concerned about the sustainable survival of artisans and weavers, and if we consider adding value to the handloom sector, choosing the production of banana fibre is apt for the present handloom and textiles scenario." Das continued, "The use of banana fibre has been limited to production of craft products, but knowing the humungous sector that handloom is-especially garments-banana fibre can be explored thoroughly in producing textile products. Moreover, the banana fibre is mixed with other natural fibres, and then the final product is produced with the cost being more or less the same, besides having an enhanced quality."

The banana fibre costs roughly ₹7,500 to a kilogram. Expensive as it may seem, only a small percentage of it is used in the final product. Therefore, it minimises the cost of production and also reduces the capacity building of the weavers. As Das said, "The cost is minimised in terms of training weavers as they already know how to weave. The government or NEDFi has been investing in skill development of the weavers. For training in extraction of yarn from banana fibre hardly takes a day." For next few years, NEDFi will support weavers by providing the banana fibre, and once yarn procurement is high in quality and quantity, NEDFi will shift to natural dyeing of the fibre.