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SPREADING THE WEAVE

Creating a crafts-based business model for budding village entrepreneurs in six handloom clusters — that’s the objective of Antaran, a Tata Trusts programme that is helping weavers in four states profit from exquisite skills born of tradition and culture. Launched in 2018, Antaran has a target of reaching 3,000 weavers involved in pre-loom, on-loom and post-loom work, and, through them, enable the setting up of more than 300 microenterprises that can sell directly to customers. The clusters are in Odisha (Gopalpur and Maniabandha), Assam (Kamrup and Nalbari), Nagaland (Dimapur) and Andhra Pradesh (Venkatgiri), each of them home to a rich weaving heritage. Featured here are four success stories from a unique initiative that is connecting some of India’s most talented weavers to a wider market.

  • Vekuvolu Dozo, Nagaland

    Vekuvolu Dozo — “my friends call me Viko” — began learning to weave at the age of 18, right after she got married, with her aunt as tutor. “I made my first shawl on a loin loom as a gift for my husband, and that’s a ritual in our culture,” says the 38-year-old Vekuvolu. “It has been quite an eventful journey since.”

    Originally from Thuvopisu in Phek district and currently residing in Dimapur, Vekuvolu has turned what is now a passion into a small business with the help of a team (below left) that includes homemakers and widows. She uses a loin loom, long used to weave cloth in Nagaland, to craft a continuous warp. She and her sisterhood fashion Naga motifs symbolic of their life and surroundings, that speak of warrior tales and inner strength.

    “Our products reflect and represent who we are as a people; they embody our culture,” says Vekuvolu, a mother of five. “I have a vision and I want to continue being an ambassador and proponent of this craft.”

  • Sudhanshu Mohan Das, Odisha

    Sudhanshu Mohan Das belongs to a family of weavers from Nuapatna in the Maniabandha region. He was forced to leave the craft simply because he could not secure much income from it. That’s the story of countless weavers in India, but Sudhanshu was luckier. The Antaran initiative was the spark for him to return to weaving after 12 years. He started again, this time from scratch and with a single loom.

    Sudhanshu’s expertise lies in weaving the renowned ‘Maniabandha weft ikat sarees’ in silk. After coming through the ‘Antaran education programme’ in 2019, he began harnessing the power of digital media to discover customers from near and far. A little hesitant at first, Sudhanshu was helped by the Antaran curriculum, which focuses on the basics of social media marketing while distilling the advantages of daily postings, hashtags, tagging, video call sessions and the like.

    Proof that Sudhanshu has got it right came from a Pune customer. “She purchased not one but two beautiful sarees from me and was so happy with them that she sent a handwritten note complimenting my work along with a box of chocolates for my little son,” he says.

  • Dipika Kakati, Assam

    “Working on handlooms is like any other household activity,” says Dipika Kakati, a weaver from Kamrup. “Earlier we were either making cloth for family or, commercially, for the local traders or middlemen who gave us bulk-yardage orders. It was after Antaran’s intervention that I started looking at it from the perspective of a small business.”

    A mother of two and with a husband who works as a labourer, Dipika needed to find an extra income source. And that is what she has done with her skills in weaving Eri silk and cotton fabrics, sarees and dupattas. “I try and create new designs,” she says. “I draw inspiration from nature and my surroundings, anything from a small leaf to a flower. I simplify these and use them as design elements.”

    Dipika puts six hours of every day into weaving while juggling chores and orders that have started pouring in. Her business provides employment to seven associate artisans, part of a community of more than 110,000 weavers spread across the region. Says Dipika: “I’m building a small business today; my children will take it to greater heights.”

  • Itishree Sur, Odisha

    Born into a family of weavers from Fakirpur village in Gopalpur district, Itishree Sur is an artisan- entrepreneur who specialises in weaving hand-spun tussar sarees and dupattas (scarves). These gorgeous products generally come in an earthy palette and have distinctive Kumbha-temple borders.

    Financial constraints forced Itishree to leave school and her weaving habit lapsed. She took it up again in 2002 after she was married into a family of tussar weavers. Soon Itishree and her husband started a small business, making her the only woman entrepreneur from her cluster.

    When Covid struck and the lockdown hit India’s handloom sector hard, Itishree and others like her managed to pull through thanks to sales generated through the ‘Antaran artisan connect’ website and other online media. Itishree and her family used the opportunity to connect with customers.

    One of them was Sai Vaishnavi from Pune. She says: “Buying from malls or huge shops may be easier but purchases of this kind never fail to leave a wide smile on your face. It is a whole new experience to know who makes your clothes and every bit of what goes into the making of a finished garment.”

Compiled by Kainaz Mistry
Photographs: The Antaran team