Empowering Women of Rural Assam, Aagor Dagra Afad
Updated: Aug 4, 2019
A weave of hope for Bodo Tribal Women
Handloom weaving is one of the richest and most vibrant aspects of Indian culture and a major source of livelihood for rural Artisans, they are the torch bearers of this difficult but artistic tradition. Of the nearly 4 million adult weavers and allied workers employed in India, 78% are women. Women take it up as they can weave from homes. Sadly there is little or no recognition given to this hard and traditional work of women. Though the craft employees highest number of workers after agriculture, it is highly unorganized.
The Handloom Census 2013, reveals that nearly 2.4 million looms are providing direct and indirect employment to 4.3 million weavers in India, 84% of them are from rural areas and almost half of the handloom workers are women from the North Eastern region of India. With several ethnic groups and tribes, the region has a rich heritage of handlooms, which reflects the multi-ethnic culture of people living there.
Like many tribes of the northeast region, weaving is also an integral part of the Bodo Tribe of Assam. Most households have a loom and the skill is passed down generation to generation. The Bodo woman weave traditional clothing items like the dokhona (a sari-like garment worn by Bodo women) and the gomosa (a multipurpose shawl-like garment), as well as other clothing requirements of the family.
Although India produces 95% of hand-woven fabric in the world, sadly there is very little awareness or recognition for handloom products in our own country. The handloom workers are highly skilled but economically poor, living in debt and almost secluded in Indian society.
Due to lack of fair earning opportunities the weavers are forced out of the sector in large numbers. Today, if the handloom industry is considered as the ‘sunset industry’ then it’s solely a failure on our part to protect this art. The real impediment lies in the form of its marketability. There is a lack of availability of information regarding the marketing of handloom products.
Weavers are poor, illiterate, live in rural areas and are most importantly not aware of how to market their wares. As a result indigenous crafts like weaving are gradually fading into the background while other more advanced technology based crafts like printing and graphic designing have come into the limelight.
Aagor Daagra Afad
In order to sustain the traditional weaving knowledge and to create livelihood opportunities for Bodo women, Dr Sunil Kaul and Jennifer Liang founders of an NGO “THE ANT “ in the Chirang district of Assam, dug into their own limited resources and started an informal weaving initiative in 2002. They also teamed up with Bangalore-based textile designer Ms Smitha Murthy who has been steering the weaving program as its Managing and Creative Director.
Soon the weavers could sustain themselves with their hard work. The success of the informal weaving program motivated the separation of the village-based weaving program from ‘The Ant’ into a separate trust called Aagor Daagra Afad in 2005. The weavers themselves chose the name of the organization. “Aagor” means ‘design or Motif’, “Daagra” means weavers and “Afad” means organization in the Bodo language. The organization has been entirely managed and run by the weavers.
Besides providing a workspace for the weavers, Aagor also provides them with free accommodation and subsidized food. Over 100 women work out of their homes or in the weaving centre and earn a much needed livelihood.
Aagor produces a variety of handloom products ranging from bright colored wrap-around skirts, stoles and jackets, to traditional Indian wear like kurtas, tops, pants, and even home furnishing. Aagor is a fair trade organization and abide by fair-trade norms like no child labour and paying minimum wages. They are also a non-profit, so any money that is made goes back to the artisans. Aagor has also provided all its weavers with medical insurance which includes the critical free hospitalization benefit. This enables them to manage medical emergencies without going into debt.
Aagor’s Success Story
With an overall investment of Rs.12 million made by ‘The Ant’, it has led to Aagor’s weavers, spindlers and staff earning salaries and wages totaling Rs. 55 millions over the past 15 years. Over the years, working with nearly 400 village-based weavers, Aagor has made great strides and received large orders from TRIFED (Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India Limited) as well as export orders. Aagor products are also distributed to FabIndia in Ooty and other like-minded organizations.
Another highlight of Aagor’s journey has been its appearance at the prestigious 2016 Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai. At this event, designer Aditi Holani Chandak presented garments made from Aagor’s exquisite handwoven fabrics to a receptive international audience.
Aagor has also been instrumental in successfully reintegrating over. 300 housemaids into society who were otherwise being paid poorly for their work. Almost 75% of them have remained and not returned to being domestic workers again.
The weaving centre looks like a very busy place with women weavers starting work very early. They put in their heart and soul into weaving. With a little academic education, these weaving women have the potential to demonstrate commendable intelligence and skills that include amalgamating different colors and crafting intricate designs. What appears as a beautiful work of art is intricate and a painstaking craftsmanship of hand-weaving involving a lot of planning, preparation and several steps before the first thread is woven.
Also a unique feature of Aagor is that it is run by the weaver women and its Board of Trustees is elected and guided by the weavers’ Executive Committee.
While handloom will always face threats and competition from the price aggressive power-loom industry, in terms of skill, aesthetics and delivery of high-end products handlooms are unmatched. The weavers are also constantly re-inventing themselves and providing value addition to make their products more and more relevant to the modern consumer behavior and needs. This is a part of the more obvious advantages of a low set up cost, low and minimal use of power, large design database and easy training of skill due to the family based business model.
A strong support from the urban Indian population in endorsing and adopting beautiful handloom products, changing consumer preferences and their inclination to acquire unique fabrics and designs will go a long way in preserving our rich cultural heritage. It would also help improve living conditions of rural and tribal populations, especially the women of our country.
Despite all odds the Aagor weaving community is working in a cooperative spirit which has been successful in organizing, sustaining and preserving the Bodo’s weaving tradition. It brings out the work of art and innovation to the world which otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
Aagor clocks annual sales of Rs. 10 million and deploys over 100 weaver women. Each of Aagor’s products is a creation of traditional art and innovation. It also bears a story of a woman who has sent their child to school or has to break out of the bondage of being a poorly paid housemaid or has to fight a domestic violence and become financially independent.
Aagor has shown by example that a few committed people giving encouragement and direction can indeed bring about a transformation of positive change to this sunset industry.
Truly a cause worth supporting.