Women Weaving Freedom in Meghalaya, Worldview Impact Foundation

This documentary and exhibition explores the artistic sustainable fashion initiatives practiced in areas of Meghalaya, India.

Artistic Sustainable Fashion Initiatives. This documentary and exhibition, explores the artistic, sustainable fashion initiatives of Nongtluh Women Weaving Cooperative and Impulse Enterprises run by Hasina Kharbhih. Impulse Power is mitigating human trafficking and providing a rich network in which women can use and improve their weaving skills to create artisans products that can be sold both locally and internationally. The symbols from their tribal traditions are interwoven with their artistic work. The Nongtluh Weaving Cooperative is using natural plant and vegetable dyes, as well as sustainable practices that are aligned with the natural ecosystem in Meghalaya. The more we can understand these practices, the more we can scale these initiatives so that sustainable and ethical fashion does not just become an alternative, it becomes the way to produce fashion that is central to all our lives. Only then can we live more in harmony with nature, without destroying its vast and plentiful resources for our own desire or gain.

In the Khasi hills, nestled deep between the mist and rich rain forests, The Nongtluh Women Weaving Cooperative Society is situated at Umden Diwon, Raid Nongtluh, Ri-Bhoi District, and falls under the Umling Development Block. The co-operative is also particularly known for its fabric made of hand spun Eri – a silk yarn – in traditional colours. The main objective of the co-operative is to give women from the area the ability to participate in the economic, social and cultural activities of the handloom sector, whilst protecting the rich eco-system of Meghalaya with the use of natural materials and traditional, yet innovative methods.

The Nongtluh Women Weaving Cooperative Society provides a safe haven for sericulture and weaving to thrive. These are the two most important cottage based, eco-friendly industries in the rural areas of the state. Since the state doesn’t have a textile industry, sericulture and weaving can play an important role for the production of silk fabrics and hand woven fabrics of ethnic designs.

Handwoven practices emphasise care, ingenuity and finesse. A far cry from the mass production and consumption that values standardisation over quality and mastery.

Vegetable dyes are used for coloring fabrics. These are non-synthetic colours that do not pollute water or harm endangered species and rich agriculture. By engaging with the artisans and weavers, known for their silk weaving tradition and culture, producing fine silk fabric, these cooperative societies are providing a source of livelihood to several thousand households.

Here the natural colour is being drained to create a smooth liquid that can be heated over a fire with the natural silk. This technique has been passed down from generation to generation. This natural dyeing technique in Umden started quite early. Initially, only four colours were dominant- Red, Black, Yellow and Orange which were used for natural dyeing.

Although most of the ingredients used for natural dyeing had been locally available the women artisans started with only a few colours. Furthermore, the traditional process of natural dyeing took an enormous amount of time. Their resources of natural firewood needed to be collected in abundance only for making a small amount of dye. These challenges meant that it was not cost effective, so it was difficult to scale this commercially.

Keeping these challenges in mind, a program was developed that enhanced their skills: Advanced Natural Dyeing trained 60 artisans in the area. This was hugely beneficial to them because they were able to learn a variety of techniques like scouring and dyeing. Parallel to this program there was extensive research into the use of raw materials and which colors with natural resources could be used. This program was hugely effective because the artisans were able to broaden the spectrum to include 23 different colours using natural dyeing techniques.

As the colours have been produced traditionally they are suitable for natural yarns. By sourcing the raw materials locally, a vast range of products can be made with use of Azofree and vegetables dyes. These artisans, known for their silk weaving tradition, producing fine silk fabric, together with the co-operative, provide a source of livelihood to the women and their families.

This particular form of handloom weaving takes tremendous skill. Once trained the weavers in the cooperative can manage to weave complex patterns in just an hour. The patterns that are a combination of what the weavers have learnt in their training, but also sometimes incorporating their own artistic symbols are incredibly difficult and yet the speed in which they create them, shows that this cottage industry can be replicated and scaled, so that more sustainable practices around the world can take on these methods. With enough of these cooperatives, it is a real competition to damaging and unsustainable fashion practices that harm the environment.

The co-operative is also particularly known for its fabric made of hand spun Eri – a silk yarn – in traditional colours. It is incredible difficult to spin this silk by hand. It takes an enormous amount of craft, skill, concentration and precision: This difficulty is seen in comparison between someone who is spinning the silk for the first time and one of the weavers, who make the task look seemingly effortless.

The traditional Khasi Dhara, is mostly plain in design with simple border patterns. The non-synthetic plant based colours produce these earthly shades that are less loud and more aligned with mother nature’s hues.

The traditional attire worn by the Khasi women is a costly silk material woven out of Mulberry silk yarn. This traditional Khasi Dhara is simple but elegant in design and comes in various colours and simple border patterns. This is different from the typical Benaras sarees which is much more elaborate.

In recent years the Benaras Dhara has met the demands of the market, but this is different from the traditional Dhara. It is also made of finely woven silk decorated with intricate designs and because of these imprints they are relatively heavier and louder in design. This contrasts with the simpler traditional Dhara that is handwoven and plainer with patterns based at the border. Unfortunately, because the handwoven co-operatives such as Nongtluh in the Ri-Bhoi district tend to be few and far between and cannot meet the great demand, so the Benaras Dhara that is manufactured, rather than handwoven has surpassed in production volume.

The weavers from the Khasi tribe learn some of their patterns from the leaders in the cooperative, or in many cases, they create their own. It is this kind of creation that is important to note, as the women weavers are not just workers but they are also are artisans and entrepreneurs.

These women weavers are not only learning skills that carry on traditions, but they are also innovating them and recreating new methods and patterns that will, contrary to popular belief will outlive the unsustainable practices of our era. Many say that these traditions will die out. This is not the case, in fact it is the opposite. As mass production gets sloppy, ever cutting corners in quality and material, this kind of cottage industry is fueled by love of the craft, skill and precision.

Many of the patterns designed here reflect those of nature, such as the cherry blossom that flourishes not in spring like in Japan, but in the sweet cool mists of November, contrasting with the deep earth colours that celebrates nature itself.

The co-operative is also particularly known for its fabric made of hand spun Eri – a silk yarn – in traditional colours.

The co-operative consists of fifty three women folk artisans and weavers from the Khasi tribe. Here are six of the weavers that are going through the professional training program with the leader of the co-operative with her daughter who will eventually take over the sustainable enterprise. This silk weaving tradition and culture, producing fine silk fabric with traditional handlooms has gained acceptance and legitimisation across the region of the Ri-Bhoi, however, the weavers are still in need of a wider acceptance of their skill and craft that not only reveal that they are legitimate artisans, but also that their sustainable practices of using non-synthetic colouring and cottage industry that respects, trains and supports the workers needs to grow not only in the region, but globally. As this kind of practice is not only respecting and saving our precious environment, but it also is giving women the chance to create carefully crafted products that gives them a sense of dignity and pride.

“Discontinuities in art traditions are common in history and especially threatening to the the crafts in small cultures when the traditional means of transmitting skills from one generation falls into disuse. It is at this point when schools have to provide the means for continuity. At the same time such schools must make it possible for young artists to be able to participate in the global aesthetic driven by technological innovations in the arts”. Hans Guggenheim. Hasina founded Impulse Social Enterprise, a Shillong-based firm, which has given the local women’s products the brand name “Empower”. Hasina’s social enterprise is collaborating with boutiques so that these handmade crafts are promoted outside the region. Future plans are to grow the enterprise so that there are 5,000-plus rural women artisans that will be part of this initiative. This ensures women weavers and crafts people to be employed and when their products are sold the revenue goes back to the weavers and artisans. Resources within source communities can be mobilised so that there can be greater sustainability within the women’s locale without having submerge too much into unwanted dominant external pressure. It is important to note that Impulse Social Enterprise embraces the new so that, just as Guggenheim mentioned, these artisans can participate in the global aesthetic driven by technological innovations in the arts.

Hasina, the founder of Impulse Enterprises is seen here walking with Assamese Tribe in the Muhuramukh Village. Hasina Kharbhih, who is from the Khasi tribe is working with 3000 women artisans in eight north eastern states through the social enterprise: www.impulsepower.com. Each tribe weave their textile traditional pattern and each tribe has a story.

Here Hasina is seen discussing with The Mishing Tribe from The Village Panbari Assam. Hasina is actively involved in the creation of each enterprise that is grown from within each tribe, so that each woman can use their traditional weaving skills, that are often learnt in the home, to build their livelihood. Hasina supports them by matching these enterprises with hybrid solutions that are a mix of government funds but also enterprise by making their products commercially viable, both locally and internationally on the catwalk and highs treet of all global major cities.

Here Hasina is seen walking with the directors and team members of the social enterprise. Hasina, she understands how this is not just about the women’s livelihood, it is about sustaining their history in a contemporary and innovative way. Layered with contemporary design, modern production technology women are able to actively contribute to the growing eco-system and continue their traditions, whilst not being stuck in the past, they are evolving their own future.

The Nongkrem Festival is one of the most important of the Khasi tribe. Here the women wear either the traditional Dhara or Jainesm. The latter includes two pieces of contrasting fabrics, which rest on each shoulder. The bride also wears a crown on her wedding day which is either made from gold or from silver, and a peak is attached to its back.

The wedding attire in traditional Meghalaya wedding is unique and ornamentation is intrinsic to the culture of Meghalaya.

She wears a dhara or Jainesm as it is known in local language. Traditionally, a portion of the bride’s wedding attire as well as jewelry is given by the groom. For her wedding day, the bride is dressed in a traditional Khasi ceremonial dress that stands out with bright colours of red and orange.

The bride also wears a crown here as well as at her wedding day which is either made from gold or from silver, and a peak is attached to its back.

One of the most important pieces of jewelry is a gold pendant known as Kynjri Ksiar. Donning an ornament on her head is an important custom women in these ceremonies in Meghalaya.

The men wear a Lymphong teaming it up with a sarong. This ceremonial attire is worn at weddings as well.

In Shillong there is a strong youth culture, who came out for The Cherry Blossom Festival. The youth of Shillong and Meghalaya are aware and active in protecting the envrionment by learning more about the rich eco-system so that they can continue self-sustaining practices that is so intrinsic to their Khasi culture.

‘In a world of pain and sadness, flowers bloom, even then’ – Kobayashi Issa.

Last year Shillong hosted their first sakura or cherry blossom festival and Ward’s lake is a place that looked like George Seraut’s, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte. In Japan, hanami or cherry blossom viewing is an annual delight bringing in crowds to celebrate the fleeting delicacy of life.

However, unlike Japan, Shillong hosted their festival on November 14th in the cool mist of Autumn. Khasi traditions believe that nature is their library and so when Dinabandhu Sahoo, director of IBSD, who conceptualised the festival, says the event would set the stage for 2017, which has been declared by the UN as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, it was perfectly in line with keeping the culture of The Khasi Tribe alive, but also with the spirit of internationalism, being influenced by Japanese culture, which has in its foundations Shintoism that celebrates the importance of humanity entwined with kami, kami are spirits that can be elements of the landscape or forces of nature, being at one with nature is something that Khasi Tribe shares.

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