In the days leading up to the Assamese festival of Rongali Bihu, the clacking sounds of treadles and shuttles hitting the wooden frames of a loom can be heard all over this neighbourhood.

In a quiet lane in Bhellapara neighbourhood, weaver Patney Deuri is busy at work on her handloom. She is weaving endi gamusas at her home in Bajrajhar village. They need to be ready in time for the Assamese new year, held around the month of April.

But these are not just any gamusas. The 58-year-old is well known for the intricate floral designs she can weave. “I have orders to finish 30 gamusas before Bihu, because people will have to gift those to guests,” she says. Gamusas – woven pieces of cloth measuring roughly a metre and half in length – have great significance in Assamese culture. They are particularly in demand by locals during festivals, the red threads giving it a festive air.

“It is my passion to weave flowers into the fabric. Whenever I see any flower, I can make that exact flower design on the clothes I weave. I just have to see it once,” says Deuri, smiling proudly. The Deuri community are listed as Scheduled Tribe in Assam.

PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque
PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque

Patney Deuri of Bajrajhar village in Assam at her loom. An eri chador (right) that she recently completed

The weavers in this village in Mazbat sub-division of Assam are part of the state’s 12.69 lakh handloom households with over 12 lakh weavers – the highest for any state in the country. Assam is also among the top states in the country producing handloom products, especially silk in four varieties – eri, muga, mulberry and tassar.

Deuri uses eri (both cotton and silk), also called ‘ endi ’ in the local Bodo language. “I learnt weaving from my mother when I was young. Once I learnt handling the loom on my own, I started weaving. Since then I have been doing this work,” adds the master weaver. She can weave gamusas and fulam gamusas (Assamese towels with floral designs on both sides), mekhela-chador – a two-piece traditional Assamese dress for women) and endi chador (a large shawl).

To help with sales, in 1996, she set up a self-help group (SHG). “When we founded Bhellapar Khudrasanchoy [small savings] SHG, I started selling what I wove,” she says, proud of her entrepreneurship.

But it is the procuring of yarn that weavers like Deuri feel is the real bottleneck in improved earnings. She says buying yarn requires more capital money than she can afford, so she prefers to work on commission where she gets the yarn from the shopkeepers or vendors and is told what to make. “To make gamusas, I will have to buy at least three kilos of yarn for the length and weft. A kilo of endi costs Rs. 700. I cannot afford to spend 2,100.” Traders give her yarn for 10 gamusas or three sarees together. “I work on that and complete it as soon as possible,” she adds.

Madhobi Chaharia says she also slows down her work as she cannot afford to stock up on yarn. She is Deuri’s neighbour, and is dependent on others to buy yarn for the gamusas she weaves. “My husband works as a daily labourer. Sometimes he gets work, sometimes he doesn’t. In such situations, I cannot buy the yarn,” she tells PARI.

Watch Patney Deuri speak about her traditional handloom

Assam has 12.69 lakh handloom households and ranks among the top states in the country in the production of hand woven products

Madhobi and Deuri’s situations are not unusual: domestic weavers in the state all face this problem, says this 2020 report by Dibrugarh University which advocates interest-free loans and better credit facilities. The lack of a strong working organisation among the women weavers has kept them largely out of government schemes, health insurance, credit and market linkages, it adds.

“In three days I can complete one chadar ,” Deuri adds. To make a medium-size gamusa it takes a full day of weaving and Deuri is paid a flat wage of Rs. 400 for every garment. The price of an Assamese mekhela chador in the market ranges between Rs. 5,000 to a few lakhs, but craftspeople like Deuri only manage to earn around Rs. 6,000 to 8,000 a month.

Her earnings from weaving are not able to sustain the family of seven – her husband Nabin Deuri, 66, and two children: Rajoni, 34 and Rumi, 26, and the family of her late older son – so she also works as a cook at a local lower primary school.

PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque
PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque

Patney Deuri rolls eri threads into bobbins that go onto the traditional loom where she weaves

PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque
PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque

Patney Deuri 's skill is an inspiration for other weavers in Bajrajhar village. She watches (right) Madhobi Chaharia making eri towels for men

In Assam, almost all (11.79 lakh) weavers are women, says the Fourth All India Handloom Census (2019-2020), and they must juggle home and weaving and some, like Deuri, also work in other jobs.

With multiple jobs to finish in a day, Deuri’s day starts early – at 4 a.m. she seats herself on the bench in front of the loom, its rusted legs placed on bricks for balance. “After working till 7:30 to 8 a.m., I go to school [to cook]. On returning at around 2-3 p.m., I rest. By 4 p.m. I start again and continue till 10-11 p.m.” she says.

But it’s not only weaving. Deuri must also ready the yarn, a physically demanding task. “You have to soak the yarn, put it into starch and then dry it to strengthen the endi . I put two bamboo poles at two ends to spread the threads. Once the thread is ready, I wrap them into the ra [warp beam]. Then you have to push the warp beam to the very end of the loom. And then you run your hands and feet to weave,” she explains.

Both the looms used by Deuri are traditional, bought by her over three decades ago, she says. They have wooden frames mounted on two poles of the areca nut tree; the peddles are made of bamboo. For intricate designs, older weavers using traditional looms use thin bamboo strips along with the midrib of a coconut palm leaf. They manually take the threads through selected long-threads to make any design. To get the coloured threads woven into the cloth, they have to weave the seri (thin bamboo slip) through the vertical threads everytime after pushing the treadle. This a time-consuming process and slows them down.

PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque
PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque

Seri are thin bamboo slips used to divide the threads into lower and upper sections. This allows the spindle to pass through and create designs. For weaving the colourful threads into the yarn,  Patney Deuri takes the spindle-with-colourful threads through the divided sections done using the seri

PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque
PHOTO • Mahibul Hoque

Patney Deuri  (left) is weaving an eri chador ( eri draping cloth). An expert, her chadors are revered by locals for the intricate designs. T aru Baruah (right) has almost stopped weaving for the last three years but she has some unsold gamusas at her home

Although the Assam government’s Handloom Policy adopted in 2017-2018 recognises that looms need to be upgraded and yarn made more accessible, Deuri she says she has no financial support to go ahead. “I have no connection with the handloom department. These looms are old and I have not received any benefits from the department.”

Unable to sustain weaving as a livelihood, Taru Baruah from Hatigarh village of Udalguri district has left the craft. “I was a pioneer in weaving. People used to come to me for mekhela chador and gamusas. But with competition from power looms and cheaper products online, I am not weaving anymore,” says 51-year-old Taru, standing beside her abandoned eri plantation which has no silkworms now.

“I do not see people wearing handmade clothes anymore. People mostly wear cheaper clothes made from powerlooms. But I wear only homemade natural fabric clothes and I will continue to weave for as long as I am alive,” says Deuri, as she continues pushing the paddle to move the maaku (shuttle) and design flowers on the Assamese towels she is masterfully creating.

This story is supported by a fellowship from Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation (MMF).
Mahibul Hoque

Mahibul Hoque is a multimedia journalist and researcher based in Assam. He is a PARI-MMF fellow for 2023.

Other stories by Mahibul Hoque
Editor : Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. She writes on forests, Adivasis and livelihoods. Priti also leads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

Other stories by Priti David