This husband-wife duo is empowering artisans and creating livelihood for weavers in Assam
Fabrics have often been the gateway to cultures. Sualkuchi, also known as “Manchester of the East”, situated some 30 km from Guwahati in Assam, on the bank of the mighty river Brahmaputra, is a haven for silk fabrics ranging from the golden ‘Muga’ to the ivory white ‘Pat’ and the light beige ‘Eri’ silks. These traditional but distinctively colourful patterns are some of the beauties originating from Assam. Specifically, ‘Muga’ and ‘Eri’, also known as the Ahimsa Silk are native only to Assam.
As one walks the numerous tiny but boisterous streets, it is easy to hear the rhythmic sounds made by the looms and the flying shuttles. The sight of men and women at work is spellbinding; the rhythmic movements of hands and legs on looms turn silk threads into magnificent fabrics – with the help of punched cards producing gorgeous woven motifs. The woven motifs are mostly inspired by the flora and fauna, the sights and sounds, the people and rich history of Assam, ranging from various flowers to peacock, deer, rhino, etc. Another common motif is of the ‘Jaapi’, a traditional Assamese hat.
Each strand of colourful fabric is interwoven carefully and creatively into another as weavers in Assam weave magic of the land’s scenic beauty and of all the things they see around, keeping their warmth alive in every thread.
Although an ancient tradition, the handloom industry has survived several decades and is still a very important part of India's rural development drive. While the overall fashion industry in Assam has continued to evolve over the years, with many looking to more modern methods of weaving and design, a lot of efforts have been made to preserve and maintain the originality and beauty that Assamese designs are known for.
Old methods of weaving like with the use of a handloom have provided communities in Assam that are still dependent on forests with a viable option. Establishments like AVA Creations are dedicated to the promotion of handloom in Assam to help local people attain a livelihood. Its founders Anu Mandal and her husband, Arup Kumar Baishya, are passionate about showcasing beauty with nothing but skill using a handloom. The couple promotes AVA Creations using M/S AVA and AVA Foundation.
Anu and Arup had always been closely linked with the fashion industry and weaving from a very early age. Anu, born and brought up in Barpather, Golaghat district, officially began her career as a visiting faculty in vocational courses in fashion & textile at various colleges in Guwahati. In the next 18 years of her career, she has collaborated with diverse industries in the North Eastern region extending from the fashion industry to event and sports management. She has also undertaken a certificate course in textile designing from Weavers Service Center, Guwahati and an entrepreneurship development programme by Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship, Guwahati. Her husband Arup, on the other hand, comes from a family of weavers in Sualkuchi. After completing his graduation, Arup went on to work with autonomous apex bodies set up by government, e-governance projects, microfinance institutes, private commercial banks & development organizations in North East India. He was also a part of the certificate programme in fashion & clothing at NIFT, Kolkata Campus which was sponsored by the department of development of North East region (DoNER), govt. of India.
The couple fully delved into the entrepreneurial world with the launch of AVA Creations in August 2017. Although there were many hurdles to cross, their passion for learning and growth has been the major driving force through all the tough times.
With the recent call for sustainability in fashion and every other industry, so many operators and experts see the handloom industry as the way to go. Anu has been one of those who have held a strong opinion on the subject. In her words, "Fashion, in my opinion, should have a long-lasting effect. It should not be gone quickly, in the blink of an eye. It should be made and used in a thoughtful manner considering the repercussions it may incur. Sustainable fashion speaks of the same idea to me. I feel it is not necessary to buy clothes in bulk; we can invest in fewer pieces and style it creatively according to our own tastes.”
"The question of bringing out that exact use of those things I purchase in my day to day practices definitely shapes my relationship with sustainable fashion", she adds.
The main idea behind the couple’s fashion business is centered around environmentally-friendly designs. The detrimental impact of fast fashion on the environment include dangerous occurrences like emission of greenhouse gasses, depletion of sources that are non-renewable, use of large quantities of water and energy, etc.
As a result of this, Anu utilizes more sustainable means of designing. "My desire never shifted to create clothing with artificial fabrics. As I selected natural fabrics for my products, I automatically supported a style which in every way was away from the detrimental effects on the environment," she says.
The weavers the couple works with are the residents of Majpara, Matia hills. Though the locals knew how to weave using a handloom as it is widely available at their homes; they were yet to understand how they could use it to their advantage. Anu and Arup conducted workshops and trained them for three months.
“It was indeed a task to make them understand the vast potential they had within themselves. The women who knew weaving were only doing it for personal usage or sometimes as a means of additional income. Once they realized that they can weave as a source of livelihood by enhancing their traditional skills, they readily joined hands with us,” says Arup.
The couple started AVA Creations as a beacon of hope to Assam and the rest of India, promoting the message that indulging in sustainable fashion is the future. This they believe sets them apart from other fashion brands. From the weaving process to the use of non-toxic, indigenous dyes that are eco-friendly, the couple has prioritized safety and the uplifting of Assamese communities over everything else.
Anu also reveals that the level of acceptance of sustainability in India is different from the rest of the world. According to her, "There is definitely a distinct gap in the attitude of Indians in the Indian market in comparison with the rest of the world when it comes to sustainable clothing. People here are reluctant to try hand-woven clothing and the reasons could be many. There is a set of people who think it lacks lustre and is extremely expensive. However, often they ignore the fact that a piece of garment woven with hands is much more valuable and needs both time and patience to create, compared to a machine-made piece of clothing. And the natural dyes that we use are capable of producing lustrous, vibrant, and bright fabrics too. Undeniably, sustainably produced clothing is on the pricier side, but one needs to understand that its shelf-life is equally larger, if taken the right care. Nonetheless, a willingness to change has been seen in the Indian markets, especially after the pandemic. People are becoming more and more conscious of their buying and have started to realise how their choices directly impact the planet. The positive change has begun to start and I feel it will go a long way."
In designing sustainable fashion, Anu tells us her personal source of inspiration. "I have never followed a trend. Because a trendy collection goes as fast as it comes. I draw inspiration from my surroundings and my motive is always to produce clothing that people can wear in the most practical ways."
As the rest of the world sought ways to combat the unprecedented pandemic, Anu and her husband had to come up with innovative ways of creating a solution to the crisis. Following world health organisation (WHO) guidelines, they began distribution of biodegradable and eco-friendly masks. Already, they have supplied over 12,000 masks to New Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Nagaland, Sikkim, Madhya Pradesh, USA, Singapore, and Bhutan.
AVA Creations believes in absolute transparency and that is one of the few reasons the company is trusted by both employees and customers. “We follow the B2C model. There's enough transparency in the transaction process as the buyers can directly come to the factory and make their purchases.”
Talking about the initial investment and current turnover, Arup says, “Our initial investment had been in terms of dedication and devotion to our work. Strange as it may sound, but we began working with second-hand looms. However, we prioritised laying a strong foundation in the human resource sector and provided weavers and artisans the motivation and the skill-set to understand what their work demands from them. We did get a big push from our friends and family who believed in us and invested in our vision. Our turnover for the last year was Rs 40 lakh during the peak season.”
As for the future, there's still a lot more the couple has planned out for the people of Assam. "I have a vision of creating a 'Handloom City' where all our weavers, artisans and their families get spaces where they live in the most dignified manner. I wish for a place that is created with the sustainability factor in mind in every bit of the creation," Anu says.
The couple believes in their journey to change the narrative of Assamese fashion industry, one design at a time and hopefully someday make a significant impact on a more global scale.