Imphal: The global pandemic did not just impact corporations and businesses. The livelihoods of rural communities, especially tribal, was hit hard. One silver lining amid the pandemic, however, was how tribal women in Manipur took up weaving to supplement family income. Women weavers is not a new phenomenon, of course. In Manipur, women have played a crucial role in preserving the old-age weaving culture. The COVID pandemic has only reiterated its importance in the rural economy.

The ongoing Mai-Own 2021 exhibition at Hapta Kangjeibung in Imphal is part of the 4-year celebration of the present BJP government. It has opened new avenues for artisans and weavers.

The exhibition, which is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for Vocal for Local to Go Global and a step towards Atma Nirbhar Bharat, began on March 16 and will conclude on March 22.

K Khomdonbi Rongmei, a 68-year-old and a mother of five, resides in Konthoujam Maning Awang Leikai in Imphal West district. She set up a stall at the ongoing exhibition selling traditional, hand-woven clothes for Zeme, Rongmei and Liangmei Naga tribes.

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Speaking to EastMojo, Khomdonbi says that she has been practising traditional weaving for over 40 years and is the sole breadwinner of the family. In 2010, she received the ‘Outstanding Craftspersons of Manipur’ for 2010-2011 for her contribution in handicrafts and handloom sector by the Directorate of Commerce and Industries, Manipur.

Over the years, she has trained many young unemployed women of the particular art, many of whom have specialised in the art and become self-reliant.

But the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their exposure and livelihood due to prolonged lockdown in the state.

Loin Loom vs Power Loom: An unfair contest

Khomdonbi also shared the challenges of practising loin loom or backstrap loom due to the changing market structure, technology, and production.

“Many people started producing traditional clothes by using power looms, which was cheaper than traditional, hand-woven clothes. Using a loin loom for weaving takes a lot of time and energy, however, the quality is far better and cannot be compared with other modern techniques of weaving,” said Khomdonbi.

Tarawon Shaiza, president of Wino Women Handloom and Weaving Co-operative Society in the Ukhrul district, concurred with Khomdonbi. Tarawon and her society were representing the Ukhrul district, displaying ethnic wear of the Tangkhul community.

K Khomdonbi Rongmei.

“We have around 300 women weavers in the society, and we produce the traditional clothes woven in the back strap technique,” informed Tarawon.

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Tarawon pointed out how the pandemic caused severe hardships for the weavers.

“During the pandemic, we supplied the materials required to the weavers and made them work at their home. However, we faced lots of difficulties, especially in coordinating with the weavers. The designs and motifs of traditional clothes require proper training and proper observation from trainers or experts. But they also had to maintain social distancing and personal hygiene while working under the limited space at their workshed,” said Tarawon.

Registered in 1977, the society with around 600 registered members has been at the forefront of preserving and promoting the rich traditional wears of the Tangkhul Naga community.

“If we want to preserve the originality of our traditional wears, we must continue with loin loom or back-scrapped weaving,” added Tarawon.

According to Tarawon, during the pandemic, many weavers were forced to look out for alternate means of livelihood such as farming and animal husbandry for family sustenance.

However, with the reopening of markets, these women artisan and weavers are pinning their hopes on melas and exhibitions to revive their economy.

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