Changing the warp and weft of the hand-weaving industry in Assam, Anuradha Kuli is a beacon of light for craftspeople and also a flagbearer of slow fashion as her muga, eri and cottons take centerstage
By Asmita Aggarwal
She along with her eight other siblings were sent for higher education to the big city Dibrugarh, Assam as her small-time businessman father believed it was the only way out of poverty and will pave the path for empowerment. He didn’t differentiate between the genders, that’s why Anuradha Puli, from a tiny hamlet is today a National Award-winning designer, who runs two weaving centres back home (on the border of Arunachal) giving employment to hundreds of craftsmen, and putting Eri and Muga silk on the world map. “Out of the 50 families in our village only ten were sent for education and my dad was the first one to take this initiative which really changed our lives,” says Anuradha.
Anuradha had been watching traditional Mekhla chaddars being woven at home with indigenous designs by her maternal grandmother and then mother for almost 100 years. “All the girls in the village are taught this craft, whether they are studying to become doctors, engineers or teachers, knowing the tradition and respecting it is a must,” she admits.
Cotton, Mulberry silk, is also woven and after learning sericulture from a government-run institute, she began the centres formally in 2004. “Ahmisa silk is special to those, who really want to save the planet, as the worm is not killed, and for certain religious communities, this is the only cloth they will wear. But weavers need help from the government, we have been managing the production without any investment, everything is self-generated,” she says, adding that what is written in newspapers about aiding weavers is mostly exaggerated and only some clusters are flourishing, most find it hard to sustain.
Kuli confesses besides being her livelihood she takes pride in her work, it is done with a lot of heart and the motifs and bootas which could range from flowers, birds and animals are as old as 300 years passed on from one generation to another. Each sari takes at least 45 days and an extra 20 if the borders are intricate, even a basic piece of silk takes 15 days minimum to weave, making it a slow process. “You have Mulberry in China (she was invited to participate in the Silk Road International Exposition (SRIE) held in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province last year), Bangkok and even West Bengal, but Assam we don’t use machines at all, everything is done by hand, making it labour intensive,” she clarifies. Locally it is called khadi silk, as it keeps you cool in summer and Eri is the same, but it is just thicker so customers think it will be tough to wear in hotter months. “That’s not true, it absorbs moisture and brings down the body temperature, therein lies its beauty, which is incomparable to any man-made fibre,” she asserts.
Muga is known as the golden thread of Assam, reserved for occasion wear, but due to the tea plantations and the increasing pesticide they use, it is threatening the trees and raising pollution levels. What makes each sari unique is the commitment to keeping it natural, that’s why all of them are dyed in turmeric, which is considered a natural healer and protects the body from skin rashes and debilitating allergies. “Turmeric has medicinal properties and in our village, it is added in not just daily cooking, but also milk for regeneration. I make dyes using lac, found in fig and acacia, it secretes a resin that has a red dye. Indigo leaves are added to give colour as well as a Bhutanese herb for yellow, for each colour there is an organic source, minus any chemical,” she says.
Any mention of her father, makes Anuradha breaks down into tears, and she adds that she is proud of her heritage and seeing the poverty in her village while growing up made her a warrior. “Nothing is computer-generated, the work is handcrafted and internationally many clients respect this, in India price becomes a negotiating point, as each sari costs between Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh and even more. In future we hope this will change,” she concludes