It’s been a couple of months since thousands of people returned to their home state, leaving behind their studies and lucrative jobs in metros in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent nationwide lockdown. Some thousands of returnees, who once supported their families with their earnings in the cities, are now struggling to make a living in their home towns with no jobs in hand or employment opportunities. Amid the dire situation, women returnees in Manipur’s hill district of Tamenglong are turning to the traditional system of weaving traditional wears for a living.
In the hills of Manipur, handloom weaving is yet to catch up. The traditional system of weaving is still practiced by womenfolk in every household. By tradition and culture, women members in most families among the Zeliangrongpui community that dominates the district are made to learn the art of weaving from a young age. Although western dressing is common among girls and women in the hills today, traditional clothes made with the traditional method of weaving are still in high demand. Owing to the high demand, the hand-woven traditional wears such as pheisuai (Sarongs for women) and phei (shawl or scarf for men and women) with intricate design works are highly priced. Hence, most unemployed womenfolk take to traditional weaving to earn their livelihood and support their families.
A local weaver, Aningna Panmei, has been weaving as a means of livelihood to support herself and her family. She said weaving has been her only source of income as her poor family could not afford to send her to school. "Since I did not go to school, I have taken up weaving to support my husband and raise our children. I earn around Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 monthly," she said, adding that there are demands for her hand-woven traditional clothes even during the lockdown. Many weavers like her earn above Rs 10,000 and above a month depending on the demand.
Today, amid the covid situation, the art of traditional weaving is gaining popularity as more and more women, including women returnees, are taking to weaving for a living with no other work opportunities available. While some weave to earn their living, others weave for themselves.
"I had returned from Delhi amid the lockdown. With no other job or source of income, I started to weave traditional phei and pheisuai. Our traditional wears are expensive so I am utilizing my time at home by weaving shawls and pheisuai for myself,” said a returnee, Dee Riamei.
Another returnee, Thiujianliu Kamei, said she decided to help her mother in weaving while staying at home.
"Since there is no other source of income or job here, I decided to help my mother. She has been weaving our traditional wears. Weaving is a good source of income because they are valued and highly priced. I have woven at least one pheisuai and three phei since I returned from Chennai in June. Pheisuai with intricate designs cost around around Rs 10,000 and phei cost around Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,500," Kamei said.
According to the culture and traditions of the Zeliangrongpui community, different types of traditional wears symbolise the status of a woman, as young, old, or married, and are worn to signify all kinds of occasion, by both men and women. Which is why, traditional costumes are a must-have for the people. They are also used to cover the departed during funerals as a mark of love and respect.
Owing to the increase in weaving of clothes, yarn shops are thriving as the demand for yarn has increased. Mathiuripou Pamei, who runs a yarn shop in Tamenglong town market, said his business has doubled during the lockdown as “skilled weavers who had migrated to the metropolis have now taken to weaving after returning to their hometown”.
"There is a sudden surge of interest among the weavers, including young women. This trend is encouraging. We need to emphasize on the need to learn weaving and promote our culture," he said.
Meanwhile, some of the weavers rued the lack of infrastructure and availability of raw material required as the market in the town is small and goods available are limited.
One Dijanliu, who owns a weaving centre in the town, said weaving can help women to attain self-reliance. Weaving has been providing livelihood to many for years. “Many had undergone weaving training. But their skills remained underutilised. So I decided to form a weavers' self-help group to absorb the skilled weavers and help them earn a livelihood," she said. She said the centre has now 26 weavers, aged 20-50 years. However, the lack of raw material and infrastructure poses a challenge for the weavers, she added.