Our New Roots: Heeya – Handcrafted with love, from the North East

Jonali Saikia’s sarees spin a captivating tale: of decades of handcrafted tradition, from a land where weaving is a simple way of life.


As a young woman, Jonali Saikia used to wear traditional attires from Assam and other parts of North East regularly to work. Her female colleagues would be totally enamoured at the fascinating range of silks and would keep checking on where they could find it. At the same time, Saikia realised just how underexposed arts and crafts from the North East region where in other parts of India.

‘Heeya’ is Saikia’s attempt at bringing mainstream attention to genuine ethnic wear from the North East while working with the richness of handloom and weavers who had very few avenues to reach outside of their region. After spending 14 years as a senior corporate professional with companies like Accenture and AOL, Saikia decided to turn to entrepreneurship to bring livelihood and opportunity to dozens of skilled women weavers in the North East.

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We catch up with Jonali to learn more about the story behind her ‘craft of love’.

How did you begin working on ‘Heeya’?

I formally started Heeya in October 2012 after about 8 months of research and a pilot. I started with getting a long list of weavers and co-operative societies from government departments which ran to some 1000+ organisations. The idea was to work with groups that did not have sufficient market exposure, help them make good quality products as well as enable them to have sustainable livelihoods.

The North Eastern states of India resemble a mini Asia – about 220 tribes live here, a veritable gene pool and an equally rich culture and craft heritage. The crafts and textiles of this region are extremely diverse, rich and many have resemblance to Indo-Burmese styles.

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There is no separate ‘weaver class’ here – weaving has traditionally been associated with the day-to-day life of a woman, be it the queen or the maid, every woman had to weave. Even today, only the women weave in the NE, not men (excluding small pockets) and therefore, more weaving engagements for them means more livelihood for the family. That is, both, the problem and the opportunity—while the skill resides in every woman, the rush to make a living out of it is not so pronounced as agriculture has been the main livelihood. However the attitude is steadily changing. Many weavers and co-operative groups are providing women with the platform to earn their own income.

Tell us more about Heeya’s weaves and the craftsmanship behind them

Our weaves are mostly from four areas in the North East – Chhaygaon, Dhemaji, Nagaland and Bongaigaon –– the weaves are fashioned into sarees and garments. The intricate extra warp and extra weft styles of weaving are unique to this region, which have descended from generations of tribes that migrated from South east Asia hundreds of years back. The extra warp style of ornamentation is mostly the reserve of Bodos and the extra weft style is deftly done by the Mishings. We make panels of these weaves as most of the traditional looms in the region do not support weaving beyond 39″ (except Bodo looms) and then incorporate the panels creatively into another hand-woven saree.

Since the idea is to take the traditional textile styles forward, we do not prescribe any new motif to the weavers except if they are similar to the ones that are already there. We do however change the layouts and colours. The raw material used is mostly good quality cotton sourced from the South or from a new cotton factory in Assam. We also use silk – mostly Eri silk as it is elegant and functional to make a statement in alternate, ahimsa silk ( as opposed to Mulberry silk which is mostly prevalent).

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How do you reach customers today?

We don’t have a boutique yet, nor do we plan to have one in the next year. We will however have an e-commerce portal soon. So far, we have been selling through exhibitions organised by various Craft forums and NGOs like Concern India and others. We also sell through social media, namely Facebook, as much of the target audience can be reached through FB. We run a high engagement campaign prior to the sales and mostly the theme is about struggling real life women.

Tell us some of your memorable moments from working with weavers?

Yes, there are quite a few – but a story that has redefined how I look at craftspeople needs telling. I am working with a women’s co-operative group in Dhemaji, a place about 550 kms from Guwahati and much known for being ravaged by floods every year. Last year in May I had taken on a task of identifying and facilitating one of the finest weavers there to get a national award, which would entitle her cash prize and several other benefits.

One of them, a teacher turned full-time weaver, who was also my favourite, volunteered. She was the best weaver and highly motivated. One fine day in the first week of January when I called to wish her Happy New Year, I was informed that she passed a couple of days back due to a potential brain tumour. Due to lack of immediate funds, and unclear medical reports, she was left to her fate. This incident made me realise the conditions under which the women artisans work and what we could do to support them. Today, with the help of local SHGs, we have started regular medical camps in the region. A small but much needed step.

Jonali with her weavers.

Jonali with her weavers.

 

Tell us more about silks from the North East – muga, eri, paat silk that you work with?

It’s absolutely fascinating to know so much more about the kinds of silk-  the way the silk worm is reared, spun/reeled and woven to such beautiful products. Surprisingly, I never paid much attention while growing up. However we also work a lot with cotton, given that most of the tribal communities have traditionally been working with cotton. The Muga and Eri are two unique kinds of silk of this region that very few know about. We want to educate people about them on a national ground.

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What can make traditional handicrafts viable in today’s consumer markets?

There is a lot that can be done to bridge the gap- both by government and by entrepreneurs. The government needs to actively bolster the infrastructure/capacity building and policy making while entrepreneurs need to bring in innovation, be relevant to a globally conscious world, introduce contemporary trends, marketing the products and connecting to new markets.

We are actively working on and constantly looking for ways to innovate and improvise the products – for eg. a lot of the weavers had, over a period of time, switched to acrylic as no good quality dyed yarn was available locally. We are trying to stop the use of acrylic and are providing high quality cotton yarn to these groups so they do not need to have the hassle of procuring yarn themselves.

How can we support crafts through our everyday purchases?

By buying them, using/wearing them and promoting them. Buying crafts and espousing them requires a mentality to ‘embrace’ and to ‘connect’. In adding to serving a functional need, these satisfy a need to appreciate the goodness of sustainable lifestyle and fashion.

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“We have a lot of interesting stories, where customers actually connect to the saree. A married woman from Upper Assam was totally fascinated by the Eri saree, it seemed to bring back memories of her earlier days in Assam. A saree with trademark Mishing designs from our last collection which when was launched online, was simultaneously asked for by eight women – it was quite a task to pacify the women and booking for the one who asked for it first. Since Heeya sarees are one-of-a-kind, we were not able to replicate that one but similar ones that were equally lapped up by the ones on the waiting list.”

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You can view Heeya’s latest handcrafted weaves on their Facebook page. Check out our sections about the North East and rebranding our roots.

Our New Roots is a special series featuring entrepreneurs, artists, visionaries and youngsters who are forging the old and the new in exciting and innovative ways.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rini Barman has completed her Masters in English Literature from Jamia Milia Islamia and has graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in the same field. Her writings have been published in Muse India, The Northeast Review, The Seven Sisters' Post, Kritya.in, The Bricolage-An independent Arts and culture magazine, The Thumbprint News Magazine, Newsyaps, the Eclectic and several other dailies of the Nor... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rini Barman has completed her Masters in English Literature from Jamia Milia Islamia and has graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in the same field. Her writings have been published in Muse India, The Northeast Review, The Seven Sisters' Post, Kritya.in, The Bricolage-An independent Arts and culture magazine, The Thumbprint News Magazine, Newsyaps, the Eclectic and several other dailies of the Nor... more

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