Unattended struggle of Phige Weavers during COVID -19 lockdown

Mamta Lukram
The traditional wrap-around (phanek) of a Meitei lady are multiple in types. Depending upon the materialsbeing used, patterns and embroidery, it is classified into varieties. A price range could start from Rs 200 for an ordinary one, extendinguptoRs 20,000 for special numbers.Woven in traditional loin looms and borders embroidered by handiwork are the recommendedstandardisation hallmarks. The reason for significance of this attire is associated with social preference. For instance, an acceptable representational image of aMeitei lady would be the one wearing phanek and innaphi. The indigenous identity of the community is knitted with the attires.
‘Phige’ is the unique occasion wear of a Meitei lady. The fabric is silk and colours for the patterns are dyed as per preference. The whole steps of making this kind is a long process. Yarning, colouring using dyes, making ready to weave and the weaving are the important stages which are time consuming. Marketing frequently is done once the weaving is over. Border embroidery is to be done separately, with designs of choice. People would first buy items of preferred colour and later sent it to traditional hand embroidery crafts women for the border works. This is the final step in the path of becoming a finished product.
Every procedure of making this traditional wear is a business maintaining systematic division of labour.Selling of silk yarns and chemical dye is monopolised by traders with big investments. Manual activities like colouring with chemical dye, putting starch, yarning and spinning, the arrangement of threads into patterns using traditional wooden tools, making it ready to weave is the second set of activity that demands expertise to ensure appropriate preparation process. Weaving is another separate activity. Marketing is carried out by group of middlemen who have established contacts with women licensed vendors in the market or others on demand. Embroidery is done by skilled craftswomen. Workloads are streamlined and hardly overlapped. Silk and dye traders don’t have the skill to weave. Weavers don’t possessed the embroidery skill, so as the middlemen as per se. Every set of activity is a trading act, providing means of livelihood to many hundred women in the state.
This particular phanek is considered as the most expensive traditional wear in the lives of Meitei Lady. It is considered more like compulsory for the to-be brides. The multiple possession of this attire is a gesture,which is generally observed from either of the two angles; first as sign of economic well-being and the second as culture supportiveness. The shift from a traditional society to the so called ‘modernisation’ has its influence over the making. Colour, patterns and embroidery styles keep on evolving to match the emerging taste of the younger generations. In contemporary Meitei society, fashion houses and designers used to sell embroidered Phige of wide range varieties. The price ranges shots up depending upon the items of choice. However, an embroidered phige can never cost less than Rs 12,000 at its least minimum.   
Elders narrate about how colours were specific with limited traditional knowledge of dye. Extracts of plant products were used for colouring. Tree barks and seeds of selective species, for instance like kuhi, ureirom were the common ingredients.The overall making process of Phige in the past, were influenced by indigenous knowledge system and tradition. The mentions being made in the myths and legends of the community entails the cultural significance of this entity. Oral narratives used description of this cloth as attires of aristocrats. The nature of time consumption and expensiveness in its preparation process, made it dress of worth possession.
Mythically, surrounding areas along the foothill of Nongmaiching hill in Imphal East is described as the place of origination for particular ‘phanek mapal naibas’ (border embroidered phaneks) where goddesses started loin loom weaving.  At community level, Kongpalis one locality which popularise itself with this cloth as ‘Kongpal Phige,’ where majority womenfolk are weavers. There could hardly be any household where there are no weavers. It can be remarked that every women in this community is connected to this activity, directly or indirectly.
The weavers are seasonal workers. Usually they go through financial crunch and need urgent side money.So some got distracted and engaged themselves in other activities that would provide handsome wages. Agricultural seasons of paddy plantation and harvesting are the most affected season in this occupation since many went away to the fields. Once those seasonal earning is over, they would return to their normal weaving occupation. Meanwhile, there are many full time permanent weavers too. According to them this occupation has no season, as long as one can weave, earning supports. There is demand for this product the whole year round.Peak season is the festive and marriage season, following lunar calendar. Hundreds of women have been making their livelihood out this occupation. Middlemen in this trade could even make a living out of trade context. The collectivity of weavers have been trying hard to uplift the productivity through formation of Self-help groups. Also they weave to promote the culture. In fact, phige is the economic backbone of the weaver community.
Currently, the global pandemic of COVID 19 has havoc the lives of weavers. Nationwide lockdown in fighting against the spread of the disease has ironically afflicted hardships to the weavers backed by the reality situation that every basics of this cloth have to be imported. Lockdown disrupts the smooth flow of trade and weavers are facing difficulty in procuring the fabrics. Meanwhile, at this rate of social and economic alarm, with the suspension of social functions and occasions, demand has dropped. They are caught in the dilemma of struggle against the price hike of essential commodities against acrumbled occupation guild.
Dishearteningly, the hardest blow is to the marginalised single parents and widows weavers. Even young girls weavers who support their family’s economy through this act are bind back in helplessness. The weavers have been shedding silent tears in their struggle to sustain during the COVID 19 lockdown. Despite the great role they are playing to support the culture, no recognition is gained by this marginalised section.
No provision for their welfare or reliefs mean for the weavers have been accessed. They are experiencing deprivation. Some of the weavers commented that ‘Phige’ have been their saviour and regard it as ‘phige Lairembi’ (phige goddess). However at this rate, many felt that the struggle have become heavy. At this current situation, small acts of encouragements and deeds of humanity could be proven as healers to the ailing hearts. After all they are the culture promoters of the community.