Manipur women weave success in the pandemic warp

Ninglun Hanghal
At her modest home in Thangmeiband in the Imphal West district, a sling handbag hanging on her shoulder74-year-old Ima Radhesana anxiously moves about in her courtyard and answering distress calls.
Ima the word for “mother” in Meiteilon, is a go-to person for scores of women as she is coordinating the submission of names for vendors’ loans announced by Manipur Chief Minister, N Biren Singh.  She is constantly answering queries from distress calls from the women vendors of Nupi Keithel,inquiring about the status of the COVID-19 lockdown.
She is the president of the Khwairamband Nupi Keithel Semgat Sagatpa Lup, popularly known as Nupi Keithel– the historic women market in the heart of state capital Imphal.
Spreading across two square kilometers or more the Nupi Keithel stands quiet and desolate, devoid of any activity due to the pandemic closure. The women market is the biggest and largest commercial hub in Manipur. Thousands of women carry out trade and marketing of locally made products.
With the threats of the Coronavirus spread, Nupi Keithel and adjoining areas have been heavily cordoned and strictly monitored. Yellow iron barricades and policemen are seen around the market in most of the day. Along the same lines of Nupi Keithel are the women markets in all the district headquarters of Manipur, such as Nute Bazaar in Churachandpur, Ava market in Ukhrul, Rani Gaidinliu market in Tamenglong, Apfii Saliki market in Senapati.
All these women’s markets, in a way the defining feature of small trade dominated by women across the hills and vale of Manipur,are shut due to the pandemic.
Over the months the women’s markets continue to be excluded from the periodic announcements on relaxation in the lockdown. It is probably going to be the last of the markets to be opened to the public.
“We are very vulnerable,” said Radhesana, explaining that at Nupi Keithel COVID-19 preventive guidelines would be impossible to follow. “Ours is a close-knit market, we sit together and it is crowded,” said the Keithel president.
Shutting down of the women market has put the women vendors out of gear. Ima said that most of the women are the main bread-winners of the family and are facing a huge challenge. “One-day closure of the market is a huge blow for us,”she said.
There are about 7000 registered vendors in the Nupi Keithel.In normal circumstances, a vendor on an average makes between 500 – 1000 rupees per day. That is an estimated loss of Rs 70 lakh every day and a loss in the economic activity of a whopping Rs 105 crore at the end of five months of lockdown.
Along with the registered vendors, there is an equal number of women engaging in small trade in the vicinity daily, alongside the road. It is difficult to estimate the quantum of their trade losses but does not require much to imagine their pain.
Nupi Keithel is a place where a large number of traditional handlooms and handicrafts are marketed. Sarongs, shawls, mufflers, jewellery, crafts, organic food products, and various other local products of different hues and colours are all available under one roof.
Ima Radhesana deals in handlooms. Her weavers are from remote villages and are facing a hard time. She said that weavers could not procure the all-essential yarn as shops remain closed so there is no way they can bring their final products to her. “They are all from rural areas, so it is even more difficult to come since there is no transport,” she said. “Even if they managed to bring to me I have nowhere to sell either.”
Even as the lockdown continues, a patient Ima stays positive. “I hope and pray, this will pass someday,”said Ima. “It is an age of science and it will not go on forever,” she hopes.
On the other side of COVID-19, there is a new trend evolving. Weaving and looms are still very much part of the way of life of Manipur women. Even today almost every household in Manipur owns a loom, either loin or fly-shuttle. Many women who had quit weaving due to other vocations have gone back to weaving during the lockdown as they have time to engage in the activity. Reports from across different towns suggest that the limited yarn stocks have been exhausted.
New stocks of yarns are hard to come by as the supply chain has been severely impaired. It leaves a huge shortfall because Manipur consumes an estimated 8.64 million meters of handloom fabrics and one million kilograms of yarn per month, as per government figures.
Collection of traditional wear is one way of an investment or an asset for women in Manipur. Most importantly women’s wear is passed on from a mother to daughter. As a result, it is never out of fashion.
Women have adapted to shortages by walking the extra mile.
“I do home delivery,” said Mimi Mangsatabam, in her mid 50s, who has been weaving since her teens and is into the handloom business for over 10 years. She said many women utilized the lockdown to focus on doing things that they could not do during other normal days. “They began to redecorate their homes, change curtains, get new cushion covers,”observed Mangsatabam. That is how she managed to sell a lot of her collection.
Mangsatabam personally went door to door to the weavers.”They cannot come so I go to them to deliver the yarn and take their products. Then further deliver it to customers” she said. How did she move about? “I have a two-wheeler,” she said. Since the weavers reside in suburban or rural areas, there is no hassle of social distancing norms as she moves alone and during lockdown relaxation.
Talking about her weavers Mangsatabam said that many of them are in a difficult time. She brought rations of rice, dal, potato, oil for her weavers and in turn, would come back with loom products.
“Fortunately being in this sector for along time, I have personal networks and contacts with outlets selling yarn. I also have my yarn stock and that’s how I keep going in the lockdown,” said Mangsatabam. She has around 35 active weavers and a network of about a hundred weavers who work on traditional loin loom and the more modern fly shuttle looms.
Many part-time weavers are said to be willing to offer their service for a lower wage. Meanwhile, a large number of handloom dealers have begun going online to start discount sales, attracting many customers.
The pandemic lockdown also paves the way for an innovative way of marketing to many women.
Under the brand My Loom Collection, Shanti Gurumayum and her daughter started online marketing on social media platforms and sold well.
“Quite a good response,” said Gurumayum “We offer a discount, that’s the USP”. Their products include, sarees, phaneks, cushions, pillow covers. Once the items are selected and ordered by customers they deliver it to the doorstep. “Sometimes customers come home to get it on their own, especially when they think it might be sold out,” said Gurumayum.
Gurumayum has around 60 to 70 weavers working with her. At her home in Imphal East, she also conducts weaver training for young women. Recalling about her younger days, Gurumayum said from the moment she opened her eyes she had seen her my mother weaving. “I grew up with it,” she said.
Handloom and textiles are a primary and secondary occupation for a large section of households. It is the largest cottage industry here and the second-highest employer in the state, next to agriculture.
Manipur is the second-largest handloom producer in India, Assam being the first. According to the All India Handloom Census 2019-2020, Ministry of Textile, Government of India, Manipur ranks third with 2.1 lakh weaver households– a third of who are in the cooperative fold - among the four states that account for 18 lakh weaver households in India. The other states are Assam with 10.9 lakh, West Bengal with 3.4 lakh, and Tamil Nadu with 1.7 lakh households.
In fact, 94 percent of weavers in Manipur are women. The pandemic may have brought suffering but these women strive to weave their small success stories.
Ninglun Hanghal is Laadli Media Fellow 2020. The opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views.