The Rural Initiative for Handloom Artisan

Artist: Jamini Payeng – Rural Economy Development Society
Location: Majuli, Golaghat and Jorhat districts in the Northeastern State of Assam, India
Year: 2000-2023 (ongoing)
Researcher: Eve Lemesle

Climate vulnerability (climate change vulnerability) is a concept describing the degree to which a population or ecosystem is likely to be affected by anthropogenic climate change. In a first-of-its-kind study analysing climate vulnerability (mapping exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity) at a district level across India, Mohanty and Wadhawan (2021) observe that India is already the seventh most vulnerable country to climate extremes and that the State of Assam in the Northeast is the most climate-vulnerable within India. Placed in historical context, “The frequency and intensity of extreme climate events in India have increased by almost 200% since 2005.” Such events, including flooding and erosion, have steadily chipped away at traditional livelihoods in places across Assam, like the river island Majuli, affecting agriculture and fishing yields to the extent that more and more people are leaving their families for neighbouring cities in search of work.
One of the world’s largest inhabited river islands, Majuli, located in the Brahmaputra River, is home to two hundred-odd villages and a population of around 167,000 (2011 Census), including a number of indigenous tribes including the Mishing, Sonowal Kachari and Deori. The island has a long history as a significant cultural centre and hub for Vaishnavism (Vaishnavites are worshippers of Vishnu and his incarnations, including Krishna and Rama) and is noted for artisanal crafts such as mask-making, pottery and weaving. This case study concerns the initiative of Jamini Payeng of the Mishing tribe, a weaver and activist who teamed up with other women to start a community weaving project on Majuli Island to earn their families extra income without needing to leave their birthplace.
“Handloom weaving is part of Assam’s indigenous craft and cultural heritage. From early childhood we learn weaving from our elders. My mother and my relatives taught me weaving, and later on I also studied at the Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship in Guwahati. We began our self-help group 20 years ago. Over time, this project has grown and spread beyond Majuli into the districts of Golaghat and Jorhat, and now involves 200 self-help groups which have benefitted over 6000 women.” (Payeng)

More below

The Artist

Jamini Payeng is a weaver from Majuli Island, Assam. A craftsperson, designer and community leader, Payeng has worked as a volunteer with multiple organisations and now coordinates weaving groups to empower rural women culturally and economically. She is proficient in the art of making natural dyes and dyeing and teaches weaving through her women’s initiative, Rural Economy Development Society (REDS). In 2015, she was awarded the Shanta Prasad Award for Excellence in Handloom Weaving by the Crafts Council of India. Her work is held in the British Museum collections.

Originally initiated by Jamini Payeng to empower rural women through weaving, the project is based on self-initiated community groups and has been running for over 20 years.
Payeng’s women’s initiative, known as the Rural Economy Development Society (REDS) is run without funding and offers free training, raw materials and garment designs to self-help groups. In recent years, REDS has worked with the North East Area Affected Development Society (NEADS) to support the start-up of self-help groups better.
“Each self-help group has about 30 members. As start-up support, NEADS provides 90 kilos of yarn to a group, with each woman receiving three to five kilos, depending on their output. Jamini and her associates from REDS initially mentor them on the latest market trends in colour combinations, designs, motifs, etc., to make their outputs marketable.” (Basu, 2022)
Women weave at home but meet regularly in these local groups and sell their work (typically “mekhla chador” which are traditional Assamese dresses) in craft bazaars. A portion of sales goes back to the groups for buying more yarn or tools; the groups are then able to become self-sufficient. Faced with a changing economic and geographic landscape, this handloom weaving community provides a more sustainable alternative to the global trend in urbanisation and its problematic impacts on the climate and ecosystem. “Weaving has helped to make us independent, it has changed our lives.” (Payeng)

Payeng is a master of handloom weaving, including the art of making natural dyes. The initiative she founded twenty years ago has today become a major force in the transmission and popularisation of traditional Assamese craft and design, including an understanding of local techniques and materials such as Muga and Eri silk and Muni cotton. The significance of this project to the cultural and public life of indigenous rural communities in the Northeast of India cannot be underestimated in a political climate dominated by Hindu nationalism. This project is commendable for its cultural and economic impact, contributing considerably to climate change resilience in rural Northeast India. Payeng’s own weaving work is held in the British Museum collection, and in 2015, she was awarded the Shanta Prasad Award for Excellence in Handloom Weaving by the Crafts Council of India.
“According to Jamini, their initial aim was to support women who had been impacted by erosion and flooding to supplement their family income, without having to leave their homes. But over the last two years, it has also helped sustain families during COVID and the economic slowdown. Today there are 200 self-help groups (SHG) of weaver women across 210 villages selected based on their vulnerability to climate impacts.” (Basu) Such numbers speak to the project’s wide impact across the rural communities of Assam.

Progress Agency