Sualkuchi is a small town on the north bank of the Brahmaputra. The oldest mention of this village is supposedly in Kautilya's Arthashastra (dated 400 BCE), as Swarnakudya in the Kamroopa area, which spun the best mulberry silk, spanning its fame thousands of years back in time. In medieval India, the weavers enjoyed the patronage of the Pala and the Ahom dynasties, making the silk produced here a luxury for royalty. These weavers have weaved for thousands of years, sometimes even giving up their caste professions to weave silk.
I started from Guwahati on a crisp, blue morning and reached the village after travelling for more than two hours on the bike. The way was sunlight-dappled, green, and peaceful. We stopped at Gajendra Kalita's house first. As I picked my path over the potholes, I saw him sitting on the veranda and leisurely fanning himself with a bisoni, the local hand-held fan. When he saw me, he bolted inside. Bewildered I stopped at the door and hesitated. However, he soon made an appearance, buttoning a respectable shirt, greeting me warmly. “Namaskar, Baido,” he said. Hello, sister. I was comfortably seated in the veranda and given sweet coconut water.
This man, Gajendra Kalita, is a master silk weaver. He is 45 and the sole wage earner of the family. He makes mekhlas and sarees with 'muga' silk. Muga silk is made from silkworms found only in Assam. The silk is known for its glossy fine texture, becoming more beautiful after each wash, often outliving its owner. It is only one of the silks that are a specialty of Sualkuchi, the others being the luxurious 'Pat' silk, and the non-violent 'Eri' silk.
Ganjendra lost his father, also a weaver, long back. His mother Rama worked day and night to feed and educate her children. She also taught them their family trade – weaving. Gajendra started helping his mother very early. He began weaving mekhlas and mekhla chadors for his mother to sell. He couldn't finish his education but made sure his younger brother finished studying. “Amma faced a knee injury. There was nobody to take care of the household. My responsibility was to earn money to bear the expenses, and take care of my brother,” he explained. Gajendra and his wife work hard to make a living. His brother is in his second year of BA Hons in Guwahati. Rama now spends most of her time playing with her 6-year-old granddaughter.
Gajendra showed me his looms and he has four of them. “The machines are quite old, baido. I don’t have enough money to buy a new one,” he explained. Gajendra gets on by the good profits he makes during Bihu, the most important festival of Assam. The three primary Rongali, Kongali, and Bhogali Bihus bring in good money. So, his best sales happen in April, November, and January. Durga Puja in the month of October and marriages also bring in quite a few orders, but there are times when he earns nothing for months.
What would really help Gajendra increase his production would be a helper to assist him in operating the machine and weaving! But, he can find no one in the village since the young men move to the cities for better opportunities. “It is natural for people to pick big cities in search of better opportunities and lifestyle. Even my brother wants to move out of Sualkuchi,” Gajendra shared. A fact that weighs heavily on Gajendra. To him, weaving is in their genes. “My parents were weavers, my grandfather was a weaver and his parents before him. Despite her difficulties, my mother taught it to us. Now it is our responsibility to give it to our children,” he explains. But for his brother maintaining family tradition was not more important than living comfortably and making money. “I am proud of what our family does. But, bhai feels it is the reason we don't have money, which makes us inferior in the society. He doesn't want to do it,” he rues.
I took a pause and asked, “So if you could live in a city, get better machines, and make money from weaving, would he want to do it then?” The thought had simply not occurred to Gajendra who conceded that he might. Gajendra is hard-working while his brother is ambitious. They might have different priorities but they are both bound by wanting good things for their family. They both want a comfortable life without economic constraints.
Gajendra wants to stay in Sualkuchi, the home of his ancestors and the place where his craft flourished for thousands of years. I wished for there to be a way the brothers could come together without sacrificing their family trade. The afternoon was passing on. I had to return. I thanked my hosts and took pictures with them and left. But on the way back, I was thinking about Gajendra and what he had inherited. How did he keep his hopes alive when he didn't know how he would pay for his daughter's education? How did he have so much faith in Sualkuchi, the place that determined the trajectory of his life? I left the magical, colorful Sualkuchi with many unanswered questions.