By Devika Kerongay Gurung
Dentam, 28 December: Dollops of freshly washed and dried sheep wool lay strewn all over the verandah of the two-storied house. At the far end, she sits combing them (the dollops) one after another. Her timely coughs rhyming with the coarseness of the wool sandwiched between the brushes with steel bristles. As we are served piping hot milk tea which turned lukewarm too fast because of the winter chill, she too demands her mug to be filled. Her ‘halungey ko mug’ (aluminium mug), kept right beside her has dry layers of milky froth which tells that this is her umpteenth tea time of the day. As we converse, she proceeds towards spinning the combed wool on the charkha (spinning wheel) into bulky skeins of yarn. We are amused over the hours of hard labour she indulges into throughout the day at this age and asks her about how does she feel. She smiles and says, “I have been doing this since I was a teenager and I still love what I do.”
The content in her heart spreads on her face like apricity.
Dhan Maya Gurung is 80 years old, a crafts-woman from Begha, West Sikkim. It wouldn’t be wrong to call her as the “Queen of the Wool”, for she has dedicated her entire life to weaving sheep wool; an indigenous handloom art of the Gurung community passed on to her from her predecessors.
“I learnt from my parents and they learnt from theirs. My father used to rear sheep in the highlands of this place (West Sikkim). While the men sheared the wool, the women processed them.”
Shearing occurs twice a year in the months of March and October. The processing of wool post shearing is a lengthy procedure and takes days and weeks and sometimes months for the final product to be perfectly prepared.
“We first thoroughly wash the raw wool in warm water and leave them to dry under the sun. After they are completely dry, we then comb them with brushes. Combing makes sure that there are no locks and the wool turns finer”, she tells as she demonstrates.
They are handmade wooden paddle brushes with steel bristles. Combing is also the step when one can mix different colours of wool to make variegated yarn or yarn of a different colour.
“Raw wool has three colours- black, white and red. If you comb black and white together, you get grey. Now it depends on how light or dark you want your grey to be. Lesser the white, darker the grey; lesser the black, lighter the grey”, acquaints Dhan Maya while mixing equal amount of black and white to make a perfect blend of ash grey.
After brushing, the wool is spun into bulky skeins of yarn with the help of the charkha. With the skeins made, it’s time for the loom to be prepared. Stretching the yarn for the warp on the loom is another Herculean task.
Depending upon the design or colour combination, they are put through the shafts and heddles. After this, the weft yarn is passed in between the warps and the coarse fabric is weaved.
“We weave raadi (blanket), burkaasan (carpet) and fabric for lukuni (coat), topi (cap), bags and other such items”, tells Dhan Maya.
The fabric once prepared undergoes another final process called ‘maadnu’. During this process, the fabric is soaked in water and squeezed with feet and then left to dry. This process ensures evenness and makes the weaved fabric a bit flexible and soft which otherwise is coarse and stiff. While this is the final step for the raadi and burkaasan, for other items like lukuni, caps, bags, etc., the fabric needs to be cut as per the requirement and stitched.
Dhan Maya, whose body has now aged with time, doesn’t permit her to weave, but the love for the art doesn’t let her stay put. Hence, she does the initial works like combing and spinning. The later processes are done by her students whom she has trained.
One among her students is her youngest son, Arjun Gurung. Apart from inheriting craftsmanship from his parents, he is a creative artisan. People who know him or have seen his works believe that he is utterly ‘blessed’ with creativity and talent.
“He not only weaves and stitches, but also paints, crafts and sings!” Shares one of his neighbours who proudly flaunts a half jacket made by him.
Arjun, who once practised this art form only during the evenings has now taken it professionally after having understood its value and the market feasibility. Through the years, the products he makes has undergone a transformation as per the changing times. The lukunis and the waist coats have varied designs and are body fitting. He has even designed coats for women which have a softer and a feminine look, unlike the firm male coats. The caps too have different patterns and colour combinations.
“The products made earlier by our forefathers had no shape and were completely sewn by hands. I now use the sewing machine and use linings in the inside. Since our ancestors lived in the mountainous terrains under harsh climatic conditions, they made the products as per their necessity. Now, these kinds of stuff have a different value in fashion and comfort, so I started giving a bit of modern twist to the traditional form”, says Arjun who sits in his cosy working room stuffed with fabrics. A customer awaits for his cap to be finished; fabric for which has been cut into shape and is ready to be sewn.
The market value of the products are high and the demand is sometimes sky rocketing.
“The demand is so high that many times we are unable to fulfil them on time. Since it’s a lengthy process and we have a handful of staff, it gets hard for us. Our products are now not only limited to the Gurung community but people irrespective of their caste and creed love to own one”, he tells while showing us pictures of his customers from all walks of life wearing his creations.
A cap would cost Rs. 500 to Rs. 800 while a lukuni costs Rs. 3000 to Rs. 5000, depending upon the amount of hard work. Not only in Sikkim, but Arjun has outsourced his products to other North-Eastern states and West Bengal in the country and Bhutan and Nepal internationally.
Apart from preserving the tradition and culture, Arjun feels that this art form has the capability to deliver a sustainable livelihood and make one self-empowered, provided one does it with dedication.
“The youth must come forward and hold the baton further. Not only of the Gurung community but every youth must preserve one’s tradition and culture. Monetisation through them should be done but keep in mind that its authenticity is not compromised. There’s a huge market for these products and it can provide self-sustainability. Sustainable development is what one must focus on”, he asserts.
Apart from her son, Dhan Maya has trained a number of people throughout her lifetime. The exact figure is quite large and see doesn’t seem to remember. Sadly, only a handful has continued. Only last year she imparted training to 10 people for three months in collaboration with the government of Sikkim.
Tika Gurung is one of her students who trained under her some 8 to 9 years ago. She is one of the few trainees who continued and is now a successful weaver.
“Whether it’s the lengthy process or people’s laziness that doesn’t let one continue, it’s hard to tell. But those who have taken it further have been doing well”, tells Tika.
When the waves of modernity washed away most of our indigenousness, few of its parts remained at the shore. It seems like people like Dhan Maya, Arjun and Tika came along and picked the leftovers. They understood and valued it and decided to preserve, protect and re-establish it with dedication so that it is passed to the coming generations on whom they have high expectations that they won’t let this ancestral art form get erased from the face of this earth.