Tuesday, February 07 2017, 10:14:05
  • fatasstic
  • She Says

Shreeya Kishanpuria Agarwal

IWB Intern

This Woman Is Putting Haflong And The Tribal Dimasa Women Weavers On The Indian Map

  • IWB Post
  •  February 4, 2017


Roohi: “I feel like I have known you forever. I have never enjoyed talking. But this is different.”

Me: “I feel the same. You remind me of a dear friend who shaved her head. Twice.”
Roohi: I have gone bald twice too. High five to your friend.”

Avantika Haflongbar, fondly called Roohi by her close ones, is the founder of her namesake clothing brand that explores the designs and patterns from the life and traditions of the Dimasa tribe in Assam. ROOHI is a social enterprise passionately working with traditional textiles and crafts to help empower weavers and artisans of North East India.

A second-hand clothes hoarder and a mother to 7 very wisely named dogs, Avantika is a wild woman. Some dreams never let her sleep. ROOHI is its manifestation.

While her dogs and our Poppy continue barking in the background, we talk clothing, land, life and more.
This is her story.

Me: Where is ROOHI located?

Roohi: ROOHI lives in a small town named Haflong. It is the only hill station in Assam. It is also where I live and where I was born. It’s a really small place. We have about 13 different indigenous tribes cohabiting with 6 other nontribal groups that include the Punjabis, the Bengalis, and the Assamese.

Me: What does Haflong mean? It’s sound so beautiful.

Roohi: Eh, Haflong is such a corrupted pronunciation of our place. It’s actually pronounced as Hang klong. The British spoke only English. They brought in Afghani workers for railways who only spoke Hindi. They found the right pronunciation too difficult for their tongue. So, our land ended up being called Haflong. Well, this is one of the versions I have heard.Me: And why ROOHI?

Roohi: Because it is an extension of me. I couldn’t borrow any other name. Nakli lagta. ROOHI had to reflect my long held dreams.

Me: I am so curious to know about your tribe. May be you can tell me something about Dimasa ke log?

Roohi: We are I believe the oldest tribe in the North East. Dimapur, now in Nagaland, was our Kingdom.
Hum bahut sedhe log hai. Itne seedhe that we flee from our own land. Ever since there have been ethnic conflicts with other tribes of the region. The most serious conflict was the one with the Naga tribe disputing our claim to Dimapur. Those were difficult times, with genocides everywhere. Things are better now.

We recently organized the 2017. Barail is the 2nd highest mountain range of Assam; it passes right through out town. For the first time ever, 5 indigenous tribes got together to organize a festival that celebrated our land, culture, and music. This has never happened before. The Naga tribe was there too. I was one of the organizers. This harmony is crucial for us.

Our Dimasa tribe specifically, is sparsely located in 3 zones. One in the Dima Hasao, Dhansiripar and another small section in the Cachar. Our space and geography influence our living. While the Cachar people are close to the Bengalis and worship Durga Ma, here in Dima Hasao, we pray to the mountains, rivers, and forests. We I think are like the pagans; spirit based society.

There are just 1,75,000 of us left. So, we really can count the people on our fingers. If you were to meet one of us in Jaipur and ask them about me, they would most likely narrate my family history to you. It’s a closely knit circle.

Me: How does this closely knit circle react to your experimentation with their traditional clothing?

Roohi: We are not mainstream people. Interest hai but koshish nahi karte.
the handloom that we work on is so old, nani ki naniyo ke zamane ka hai. To get work done is not easy. It takes a lot of time.

To make one Assamese Mekhela Chadar, we need good 20 days. Moreover, women are not trained to market their products. They are not well versed with colors and do not appreciate the integrations and combinations that I want to try.

The society is rigid. Plain and simple. There are fixed colors for the men and a separate sect for the women. Women don the colors of males from time to time. But you shall never see a man in a woman’s color.

Even during the festivals, it’s the women who don their traditional dresses. The most a man does is wear a muffler!

My idea was to simply merge in the whole lot.
Some oppose some support. This is my experiment. The dream is to open a weaving destination. But the women weavers have their share of responsibilities and cannot always dedicate time to travel to the center. Some have toddlers, others are pregnant. So we work from home. They are so open.

Me: But it’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?

Roohi: I don’t know about that. But ROOHI is going exactly where I want it to be going. The idea is to get it mainstream and let the world embrace our clothing and textile.

The DImasa designs are tough. You cannot copy it. Just like our societal rigidity! (*and chuckles)
I plan to soon copyright and patent our designs. We stick to our cotton threads. Our products are not flashy with this chamak-dhamak. Dilli ki shad me toh hum fike hi pad jayenge.

Some people take our designs, travel to Guwahati to add the flashy silk stuff and replicate what they can from our work. This is not what we promote.Me: Talking about Delhi, you were living in Delhi before this and for a good number of years. Why return now?

Roohi: Oh yes. I was in Delhi. Lost in Delhi.

I was never happy. I worked at so many places ki resume dekh kar bologi, iss ladki ne ky akay anahi kiya! NGOs, photography, friends, ok social life, ok pay…

But there is always a vacuum. I remember staying awake till 3 in the night and dreaming of Haflong. “How would it be to design a saree?”, I would wonder. I got talking to my cousins who got in touch with the weavers. My mother thought I was crazy. No one was supportive. 2014, I left my job. I saved up and called my mother. ‘I am coming,’ I said.

“I don’t think I will ever leave Delhi,” I remember writing in my blog post. But look now!
Sab kuch bech kar, with 2 dogs by my side, I was back home.

Me: Your dogs!!! What’re their names?

Roohi: I have 7 now. It’s crazy.
Subah uth kar I wonder, abhi khud nahau ya inka susu poti saaf karu.

The mother and father are called Mastermind and Mogli. Their elder kids are Earth and Sudden.

Me: Sorry, but sudden?

Roohi: Arre suddenly nikal aayi. I come back home, and mastermind has delivered. Bas aise hi suddenly. That’s why.

Me: You are married too?

Roohi: Yes, it will be two years now in April. (I will complete one, I respond in excitement.)
But things haven’t changed.
Kab tak earrings banaogi? Doosre bachche UPSC ka exam de rahe hai.”

You know, the same old jazz. But I am done explaining. I am not earning a lot. But I earn enough. I am happy.

Me: The children today have wider options and their thirst to explore voyages beyond the boundaries of their parental reach. Do you think age old secrets and traditions like handloom weaving and maybe pickle making, get lost in generational transition?

Roohi: Everybody is entitled to a choice. The society shouldn’t talk about culture to stop somebody.
But I also think it is very important for the interest to be garnered in young minds. My sister, for example, has zero interest in Dimasa but has now developed a fondness for the weaves because of me.

The point is to not get them into weaving but finding an appreciation for their roots. It is very important for me to tell everyone how important weaving it and why it needs to be sustained.

I have an aunt who collaborates on designing earrings for ROOHI. The total freedom that we enjoy is such a privilege. She gets skeptical at times about her design. Junglee she calls it. But I have a look at it, and it’s jhakaas. Junglee is our essence. That aunt, who never made any jewelry for even herself, is finding immense joy in creating it for others now.

Me: What traditions that Dimasa continues to guard is its shortcoming?

Roohi: This hesitation to connect with the outsiders. Jaha hai khush hai. But it’s also a good thing you know.

I have always been a gaav ki ladki too. But ROOHI is bringing in more money for the families than they have ever earned. Their main source of income is from the Jhum cultivation. The pay is meager.

They have to understand to expand themselves.

Me: But they can also teach us city kids a lot, no?

Roohi: But on the other hand, we are connected to our roots. Sounds clichéd. But people love their land, water, and sky. They travel and disperse, not to earn money but to take care of our lands. Like the families of Longma Village.

Ye urban farming, sustainable living saara naya funda hai. People talk about it because you know attention is the new currency. They have been living it.

These people can fish, swim and build homes. What can we do?
There’s bamboo all around here. All I know is to burn them. These people build homes out of it.
They have found happiness inside. They have their lands and their food. Not like the dilli wale; itne chidchide hote hai because they have no lands, no nature to keep them happy.

This idea of development is very new. Our recent understanding of what development is and should be cannot be imposed on these people. People earn money to eat. They have enough of it to fill their tummies. In a way, rigidity has truly set them apart. Here, we are the kings our own lands.

Me: ROOHI is putting Dimasa on the National Map. How does it feel?

Roohi: It feels good. But I have a lot more to do. My biggest fear is what if I run out of ideas?
Then there is fear of death! This fear is pushing me and keeping me alive. I want to do more.
My dad suffered a stroke, and the doctor very casually said, this can recur anytime again in the future. I knew I had to live like it could be the end next moment.

Me: That’s a beautiful way to look at death. What a lovely conversation we have had Avantika! But before I let your dogs take you away, one last question. Your favorite piece of garment?

Roohi: To me, a garment has to have a story. I am a second-hand hoarder. For the big flashy brands, there’s always my sister. But I have always found love in the handed down clothes.

My mother in law was so funky in her college days. I look at all her clothes, and I read her story. I believe in recycle and reuse. With so many garments everywhere I never desired the high design fresh labels. Clothing is color. Just like my life.

My favorite piece of garment is my bridal dress that I got done by ROOHI.
Daniel’s favourite color is blue. And mine is yellow, dirty fellow! I merged the two to create something extra ordinary. I loved it. It raised so many eyebrows the day it dressed me up.
“aisa kyu karti hai. Nahi karna chahiye…”

You know. All that jazz.
But why should my clothes be boring?

And it was a farewell to a new friend.

For ROOHI and more, connect with this junglee, jhakaas woman .

Contact us for your story


Leave a Comment

  • JWB along with the brand Jewel Saga bring you a selfie contest inspired by the campaign AidToMaid.