Re-imagining the design of a centuries-old dress appeared to be far-fetched. It seemed too simple to work: update the phanek, a traditional Manipuri wrapping skirt to a more modern, stylish fashion. But what started out as an ambitious idea between five determined manipur women blossomed into a lucrative business that none of them could fathom.
The countless villages that dot the Manipuri landscape are remote. Locals have built their houses so eight or nine families can live together in one compound, encircling a common garden in the middle. These mini-villages are found throughout rural Manipur. This co-dependent living allows everyone to trust their neighbours as they share the same facilities day in, day out. They have faith that when a financial or personal problem arises, their neighbours will be there to support them. And that’s how the ‘Purnima Lup’ group came to form an idea that would change their lives.
The mini-compound they live in has fostered an atmosphere full of warmth and joy. This is evident within a few minutes of interacting with the group members: Geetanjali, Ganga, Bino, Riyabharti and Bindiya. But, there’s a more recent reason for the laughter and camaraderie always on display with these women: the financial success they have enjoyed over the past year.
Bindiya is a shy, soft-spoken individual. She wistfully gazes into the distance for a few seconds and then carefully proceeds to share her story. Eighteen months ago, Bindiya, like most women in Manipur, depended on her husband for income. What came from the petty shop she ran or her independent weaving business was always insufficient. The profits she made were just enough to pay back the local money lender; she was in crippling debt to him. With her children attending school, she was afraid of having them to stop and make them work. Bindiya, like the others in the group, was illiterate. The five of them can barely write their names, and this narrowed their options of work.
The art of weaving came as a common skill for all the women in the Purnima Lup group. But how were they to generate more income? And if so, how much could they contribute? These questions plagued them daily. Bindiya and Geetanjali, who would sell their products at the market, would notice how all the other weavers in the region, perhaps all of Manipur, designed the same products. If they were to achieve their dreams, these five women knew they had to be different. They knew they had to set themselves apart.
The first idea of selling their wares was going to Imphal, the capital of Manipur, 40kms away from their village. This idea was rejected as the competition would only be higher there. Another member suggested going further East near the Myanmar border, but no-one wanted to undertake that journey. It was Bino who spoke of a family member in Nagaland. A contact can only go so far. And other women in Manipur may have similar contacts. This idea appeared futile. Over the course of the next few months, the women realised that the phaneks and enefees everyone made lacked originality and were practically carbon copies of one another.
So, the women toyed with the idea to create their own designs. Using what was instilled in them from a young age, they weaved the traditional Manipuri attire but changed a little part of the design here and there. They started it off by being subtle, but before long, this seedling of creativity had flowered. Bindiya and the other four members were now creating unique designs while maintaining the traditional aspects of the clothes.
Unsure of whether to approach the neighbouring states yet, they tested their products in the local markets first. All of their phaneks sold within a short period. Within a month, they had earned an extra profit of Rs. 1,700 each. Fresh off their success, the women decided to get in touch with Bino’s contact in Dimapur.
Today, Bindiya weaves languidly and leisurely. She farms in the morning and weaves in the afternoon. The group’s products are in high demand across Manipur, Nagaland and now Tripura. Each of the five women now earns a minimum extra profit of Rs. 10,000 per month. They have, at least, an order every two weeks. On top of their other income streams, this financial gain has enhanced their lives. Rather than toiling away for long hours a day at various jobs, they can dedicate more of their time to the farms.
A simple idea a year ago has bloomed into fruition. It has enriched all of their lives and has eradicated their dependence on financial institutions or any local money lender. Their new goal is to have their products sold all over India. For these ambitious women, now, no dream seems too far.
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