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ANTS: Reviving The North-East

Posted: July 12, 2012

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The ANTS store in Bangalore supports artisans and women of the North-East by selling handicrafts and textiles from North-East India. 

By Kalpana Aravamuthu

This article was originally published at The Alternative – an online publication on social change and sustainable living.

To many Indians elsewhere, North East India is a huge blur. Our minds are filled with limiting presumptions – the people there are “Nepalis”, insurgents or tribals; they migrate to metros to work in beauty parlours or as gurkhasThe ANTS store in Indiranagar, Bangalore, gently chides one not to make such pat judgements. 

An oasis of cream, bamboo-brown, and black, located off the commercially bustling 100-ft Road in Indiranagar, The Ants, at first glance simply looks like a store with pleasant aesthetics. It has Eri silk shawls, kauna reed mats, black pottery from the Tangkhul Naga tribes of Manipur, baskets, trinkets and jewellery. And then you notice the boards which highlight the different kinds of weaves from each part of the North East – the extra warp in the weaves of the Bodos, the red, yellow, green, and black colours of the Mishing textiles of Assam, the leaf tips curling in a loop motif of the Mizo textiles. Bright photos of people from the 7 sisters adorn the walls. Little tidbits of the process and the people behind the products are displayed around the shop.

Creating inclusive spaces and spreading awareness of North-East India

This is not a happy coincidence – it is part of a concerted effort by The Ants to create a space which generates positive stories about the North-East. Last year, they hosted twenty-five events – a Manipuri food festival, discussions on the Naga peace process, a discussion with Ramachandra Guha aptly titled ‘NorthEasting the Mainstream’, book readings by authors from the North-East, and a Naga musical event. These evenings were funded by FST (Foundation for Social Transformation) and run by an intern hailing from Manipur named Thomas. The folks at The Ants also build connections in smaller ways, like encouraging the north-eastern students in Bangalore to include outsiders in their cultural events and discussions, or helping an intern study the experiences of north-easterners based in Bangalore.

The Ants store is an offshoot of ‘The ANT’ (The Action North East Trust), a registered NGO based in the Chirang district of Assam. The parent organization works in over 90 villages in the newly formed Bodo administered district, focusing on health, sustainability and empowerment of the community. They train barefoot doctors, build awareness on RTI, ration cards and the like, network NGOs of the northeast with mainstream NGOs, provide microfinance for agriculture and focus on youth employability.

The parent organization works in over 90 villages in the newly formed Bodo administered district, focusing on health, sustainability and empowerment of the community.

Part of the charter is to turn the available skills of the most resource-deprived, such as women and the landless, into livelihood opportunities. The weaving program started with the poor women of the Bodo tribe in 2002, involving more than a hundred women weavers, 80% of whom were poor and debt stricken when they entered the program.

A weaver administered Trust called the Aagor Daagra Afad (design weavers group) was also formed, selling products under the brand name Aagor. The women weavers work from home rather than a central location – because weaving is seen as a leisure activity, and is interwoven with their lives. No training is required since every woman weaves; a proper selection mechanism however ensures that deserving BPL people are benefitted. By March 2008, more than Rs.15 million in sales had generated wages of more than Rs.5 million for the rural people! With the money and stocks already transferred to the Trust, the plan is to slowly transition to a model where the Trust functions independently.

The Ants’ barefoot designers work with artisans in the north-east to provide marketing, costing, design-colour and style inputs. The organisation has moved beyond a single point of sales stage – products are sold at the store, supplied wholesale to FabIndia, Keystone in Ooty and other like-minded organizations; or exported. They are a fair trade organisation – artisans sign an MOU that they will abide by fair-trade norms like no child labour, minimum wages and so on. They are also a non-profit, so any money that is made goes back to the artisans.

The ANTS store: growing from humble beginnings

The store owes its existence to Smitha Murthy and Pradeep Krishnappa, who take care of the creative and management aspects. A textile designer from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Smitha first met the Bodo weavers during an internship in 2002. The Bodo tribe then was in conflict with the rest of the people and the women were the most affected. Smitha started working with these women to give them a platform to earn a living from their craft and also to counter negativity. Eventually, Smitha quit her job with a Bangalore textile company, went back to Assam, and started finance, marketing and counselling services for the weavers there. 3 years into its existence, the 300 weaver strong ANTS then decided to set up shop in Bangalore.

The warp and weft, colours, motifs of the shawls speak volumes about the wearer – is it a woman? Is she married? Which tribe does she come from?

Smitha, also an Aagor trustee, is a fount of knowledge about the North East. She shares little nuggets of information as I sit with her in the sunlit café atop the store. The warp and weft, colours, motifs of the shawls speak volumes about the wearer – is it a woman? Is she married? Which tribe does she come from? Tripura’s work is influenced by Dhaka, but the others do not have much cross-border influences. The mug in front of me looks glazed, but is actually created by rubbing with a seed. The mats to our right were stuck at shipping for 6 months due to insurgency issues, and created a “how to pay the supplier” problem.

When I leave the store, I buy a basket. I feel a sense of kinship with the woman, who in the midst of taking care of her children and family, made time to create a product and earn some money out of it. This connection between buyer and seller is one of the positive side-effects of the work of The ANTS.

Contact: Smitha Murthy, Pradeep Krishnappa
Tele: 080 41521742 / 41715639
Email: [email protected]

*Photo credit: Kalpana.

About The Author: When not looking for software bugs in her day job, Kalpana enjoys: inventing dishes like 'zucchini mor-kolumbini', singing Geeta Dutt songs, running 5 miles every other day, and shaking a leg to Bollywood tunes. Her autobiography, coming soon to a store near you, is called a "A Bellyful of Laughs". Disclosure: Er, the last part, like all good bios, is padded for effect.

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