An IDBM Industry Project student team went on a two week field research trip to Guwahati, India to learn about the local silk weaving industry. Together with students from the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati we visited the local Sualkuchi silk village and learned about different stakeholders.
Our IDBM team - Emilia Sundqvist (business background), Helena Mäeorg (design background), Nicha Tantitavewat (design background), Tommy Vanhanen (tech background) went to India to uncover the tensions and problems existing in the complex ecosystem of Sualkuchi through different stakeholders and processes.
Before traveling to India, all of us were very excited but also nervous, as it was the first time for all of us. We knew that everything was going to be completely different, but we still didn’t know what to expect. Prior to the trip, we did try to gather as much information about the Sualkuchi silk industry, but there were only a few, limited resources available as much of the knowledge about this industry had been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Thus, we had quite an obscure idea about the context of the project, and accepted the fact that we would actually get to know more about this project once we arrived in Guwahati. So, we went to India with an open mind and prepared to dive into the unknown.
We had quite an obscure idea about the context of the project, and accepted the fact that we would actually get to know more about this project once we arrived in Guwahati. So, we went to India with an open mind and prepared to dive into the unknown.
We landed in Guwahati on February 3rd, and coming from the Finnish winter, 30C in India felt refreshing. The first evening we took a trip to the IIT Guwahati campus where a local student festival Alcheringa was taking place. We were greeted by live music and local street food. During our first weekend in Guwahati we explored the city, visited temples and enjoyed the festival on campus. The weekend highlight was definitely the performance by a local Bollywood duo by Vishal – Shekhar. It was great to have the first weekend to explore as we experienced many new things during our first days in India.
Alcheringa Festival at IIT Campus
On Monday we met with our local student team and attended Design lectures in IIT Guwahati. The local students were extremely welcoming, showing us around the campus and taking us to lunch in the local restaurants. We noticed many differences compared to teaching in Aalto, one example being that classes were taken by Bachelor's, Master’s and PhD students together. The IIT Guwahati campus was very comparable to Aalto Otaniemi campus, there were many student restaurants, dorms and sports facilities and on some days we managed to walk around 12 km on campus just by going around.
Left picture: IIT Faculty and Students. Right picture: Visiting the city of Sualkuchi
For our field research, we joined the local students and traveled to a local silk village called Sualkuchi. It was nothing like we imagined. Surrounded by paddy fields and coconut groves, the Brahmaputra River flows alongside the village. Every alley in Sualkuchi is filled with houses, silk stores, and handloom stations. On our first visit, we had a chance to see the overall process of making silk, from the harvesting of the silkworms to the beautiful finished product, which gave us a better understanding of what we were working on. After coming back from the first field research, we realized there was still so much we didn’t know and that the problems were intertwined among different stakeholders. Information that we gained from each stakeholder also contradicted each other, which left us even more confused. Thus, we tried to choose our focus area, come up with assumptions and questions for different stakeholders in the next field research.
On our second visit to Sualkuchi, we attended a lecture about the Sualkuchi silk industry at the Sualkuchi Budram Madhab Satradhikar College, which was very beneficial to our project. As these people have worked with the community closely, they gave us multiple perspectives about the problem in the industry, from both the government's and community’s standpoints. We then also got to interview multiple stakeholders, ranging from store owners to the weavers, with the help of translation from IIT students. Interviewing the weavers and getting to witness the weaving process was the most eye-opening experience for us. The entire process is delicate, slow, and requires a lot of dedication as everything is done by hand, without the use of any modern machinery. The weavers don’t have a strict schedule of working hours which they mostly come to work after finishing house chores at noon and work until late at night. Most of them work in a challenging environment. The working stations are mostly cramped and poorly ventilated. We saw how it can make the work of weaving uncomfortable and difficult.
The field research gave us a lot of insights and undeniably left us feeling overwhelmed. It challenged our prior assumptions and made us realize that the existing problems are very complex as most businesses in Sualkuchi follow their long-standing traditions and do things their own way. There is chaos in the system and a lack of modernization, whether it be in the weaving process, marketing, sales, or design. For example, the promotion and marketing for Sualkuchi silk are nonexistent. It is known among a niche group of people who are actively engaged in and involved in the handloom industry. The traditional designs and patterns used in Sualkuchi silk fabrics have remained the same for centuries, and there has been little effort to adapt to changing customer preferences or to market the products beyond the local area. This has limited the market for Sualkuchi silk fabrics and has hindered the growth of the industry. It left us thinking: What would be the best way to tackle these issues? Which stakeholders should we focus on? Which problem would be the most impactful to work on? How could we contribute our skills to solving these problems?
The field research challenged our prior assumptions and made us realize that the existing problems are very complex as most businesses in Sualkuchi follow their long-standing traditions and do things their own way. There is chaos in the system and a lack of modernization, whether it be in the weaving process, marketing, sales, or design.
Left picture: Traditional Handloom Premises. Right picture: Handloom working
The trip had brought a cultural shock upon us all, but most importantly it taught us to stay open to new cultures and experiences. Seeing and experiencing the Northeastern Indian culture and way of life gave us a chance to get out of our own comfort zone and reflect on our thinking patterns. Before immersing ourselves into the wonderful culture which existed in Northeastern India, we were unaware of all the insights we would gain for our research. The field research we did in the Sualkuchi village brought us to the realization of how important it is to get to know a topic up and close before making specific assumptions. Most of our assumptions done purely through online research brought us nowhere near the amount of knowledge we gained from the IIT Guwahati and the local workers and actors in the silk industry of Sualkuchi. What we learnt was that it is safe to assume that you know nothing until proven wrong.
Seeing and experiencing the Northeastern Indian culture and way of life gave us a chance to get out of our own comfort zone and reflect on our thinking patterns.