Weaving and loom work comes naturally to Sagolsem Ningol Mangkhom Ongbi Jibonmala, proprietor of Imphal Handloom. As a child she grew up watching her mom, aunt and everyone around her weave their own stories in these traditional looms. And when it was her turn to look for a passion instead of her mundane 9-5 government job, she knew what her calling was.
Her sprightly personality and entrepreneurial skills have managed to give employment to thousands of weaver over the past decade and we were in awe to finally meet this lady who dedicated her soul to the cause of Manipuri Handloom. Leaving her secure government job to pursue her love for weaving and handloom, she has managed to bring the spotlight to Manipur made Clothing and other accessories in a new way. ManipuriWeddings drop by at Imphal Handloom, Kongba to look for some inspiration and we weren’t disappointed.
MW: Ma’am we have heard a lot about you but how would you like to describe yourself?
Jibonmala: I would say I am someone who can ditch books for weaving. That’s how much I love weaving and handloom. I was a keen weaver as a child and loved the company of my aunts and mother who would weave all day long.
MW: So do you think you were destined to this job or how did Imphal handloom came about?
Jibonmala: The fact that I love handloom is very clear but in our days, there was also this pressure to get into a 9 to 5 job. And I followed everyone else and took up a job but as expected, I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing. So I started looking for other ways to earn money to sustain the family in a respectable manner; it hit me then that something respectable, something which is our own, something which I would be proud of is Handloom. I told everyone about my decision and they were reluctant at first but eventually they gave in. It all started with a small shop at Gambhir Singh Shopping complex under the name Ineton’s Women Corner. It’s funny, I wasn’t thinking about the Brand or the marketability but just took my mother’s name. While I juggled between my office work and the business, my mother managed the shop single-handedly in my absence. Much later, I found out about the need for registering a business and other things. So, one of our leikai ebung helped me register my shop as Imphal Handloom. And since then there was no turning back.
MW: It’s easier said then done. You must have faced a lot of hardship to come to this level.
Jibonmala: True. The kind of market that we were in, it was a lot more difficult. When I started working with the banks, I realised the problems of our working style. In our style of working a weaver will bring a product and ask me to give them money that instant then there are other times when they won’t finish a product on time but want money because they have a sick child or that they don’t have enough to eat. And I can’t give them cheque. The cheque is not going to buy them food or medicine that instant. It’s a long procedure. Then the banks have a problem with this style of working. This always resulted in heated arguments with the bank I was involved with. I wish they would understand a bit and relax the rules a bit according to the clients. And then there are the negative criticism.
One thing about starting a new business and doing something good is that there will be many people who will try to pull you down. You should never succumb to that. You will have to overcome all the negativities and move towards the goal.
MW: That’s so rightly put. But so far so good. One thing which we noticed is that handloom products are comparatively expensive. So, how do you adjust the price of Handloom products so as to maintain the balance between affordable yet profitable?
Jibonmala: Handloom will always be a bit costlier than Power loom as the later produce more clothes in a short span of time. You see the amount of work that we put in in one product is enormous. The details and the designs, etc. It is time-consuming as well as takes a lot more time than power loom. But we try to balance this out by introducing a range for every category of products we have. I have to calculate for the expense in different levels with a wee bit of additional charges. So, I try hard to balance between these do factors.
MW: So, what’s next for Imphal Handloom?
Jibonmala: At Imphal Handloom, the idea is to avoid using clothes or materials which are sourced from outside Manipur and so we have tried to cover every aspect of clothing material which human require in a lifetime. Like I said, you can get every clothing item you need right from birth to death. From ningtha to leirom, pala phi, wangkhei kanghan, bedsheets, kandha, even kuthi phi and the langra. Now my mind is looking for new inspirations.
MW: How do you get inspiration for new ideas?
Jibonmala: I love coming up with new ideas! Sometimes I don’t sleep thinking about it… hahaha… I get inspired by the nature around me; birds, clouds, flowers, just about anything that I find beautiful in nature. Sometimes it makes me crazy; I can never rest until I get that design done.
MW: Can we know what’s sprouting in your mind?
Jibonmala: I am trying to get the design of Nachom. A lei-nachom which has the details of the wild flowers and yet is very subtle.
MW: Oh! we love nachom and we are definitely looking forward to that. So coming to designs, how do you decide on designs for a particular season and how do you market your products? Do you also weave old designs?
Jibonmala: Most of my designs are based on the traditional designs and even if it’s new design it is based it on indigenous ones. We also do contemporary designs like the flower motifs but we try to avoid those which are considered inauspicious. These days the market is flooded with all sorts of designs and some even don’t know that they are not suppose to wear them to certain occasions.
One thing we maintain is indigeneity and keep up with the tradition. I do not sell kumjingbi for it is not to be kept even in your cupboard or worn to any auspicious events. It is sad that people in the name of fashion are doing things without even thinking twice. As people in the profession, we have to inform those who do not know.
MW: So this is what is unique about Imphal Handloom? Or what do you consider is the most unique feature about the Imphal Handloom products?
Jibonmala: We have a trademark on the product and we make every clothes a little bigger than the standard length. Be it the khudei, the bedsheet, it is slightly bigger than the standard size that you find in the market.
MW: Coming to sales part, is there a peak season for selling handloom. Is there a sale difference between wedding season and off season?
Jibonmala: Yes, there are more sales in wedding season but since I have the clothes and things for occasions from birth till death, the sale is consistent in some way.
MW: About the wedding season, do you produce customised inaphi or phanek for brides or bridesmaids?
Jibonmala: I used to but I don’t do it now for many reasons. Since our production largely depends on a few hands, we face a lot of problem with customisation. There are times when someone falls sick and is not able to meet the deadline and I have to take over the loom. And it is very stressful.
MW: What about ordering from your own designs?
Jibonmala: I don’t take the order for the only reason that I am scared of not giving that order on time. We cannot predict illness or accidents and when I cannot deliver the orders on time, the reputation of Imphal Handloom is hurt. It’s not about pride or that we consider ourselves as big but just for the above stated reason.
MW: So if I were to shop for my Wedding Trousseau then what is the starting budget for Imphal Handloom?
Jibonmala: Oh that I haven’t calculated for everything but Inaphi for bride starts from Rs. 14,000 and can go upto Rs. 20,000/- but there are those who likes something nice yet not very expensive. So we keep every range and style. If you are thinking of an entire ensemble then it would come up to Rs. 50,000/-.
MW: I think that’s the normal range everywhere in the market. But you do have a separate collection for the groom too right?
Jibonmala: Kokyet, Pheijom, Langra for the Bor phampham. Then we also have both cotton and silk material for the kurta. Normal mulberry cotton is becoming very popular these days.
And since we are talking wedding, I must tell you we even make kuthi phi, pala phi; everything and anything you need for a Meitei wedding.
MW: Last but not the least, you mentioned that a new product is launched or added to the collection every foundation day, so how do you decide on which product to add?
Jibonmala: Our foundation day which falls between 25th to 30th August is very special for us. I always try to make it special by introducing a new product and I decide based on the utility of the product. A products which can be used in our day – to – day life. I try to think of what the handloom made clothes can make which will be useful. For instance, I added readymade clothes last year. This year I am thinking of launching a different type of bed sheet and other furnishing materials.
MW: Oh, can’t wait to see the new bed-sheet design. We are looking forward to it. And Thanks ma’am, thank you so much for your time and all the best.
Jibonmala: Good Luck to you too.
This interview was executed for Manipuri Weddings by Nikita Laipubam! You can read more about her here.