Future Is Handmade: Jesmina Zeliang Strives To Represent North East India Through Artisans

Jesmina Zeliang
Jesmina Zeliang truly believes that the ‘Future is handmade’. She immensely trusted that bringing together traditional textiles and the power of artisans could uplift local livelihoods and increase higher stakes of recognition the northeastern region deserves. In the nearly 90s, her vision led her to start Heirloom Naga, a textile firm based in Dimapur, Nagaland. Becoming one of the first businesses from North East to find a space in international markets, Zeliang’s endeavours have put her state on the world map. From starting with one weaver to building a huge community, Zeliang has come a long way in empowering local women and generating employment for those in need.

As a single parent, Zeliang understands what it takes to raise a child in this fast-pacing world on her own and, therefore, vouches for the of power financial independence. A strength, she says, she is always focussed on passing on to as many women as she can locally.

Jesmina Zeliang manages several projects when she is not producing her own products or working with local craftspeople. She is the owner and founder of Cane Concepts, as well as a founding partner of Konyak, a North-East speciality store with locations in Guwahati and Dibrugarh. She also co-founded Razhü Pru, a heritage hotel in Kohima, Nagaland. In 2018, she was elected as the first woman president of the Indian Handicrafts and Gift Fair as a member of the Committee of Administration of the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH). As someone who dons several hats, what keeps her going is the constant lookout for new opportunities which she knows will allow her to empower more people in the value chain.

In an interview with SheThePeople, Jesmina Zeliang talks about the inspiration behind Heirloom Naga, why it’s crucial to back local artisans, how financial independence changes the game for women and why a blend of traditional and modern art matters.

Excerpts from Jesmina Zeliang Interview

You introduced innovative textiles from Nagaland to the world with Heirloom Naga. What led you to enter the textile business?

To begin with, I really had no plans to venture into the textiles business, given the fact that I didn’t have the foggiest idea about the weft or the warp or designing. My simple observation and appreciation of the traditional textiles, coupled with the awareness that although our textiles were much appreciated, they didn’t really have any relevance to others outside the state, led me to spontaneously connect with a weaver.

The initial collection of soft furnishings found great favour in the market from day one, giving me the confidence to explore further. In no time, I was already working with 50-plus women weavers in the same year. Later on, this awareness of empowering women brought out a missionary zeal in me, enabling the small start-up to be audacious enough to source for markets outside the country.

“It dawned on me that these traditional textiles, which were given a contemporary twist had the scope to further the livelihood options of women.”

What were the primary challenges when you started growing the organisation?

The biggest challenges arguably were finding a constant market, providing uninterrupted work to the ever-growing community of weavers and, of course, achieving standardised production. Other than that, being the first ones from Nagaland to be selling outside the country, we had to learn and unlearn on the job, what with hardly any structure for exports in the state.

Local artisans now have the space to work from their homes instead of working long-cruel hours at factories in big cities. Was this also another conscious choice to not just employ women but also support their lives by offering them work-from-home opportunities?

What once seemed like a shortcoming, has now proved to be a major contributor to empowering women directly. They have the liberty of working within their comfort zone and following their own work timings. This advantage of working from home has been instrumental in our business growth. In Naga society, only women weave! It is considered taboo for men to work on the loom. So in that sense, we see ourselves championing women’s empowerment in a big way at Heirloom Naga.

“We understood very early that if we wanted to collaborate with more women, we would not be able to do so if we displaced them. To our benefit, the loin-loom or the back strap loom is the most flexible loom in weaving and can be set up anywhere.”

Artists in Nagaland are seen working from their own spaces at home.

The intention of making women stakeholders in their capacity is a great step. What changes have you seen with respect to this in the state?

Financial independence allows one to find their voice is heard, and to find a place at the table. As a single parent myself, I can testify to this basic truth. It’s a sheer joy to see our women being able to contribute to the well-being of their families, particularly children’s education.

“Financial Independence allows one to find their voice is heard, and to find a place at the table. As a single parent myself, I can testify to this basic truth.”

What has impacted Heirloom Naga’s growth all these years?

From finding their own style to staying original, from recognising everything the homeland offers to access the right business partners overseas, we aim to strike the right chord with market intelligence. These components have immensely impacted the organisation’s growth all these years.

Art is the centre of all creations. As someone in the industry, how has art impacted your way of operating as a professional in this business?

It’s taken me almost three decades to be where I am and, slowly, I can see more people have begun to appreciate art and craft which are made by using traditional practices. My perseverance has paid off and today I am able to develop products by understanding the market and being a craft influencer. I have also understood that we must have a clear-cut distinction between traditional crafts vs modern crafts designs. Traditional crafts need to be promoted and preserved at all costs but, at the same time, to increase our business capacity, we need to be trending. Hence, the need to constantly study the market and evolve.

How do you think job sectors and governments can collectively help empower women from marginalised communities?

To provide uninterrupted work to women is our number one priority, which I think should transcend across all sectors of job providers. As for the government, the priority should be on providing adequately equipped working conditions and access to education and healthcare.

As a female leader, how do you suggest the Indian market can empower more women in leadership positions?

As female leaders, we can encourage more women to aspire for leadership positions by being sensitive to business practices, and by being empathetic to other women. Understanding the needs and aspirations of women primarily is the first step to going about it. Once we connect with their humane side, we will be able to grow together.

Coming to the Indian market For instance, the big lifestyle stores and corporations in the business sector could put aside a certain percentage of their buying pattern to buy only from women-led businesses. This will automatically see a spurt in production.

“As female leaders, we can encourage more women to aspire for leadership positions by being sensitive to business practices, and by being empathetic to other women.”

What advice would you give women on their path to entrepreneurship in the field as yours?

Find your own signature, be original and, above all, remember that an empowered woman can empower many more women along the way.

“Always remember that an empowered woman can empower many more women along the way.”

Zeliang photo credit: David Bailey

Suggested Reading: How Urmila Asher Started Her Food Business at 77

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