This Padmashree winner started knitting Manipuri shoes out of poverty and now dominates global markets

Manipur is a region that is rich in traditional arts and crafts but mostly lay dormant due to lack of accessibility, resources etc. The people living in the villages of Manipur keep their arts alive in the smallest means possible, and few others rely on the traditionally practiced arts for sustenance.

Mukutmoni Moirangthem from Kakching City is one such woman who was first pushed to revive the Manipuri style of knitting due to poverty. Three decades later, she maintains a large-scale production line of Manipuri knitted shoes out of love for the art. His shoes now have a market not only in Manipur but also abroad.

Picked up knitting in desperation

Moirangthem is a 64-year-old mother from Kakching who was married at the age of 16 by her widowed mother. She got her knitting needles back about three decades ago because she couldn’t afford to buy new shoes for her daughter who was going to school. Overwhelmed by poverty, she turned to the traditional craft of Manipuri shoe knitting and said, “I had no money at the time and had to constantly repair the shoes. So I retired the upper of the shoe and replaced it with a hand-knitted one that I made with the yarn that was left over after knitting mufflers and socks.”

Besides that, she said many other women in the area used to knit woolen socks and mufflers at home, and Moirangthem did the same for her three children every time she came back. of his work in the rice fields.

The shoes she sewed managed to stand out from all the others and quickly caught the eye of a teacher at the school her daughter attended. “That’s how it all started,” said Moirangthem, quoted in an article by the New Indian Express.

Soon she started working with more people and went from simple handheld tools to much more efficient tools for increased production. The hand-knit shoes began to attract attention and were spotted by army personnel deployed in the area. These personnel played a pivotal role in transporting Manipuri footwear outside of Manipur.

Army men had expressed their fascination with the product and often continued to order from Moirangthem. Emboldened by the response she received, she then established her company Mukta Shoes Industry, in 1990. Showing her products at trade fairs and different cities, she gradually picked up the momentum of the market and placed her knitted products on the hand in the center of this.

Taking craftsmanship to greater heights

“My shoes were a big hit at Imphal. They then went to a fair at the Pragati Maidan in New Delhi in 1997, where I sold 1,500 pairs in just five days,” said Moirangthem, who now handles orders. on a large scale that come along from Kolkata in Japan.

There are fans around the world for her hand-knit shoes, and orders continue to pour in from countries like Japan, Russia, Singapore and Dubai through a Delhi-based middleman. The essence of the product has remained intact regardless of the growth in supply, and she tells how she sources the wool and yarn locally as well as in towns like Ludhiana.

About 20 people, mostly women, are employed by it, and even with the increase in human resources, it is becoming difficult to meet the growing demand. She tells how hand-knitting adult-sized shoes takes about four days to complete by one person. Prices reflect the effort required to knit the shoes and range from ₹500 for a baby to ₹2,000 for adults.

However, the traditional art form comes with its own set of challenges, and she says, “Shoe inventory is needed to fulfill all the random orders from online stores. We have to be ready for different models, sizes and colors if we want to grow. Financial constraints and lack of resources hinder this type of growth for traditional artisans.

This is also one of her craft-related fears, as she says larger companies with better resources could pull out traditional crafts and mass-produce them at cheaper rates. Not only would this take away the exclusivity of wearing a craft, but the art would also lose its meaning.

Moirangthem, who recently learned about the patent procedure, said she would like to see the device one day patented in the state of Manipur and in her hometown of Kakching. She believes the art form would then remain forever tied to the land where she learned it.

Adding to this, she was quoted saying, “Someday, someday I will not be able to make these shoes. Unless a proper mechanism is created, the craft will eventually be lost. The thought breaks me the heart.” To keep the art alive and rooted, she wants to set up a training center where the craft can be taught to young people and teach them to be autonomous.

Her entrepreneurial spirit and efforts to empower poor women and youth in Manipur have been recognized by the government, which awarded her the Padmashree in 2022 for her art.

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