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Men Weaver
Kelzang Lhundrup, one of Bhutan's few men weavers
Kelzang Lhundrup
Strapped to the loom among a row of women weavers, eyes focusing intensely and fingers working nimbly on some silk motifs, Kelzang Lhundrup cuts a rather odd picture. Even in the land of weaving and textiles, a man at the loom is not a common sight. The 43-year old, however, feels pretty much at home at the loom where he has woven thousands of kiras and ghos in a career spanning 35 years.

One of Bhutan's few men weavers and designers and perhaps the most recognized, Kelzang he 'secretly picked up' weaving from his grandmother who raised him and who had 'quite a reputation for her weaving skills' in Bartsham, a prosperous Trashigang village.

Keeping Bhutan's textile tradition alive

"I started fiddling around with yarn when I was about six years," Kelzang recalls fondly. "By seven I was getting into the loom whenever my grandmother went on some errands or worked in the field." He also "listened with breath held tight in his chest" when she taught a "thoroughly disinterested" cousin. He started weaving clothes that "could be worn" from the age of eight. At 14 he was selected by his gup to attend a year-long training at the handloom development center in Khaling. He was the only boy among 13 girls and, to make the distinction even wider, he topped the group. There has been no looking back since then.
Today his clientele will surely make it to Bhutan's who's who. He lists members of the royal family, cabinet ministers, senior bureaucrats and their aums, and the business elite among his up-market customers. And for someone who has not even studied the alphabet, he has done well.

Gagyel Lhundrup weaving centre

Kelzang Lhundrup owns Gagyel Lhundrup weaving centre, perhaps Bhutan's first commercial textile weaving centre using the backstrap loom, which employs around 20 weavers. The centre sells kiras and ghos woven from terri-cotton as well as those from pure silk.

Silk kiras and ghos, which are generally custom-made, range from Nu. 7,500 to 80,000. The terri-cotton ones, in which the centre does a roaring business, range from Nu. 1,200 to 4,500. He has bigger plans for the future. He wants to open a showroom that will sell ensembles of hand-woven women's and men's wear designed by him.
Kelzang's focus and primary interest areas are pesar kiras and ghos. He says designing pesar clothes gives him artistic satisfaction since there is no limit to the range and variety of designs. "Imagination is the only limit," says Kelzang, who picks up design ideas from nature, such as flowers, and imported attires and fabrics besides improvising traditional designs. "Pesar clothes are a rage in the market today. Everybody wants and wears pesar."
Kelzang capped his three and a half decade career by winning the Nu 50,000 prize for best pesar design in the national design competition this year. He had missed the title last year when he managed only a third position although he had won the second prize for traditional design."This is the crowning glory of my career," he beams. Although many Bhutanese would frown upon the idea of men taking up weaving, Kelzang feels that men weavers are not ostracized."At least I haven't encountered any resentment," he says. "People want to wear my clothes and I am proud of what I do."

A family enterprise

This passion is also shared by Kelzang's two elder daughters who assist him when they are not preoccupied with a different brand of designing of their own. The two sisters, who won for best 'innovative design' last year and claimed the second prize this year, are into modern 'western style' fashion designing and have begun a range of clothing called 'Bhutanity'. "The traditional and western blend creates absolutely stunning wear," says Kelzang excitedly, convinced that there "definitely" is an export market if "designs were done well and correctly". He in fact plans to send his daughters to study fashion designing.

Kelzang, who "cannot imagine making a living any other way", wants to do "whatever he can" to keep Bhutan's textile tradition alive. "It is a totally unique art," he says. "May be I am too emotionally attached but I feel there is no equal to our weaving and textiles. Our kiras and ghos are the best dresses in the world. I want to go on making them look even more appealing and beautiful till the day I die."

This article was contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper

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