On realising that people are forgetting all about Northeast India's hidden crafts, Assam’s Julie Kagti founded ‘Curtain Call Adventures’ for travellers who want to immerse themselves in the region's culture.
In the Salmore village of Majuli, the first island district in India, Binu Bhorali sits hard at work. As a fascinated crowd gathers to watch Binu deftly mould clay into beautiful handicrafts, the smile on the potter’s face is unmissable. Her attention to detail is unflinching as the watchers try to capture this intricate magic on their smartphones.
“People enjoy seeing us at work.” Binu’s thrill at having an audience is clear. She goes on, “We feel happy to show them our pottery skills. Some come forward and try their hands at it, and some others take pictures. Some offer us a token of money for showing them our art.”
This time, it is not a random group that has stumbled upon Binu’s craft. It is part of a curated Northeast tour that promises a detailed exploration opportunity of its hidden arts. This is one of many such packages curated by Julie Kagti, a designer from Assam, in an endeavour to put these hidden crafts on the map.
The 52-year-old is the founder of Curtain Call Adventures, an experiential travel platform curating packages for people wanting to explore the Northeast. She tells The Better India how vacationers usually fall into two groups — those looking for the familiar holiday experience, sightseeing, tropical beaches and sands, and the other lot wanting to take the road less travelled.
Personally, she identified with the latter.
‘The Northeast is more than its waterfalls’
Two significant childhood events contributed to this love. With her roots in Digboi, Assam, hours spent amid the lush tea plantations meant Julie grew up harbouring a fond love for nature. While the outdoors held a certain magical draw, at home, she’d attentively watch her grandmother weave. So when it was time to dive into the corporate world, it came as no surprise when she chose design.
Twenty-five years in the textile industry in Mumbai and Bengaluru shaped Julie’s journey significantly. But it was only in 2015 when she had kids that she recalls feeling a sense of deeper purpose.
“Having loved the Northeast so much, I would travel with my kids there every winter and trace down the different crafts, weaving patterns, etc. But through the years, I noticed that the region was changing and crafts were getting diluted. Indigenous people were moving out as they found jobs in cities and tradition was dying.”
As the region’s traditional crafts were beginning to mutate, Julie was driven by an afflatus to introduce her kids to this world before they completely disappeared. The seed was sown for Curtain Call Adventures.
In Julie’s Words, “I wanted people to be able to witness the traditional way of life in the Northeast regions before the curtain comes down on them.”
There are opportunities galore at Curtain Call Adventures, which was launched in 2017.
Guests can explore the Forest of Deity in Meghalaya — an untouched sacred grove spanning 78 hectares of land; the Sepahijala Sanctuary in Tripura — home to leopards; or sip a cup of green smoky tea in Assam in the town of Margherita (named after the Italian queen also synonymous with the pizza). These are some of the numerous experiential packages curated by Julie.
A major part of her work is inking the right partnerships with the locals in the Northeast so that both city folk, as well as these artisans, can benefit from the packages.
“A lot of people wanting to visit the Northeast would ask me to put them in touch with travel agents,” says a bemused Julie. “Here they would be taken to waterfalls, to watch rhinos and sunsets and other touristy things. But I wondered why no one was including visits to the local villages or walks into the forests.”
Today she says ‘immersive experiences’ have become a keyword with people looking beyond resorts and beaches, into cultural horizons. Alongside building a platform that encouraged experiences under this gamut, Julie says a core aim was also to highlight and encourage rural development in these places.
“Curtain Call Adventures makes this possible. A keystone of the tour package is the opportunity to live in homestays, take part in weaving demonstrations, language classes by the locals, cooking classes, boat rides, etc. We promote rural economy all the way,” she notes.
As Julie points out, “When people mention sustainability, for me it is sustainable when it is possible at a drastic level. It is not just a way of survival but rather a way of life.”
What’s in it for you?
“None of my guests do what I have not done first,” says Julie who spent the major part of April going deep into the villages of Arunachal Pradesh in an attempt to curate a rustic trail for her guests here. “This is essentially for people who are not really trekkers but want to participate in forest walks. I take my kids here too so they can be a part of the experience as I am curating.”
She adds that every activity at Curtain Call Adventures is either tried and tested by her or an expert before it is made available to guests. The platform is now expanding its sights to include packages outside of the Northeast too with their tours in North Kerala.
But for Julie, the real highlight moments are those spent in the company of her guests. “My most cherished memory was that of a tour organised for a family who were celebrating one of their people’s 80th birthday. There were people of mixed ages in the group. As they enjoyed the local Nepalese meal organised for them, their happiness was evident,” she recalls.
Born with a love for the Northeastern crafts and having devoted over two decades to design, Julie emphasises how she fuses this in the curated tours. “In all my trips, there is always a segment to engage the guests with the local crafts of the village. For these people, it is still a way of life, and I want to bring out that aspect.”
While some seasons witness more footfall than others, Curtain Call Adventures sees a steady inflow of tourists wanting to immerse themselves in the lifestyle of the Northeast. If you are looking to reach out to them for your next trip, there’s a lot of excitement in store.
Stay in a colonial tea estate bungalow in Assam; visit the famous Jonbeel Mela — a three-day indigenous fair operated through a barter system; and cruise down the mighty Brahmaputra river with its 19 bordering wildlife sanctuaries; or spend a day interacting with the tribes of Mishing and connecting with their culture.
For culture enthusiasts, there are specifically curated tours around the festivals of the Northeast, including but not limited to:
The Silk n Dye Festival in December at Kaziranga — where natural dyeing and traditional silk rearing are promoted by providing silk weavers with a platform to showcase their products.
Magh Bihu in January — where the people of Assam feast together with newly harvested rice and traditional sweetmeats made of coconut, jaggery and sesame seeds called pitha and laru.
The open-air Brahmaputra Beach Festival in January — where the indigenous culture of the state is celebrated through traditional sports, cultural events and performances.
The central focus, as Julie maintains, has and will always be the local people and empowering them. They echo her happiness. Rita Payang from Citadarchuk village loves showcasing her handloom work to tourists when they come to visit. “When tourists visit our home and like the food we serve, we feel very happy and satisfied. And when they buy our weaving products, we are quite benefited. The one or two pennies that we earn as profit serves the hard work of our weavers,” she shares.
Forest guide Ritu Dole says engaging with the city people is always a two-way experience. “I can learn a lot of new things from them when they share their experiences with us. So we enjoy showing them the forest with a lot of interactions and sharing thoughts. At the end of the day, whatever amount we receive serves us as our daily wages.”
While these testimonials tell one side of the story, the guests share how amazing their experiences have been. But the woman at the helm, Julie, says there are miles to go still as she pushes for the empowerment of the tribes of the Northeast by addressing their social issues.
As the sun sets over the glorious region with its hills, vales, and colourfully dotted landscapes, it beckons the travellers to come and be one with the magic.
Edited by Pranita Bhat