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Volume 51, Number 5September/October 2000

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Progress Through Preservation

Written by Yasmin Mahmood
Photographed by David H. Wells

Suraiya Hasan rarely sits still. If she is not in the weavers' workshop in Darga Hussain Shah Wali, her village on the outskirts of Hyderabad, in India's Andhra Pradesh state, she is likely to be next door smoothing the administrative warp and weft of the primary school she founded there.

Hasan's company, Safrani Exports Private Limited, produces handspun textiles made by local weavers. Her Safrani Memorial Educational Society educates children from the village. Both organizations resemble Suraiya Hasan herself: unassuming but determined, firmly and gracefully rooted in tradition and ideals. Based on the philosophy of progress through preservation of cultural heritage, her legacy harks back to her father, Badrul Hasan, and is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, the father of independent India.

"Our family was associated with the Indian National Congress, one of the earliest political parties in what became modern India," Hasan explains, and "very close to Gandhiji."

She sits in her office-workshop, surrounded by fabric swatches of every hue. At the far end of the room, a weaver works at a handloom, the heddles lifting and the shuttle crossing with the rhythm of long experience. Amid phone calls and advice to weavers, Hasan tells her story.

She was born in 1930, the year Gandhi issued his nationwide call to revive the weaving of handspun cotton known as khadi. The English, she says, had flooded India with machine-made cloth that undercut the market for traditional Indian weaves—a blow to both the economy and the culture that the khadi campaign set out to redress. When Gandhi paid his first visit to Hyderabad, it was before Hasan's house that the first bonfire of English cloth took place—an act analogous to the Boston Tea Party—and the khadi campaign took on such significance that the charka, or spinning wheel, was the first central symbol on India's national flag.

Hasan's father, who owned one of the first bookshops in Hyderabad and had also established the city's first bus service, put his organizing skills to work. "He revived khadi in the village of Mettapalli and the weaving of silk in the village of Sangareddi. Today, both Mettapalli khadi and Sangareddi silk are very famous in India," she says. "He also promoted cooperative societies. Being the only child, I thought I should continue the work he began." Badrul Hasan died of a heart attack when his daughter was five.

As she grew up, she had other mentors in her family: The legendary Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, who formed the earliest army against the British, was her late husband's uncle; her own uncle, Abid Hasan Safrani, was Bose's right-hand man. It was Safrani who, in the early 1970's, helped Hasan set up her textile and educational enterprises, and that, she says, is why both carry his name. He died in 1984.

Today, her workshop employs some 30 master weavers who supervise 50 journeyman weavers in addition to producing their own work, mostly table linens and the thick, non-pile floor coverings called dhurries. Many are designed using weaves for which Andhra Pradesh is famous, including a variation of ikat, in which threads are grouped in tiny bundles, wrapped in selected areas to prevent color penetration, then dyed and woven. Kalamkari, in which fabrics are painted or block-printed, is a technique that originally came from Persia but for which the Indian state has become renowned. Hasan herself is renowned for her almost single-handed revivals of himroo (whose name is Persian for "brocade"), paithani (whose pattern is identical on both sides) and mushroo (satin weave).

All three of these latter techniques came to the region in the 17th century with Persian artisans brought to the court of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Later, the nizams of Hyderabad also patronized the artisans, but their fortunes declined, and by the time of India's independence in 1949, himroo and paithani had virtually disappeared.

By her own admission, Hasan has never sat at a loom. But in addition to her family history in textile cooperative organization, she began a career at age 18 with Cottage Industries, a government sponsored retail outlet for hand-looms and handicrafts. Six years later, she traveled to Britain to study hand-looms. Upon return she joined the Delhi State Trading Corporation, where she worked with such renowned international designers as Pierre Cardin, Capucci, and Hanae Mori. Yet when Hasan returned to Hyderabad in 1970, she found that the area's once-famous weaving families had abandoned their craft.

"With returns too meager for hours of painstaking work," she says, "himroo cooperatives steadily disappeared." The days of royal patronage were quite clearly over.

With the help of John Bissel, an American friend and connoisseur of handloomed fabrics, Hasan began her enterprise with an order for 15 Warrangal dhurries. "There were only two families in Warrangal then who carried on this art," says Sumbul Hasan, who is Suraiya's cousin and partner. "Today, there are a thousand."

Similarly, says Suraiya Hasan, in the village of Kanchampalli only one weaving family remained in the early 1970's, and they wove portraits of politicians onto calendars. By showing them that there could again be a market for dhurries, she says with satisfaction, "I was able to direct their talent to what proved a more profitable venture. Today, there are at least 500 such families."

Most of these have come from among the poor women of her village, Darga Hussain Shah Wali. Her goal is to see them "stand on their own feet, weave on their own looms and train the next generation," she says. "It is my dream to see one loom in every home."

What has made Hasan's revival possible is the growth of the export market. The soft palette, comfortable feel and low prices of cotton dhurries have made them a popular home-decoration item in Europe and North America. Accordingly, Hasan has supplied home furnishing chains worldwide, including London-based Habitat, Conran in the US and Europe, and others in Japan and Australia. Within India too, she supplies to select retail outlets as well as individual customers.

"People from all over the world have shown an interest in her products, even without a designer label," says Sumbul. And P.M. Iswarudu, a kalamkari artist, adds that "Suraiya understands customers' tastes. She has worked closely with designers from all over India and abroad. She tries new designs and color schemes. Most importantly, she is able to find customers and make sales."

However, not all is smooth sailing: Today's export market is sluggish, and Hasan's struggle to maintain consistently high standards is typical of any bootstrap cooperative. She would also like to see stronger government support for her efforts. As she seeks administrative arrangements that could perpetuate her work beyond her own lifetime, she is looking for a partnership with a non-governmental development organization or a foundation, as well as searching for marketing partners abroad.

Yet weaving is only the most outwardly colorful of Hasan's passions. The Safrani Memorial Educational Society began "with the desire of bringing the city to the village," says headmistress Mary Sequera. In 1986, she was tutor to the school's first student, and today supervises some 220 students and 15 teachers at levels from kindergarten through eighth grade.

The school, no less than the hand-loom cooperative, is rooted in the twin principles of tradition and progress. It is the only English-language school in the village and, along with academics, it emphasizes character-building that can give students from poor backgrounds confidence that they have a role to play in the larger world. For Muslims, it offers classes on the Qur'an; for non-Muslims there are more general classes in morals and ethics. Sequera adds that the school also emphasizes civic participation and technological literacy.

For the future, Hasan plans to add weaving classes to the curriculum and extend the school's reach by adding grades that would take students all the way to university level. This, she believes, would bring her enterprise closer still to the way "Gandhiji wanted it": with high goals for the common good, rooted in the legacies of Gandhi himself, her uncle and her father.

London-based Yasmin Mahmood has worked as a correspondent for The Statesman, published in Delhi and Calcutta.

David H. Wells is a free-lance photographer affiliated with the Matrix agency of New York. He spent much of 1999 in India as a Fulbright fellow.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the September/October 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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