The cotton cause

Uzramma (centre) is reviving the economic honeycomb of cotton-cloth makers. Photo: Kumar/Min

Reposted from: Live Mint

The fulcrum of an initiative that wants to take the weave back to the worker

The Malkha Marketing Trust has just moved into expansive new premises in the heart of the commercial district in Secunderabad. Despite their best efforts at disseminating the information through social media, not all their client base is aware of the showroom’s move from its Masab Tank Road address in twin city Hyderabad. For four years, it was the only outlet for Malkha cotton fabrics and had built up a loyal following. Consequently, there are real levels of anxiety in the callers who reach out to Uzramma.

Uzramma is the last word on Malkha, always has been: Today, be it the TIN number that will allow them to retail garments or the inventory for the forthcoming inauguration of online sales, everyone in the gradually expanding organization still turns to this diminutive 72-year-old with eyes of arctic grey and a will of steel.

“Please don’t conflate my story with that of Malkha,” Uzramma, who uses only one name, tells me. Yet there is no false modesty about the fact that she is the best articulator of the Malkha story; that, in some ways, the two entwine like warp and weft; and that it’s important for the Malkha story to be out there.

This single-minded focus on the greater good perhaps gives away far more of Uzramma’s background than would be revealed by the conventional use of a surname. Born into a Hyderabadi family with strong political and public service traditions, she grew up with the idea that privilege and social consciousness went hand-in-hand. Her uncle was an early luminary of the Communist Party of India; her paternal grandmother fought against the purdah and was a member of the legislative assembly. Notwithstanding the progressive family ethos, however, “I was engaged to be married against my will, at the age of 18, married at 19, had my first child at 21.”

While Uzramma never got to complete her college degree, a decade-long stint in England (from 1979-89) with her businessman husband offered her opportunities to hone her interest in artisanal crafts. “Learning goldsmithing and engraving (and) the coordination of hand, eye, brain changed my inner world and my way of thinking,” Uzramma was to write years later for a website on cultural heritage.

Back in India, however, it was time to address the elephant in the room. “While I was always interested in hand tools and artisanal crafts, I knew at some level that I would be working with cotton textiles. How and why I did not know…. I began by volunteering with the Andhra Pradesh Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd, helping them develop stronger colour palettes for Kondapalli toys and Etikoppaka lacquerware. I also got in touch with the founders of (the Delhi-based crafts organization) Dastkar, whom I knew socially, and Bunny Page (one of the six Dastkar founders) suggested I launch an Andhra edition of Dastkar; set up in 1996, it would be the only state chapter of the organization.”

As Uzramma became immersed in traditional crafts, she was also moving towards the one cause that would define her life. “In the 1980s, a few scientists, including Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) graduates, had set up the Patriotic and People-Oriented Science and Technology (PPST) Foundation to look into Indian science and technology. They supported our research into cotton…. We began looking into the making of cotton yarn, based on our idea that cotton textiles were absolutely central to the people’s economy.

“In 1989, through P.B. Srinivas, an IIT and IIM (Indian Institute of Management) graduate and fellow of the Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology, I met Ravindra Sharma, who had set up Kala Ashram in Adilabad, Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh. The diversity of the historical folk culture that existed in Adilabad was unimaginable: It was a coherent, cohesive, close-knit world of artisan producers, service providers, artists and technologists. They would not eat together but each provided one particular special skill on which the others depended.”

This economic honeycomb had been particularly true of the cotton industry. “Different parts of India grew different varieties of cotton, based on soil, climate, water,” Uzramma says. “History records the fine Dhakai muslin and the chintz exported to Europe, but India’s real strength lay in the coarse cotton cloth woven by ordinary people for their own use. The small weavers who sold laterally within local markets to visiting traders thrived for at least two millennia, till the British decided after the industrial revolution that this polished, home-grown system was inimical to their manufacturing interests.”

The invention of the spinning machine in the late 1700s, Uzramma says, was the moment when India’s cotton sector began to go south, as farmers were compelled to grow cotton to fit the machine, ignoring weather conditions and hitherto successful practices such as inter-cropping and saving seeds. Till date, cotton farmers across the country follow the British-set template.

“(The way cotton is cultivated and processed today) is not rational,” Uzramma says. “Put together, cotton farmers and handloom weavers comprise the largest section of the Indian population. Until the early 1800s, India was the largest cotton producer in the world, it also commanded about 50% of the world’s textile export market. What were we doing right then, and why is it that today our powerloom textiles—which is what we export—account for barely 5% of the world textile trade?”

Still working with Dastkar Andhra, Uzramma began experimenting with the complex matrix of growing cotton and weaving cloth in organic proximity, not in simple revivalist mode, but as a contemporized, economically sustainable initiative. In 2005, she founded the Decentralized Cotton Yarn Trust (DCYT). Its mandate was simple yet ambitious: to make yarn specifically for the handloom, restore the integrity of the village-based farmer-spinner-ginner-dyer-weaver chain and create a field-to-fabric product that travels to the urban market, with the ultimate aim of transferring ownership of the means of production to the people in the chain. The end fabric was christened Malkha, a portmanteau of mulmul and Khadi.

By any standards, it was a mammoth task and, with three centres—all in Andhra Pradesh—now productive, Uzramma has no illusions that the end is in sight. “Malkha is the first step towards sustainable cotton-cloth making, but there’s so much to be done,” she says. “The industry has been using the same machinery for 200 years. We’re still baling and unbaling cotton, because the spinning line of machines can only deal with bales, though it destroys the vitality of the fibre and it’s an expensive and intensive process. There has been some research in local varieties of cotton, but farmers will not find takers for that variety of cotton because they won’t work for the machines. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, with the farmer losing out every time.

“Even our machines, the ones we use for Malkha, are the same. They are scaled down but they operate on the same principle. The only difference is that our carding machine takes unbaled cotton so we can do away with the baling process. But at least we have shown it can be done. And we have taken it closer to the farmer so that he has a stake in the whole process as well.”

Producing the fabric, however, is only one side of the coin. The other is selling it. Those used to machine-made cotton fabric—and handlooms, too, use machine-spun yarn—will inevitably find Malkha rough and heavy; the weave can be uneven and patchy and, because Malkha uses only natural dyes such as cold-fermented indigo and pomegranate-peel yellow (only the red is derived from a non-toxic chemical), colours are limited.

However, Uzramma says any doubts she may have had regarding the marketability of the cloth vanished the very first day she took a lot to an exhibition in Delhi seven-eight years ago. “Almost as soon as the gates opened, a lady who runs a boutique in the city came in, felt the material and said she would buy the whole lot,” she says, adjusting her own elegant maroon Malkha rumaal in a red warp and indigo weft. The material drapes beautifully, is low-maintenance and, despite its weight, cool to wear in summer and comfortable in winter. The kora (unbleached) Malkha is a retail hot seller and it has found fans among leading designers as well.

Goa-based designer Wendell Rodricks has been using Malkha cotton “for years now. I used it first in my Kunbi Tribe collection (2010) and it was also the spine of Nuremberg (2012), which I showed at BIOFACH, the world’s largest organic fair. Last week in Kolkata, for the event India Story, I used only Malkha for my collection The Shunya Story. I love the bounce and feel of the fabric—it’s wonderful on the skin. Malkha just blends so well with my resort-eco-friendly-minimal philosophy.”

Uzramma, who set up the Malkha Marketing Trust in 2008, continues to head it, having handed over primary responsibility for the DCYT to her capable second rung. “If only they’d let me go,” she says, only half in jest. “I want to focus on my jewellery-making. And then there are my twice-weekly Hindustani classical music classes, which I began three years ago. I have so much to do.”

But her work here isn’t done just yet.

The article was first published in Live Mint

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