Suraiya Hasan Bose

Art History/Craft History, Interviews, Conversations

Suraiya Hasan Bose: The Loom as Ideology

Singh, Radhika


To locate Suraiya’s shop in Hyderabad is easy since it shares the same address as the Safrani Memorial School on the road to Dargah Hussain Shah Wali, at the Qutab Shahi Tombs. But once you turn into her green gate you enter a magical space, where searching for Suraiya Hassan Bose becomes an adventure. Enclosed in a wash of green trees, flowering bushes and exotic plants, you could walk into a porch leading to a large hall stacked from floor to ceiling with fabric. Soft Mangalgiri stripes share shelf-space with Kalamkari wall hangings, Vengatgiri saris lie folded on Kanchanpally durries, Ikat bedspreads rubshoulders with Paithani borders and Telia Rumals. If you are lucky you might spot a sample collection of Himru pieces lying on the desk in front of Zeenath.

‘Adab’, a cheerful greeting elicits a question from you, ‘Suraiya apa?’ ‘No, she may be in the weaving center’, you are told, ‘would you like to look for her?’

So you step out again into dappled sunlight and turn the corner into a curtain of Halaconia, the false bird of paradise flowers that compel you to reach out and touch them. Yes, they are real, too perfect to pass without admiration. Outstretched giant palms lead you to another flat roofed shed where the ancient sound of pedals and shuttling spindles transport you into a world of multiple looms, and women in close companionship with interlaced skeins of coloured thread. The lone master weaver, Syed Omar, his hands full of ‘jaala’ tells you that Suraiya apa has just stepped out. To the school, maybe? Its admission week, so she may be required there. Shobha smiles up from her Paithani loom and nods assent.

So you move on to the white double-storeyed building, that draws attention to the bold blue name on the wall of the second floor, Safrani Memorial High School, and further, Aurobindo Bose Science Centre. Busy with deciphering these relationships you almost bump into a group of giggling girls, who wish you quickly, ‘Good afternoon, ma’am’, as they rush past. It must be break-time because boys and girls are pouring down the ramps in shorts and shirts and skirts, and you turn around quickly before getting engulfed in waves of chattering energetic children.

‘Sorry, were you looking for me?’ and there she is, Suraiya apa, smiling and holding out her hands to walk you back with her towards a quiet corner in front of the ‘kabutar-khana’, a large bird cage that houses 4 or 5 couples of romancing pigeons. She tells you she has been searching for a mate for a lonely pair of female birds and her friend has just arrived with a couple of male birds. Would I mind spending a few minutes while they make sure they have the right pairing?

Its just another ordinary day in the life of an extraordinary woman.

Suraiya Hassan was born in 1928 to a privileged family in Hyderabad that had its roots in State administration, as well as the Freedom Movement. Her grand uncle was the Finance Minister to the Nizam. Her grandfather, Amir Hassan married a beautiful Persian lady who insisted on the best education for her progeny. Her five sons were sent to Germany to study, including Suraiya’s father Badrul Hassan who returned to India after his studies, and joined Mahatma Gandhi. Badrul Hassan’s younger brother stayed on in Germany to work with Subhash Chandra Bose. Later this favourite uncle, Abid Hussain Safrani would play a pivotal role in Suraiya’s life.

Badrul Hassan and his wife, Kubra Begum had only one child, Suraiya, who was brought up as a princess paradoxically in a household that had adopted spinning as an essential family activity. Suraiya’s earliest influence was her father, and she has lived her life emulating him in many ways. Unfortunately, Badrul Hassan died very young, when his daughter was not quite 6years old. But those formative years have leftstrong memories that still define Suraiya’s life, 80 years later. She talks of a beautiful garden around her house, a zoo with a lion cub, and other animals and birds. She insists that she rode horseback to her primary school, and that her father taught her to swim fearlessly. She remembers her father’s library at home, and that he founded the first English book shop, called the Hyderabad Book Depot.

Suraiya lived in a joint family.The children were taught to boycott the British flag in the English Grammar School they attended. Sarojini Naidu was a close friend and Gandhi’s visit prompted a bonfire of imported fabrics outside their home. The influence of the swadeshi movement introduced a love for handloom that was to stay for a lifetime. Suraiya wore only khadi frocks, pajamas and kurtas, and later khadi saris. Participation in the freedom movement brought with it an ideology that placed the artisan in the center of her life. Badrul Hassan had opened the Cottage Industries Emporium in Hyderabad. Suraiya grew up with the belief that the colonial destruction of indigenous industry had impoverished a nation. The only way forward was to encourage, foster and develop handloom and handicrafts. She remembers her father personally funding artisans to enable them to set up their workshops.Craftspeople were constant visitors. Suraiya learned to love the crafts that embellished her home. Intricate Persian designs woven into jamawars, colourful Himru sherwanis and silken Mushroo cushion covers were a part of her household. Generations of Nizams had patronized weavers to immerse themselves in the fabric of their ancestry. But bereft of raw material, and swept away by cheaper machine made goods, these skills were closing shop along with the lifestyle that supported them. Badrul Hassan left his daughter a legacy to rebuild the inheritance that the British Raj had wiped out.

Suraiya says, ‘I wanted to continue something that my father had started’.So after Intermediate she joined the Cottage Industries Emporium in Hyderabad. She mentions taking a course in textiles at university in the UK, ‘I learned to draw designs at Cambridge, she says casually’. Post Independence, and now in her early twenties, Suraiya worked as assistant manager at the Emporium for 6-7 years. She travelled around Andhra Pradesh studying craft and the many villages that specialized in its production. It was a significant training ground for her evolving career.

In Delhi, the newly elected government was setting up institutions to promote handloom and handicraft, including Regional Design Centers to improve skills so that Indian craftspersons could compete in international markets with their products. John Bissell, who would establish an iconic company, Fabindia in another 10 years, was one of those professionals invited to India to develop products for a global market. Professor Maria May, was another. She was sent to Cottage Industries in Hyderabad to look at Andhra Pradesh craft practices. Since she had gained valuable experience in the field, Suraiya was deputed to accompany the consultant during the visit. The professor was so impressed with Suraiya’s commitment that she recommended the young girl to Pupul Jayakar, one of the pioneers of craft revival in India. Suraiya was immediately invited to work at the newly constituted Handloom and Handicraft Export Council in Delhi.A step that would catapult Suraiya into the national mainstream.

The next 10-12 years in Delhi was a period of new experiences.Suraiya was handling the garment export unit of the HHEC. She learned to source fabric from around India, to deal with different styles of garments, and to understand the complicated machinations of the export industry. She met other legendary figuresin Delhi, like Kamladevi Chattopadhya and Martand Singh, and maybe even John Bissell in the late 60’s.

Over the years Suraiya’s uncle, Abid Hussain had become Subhash Chandra Bose’s right hand man, accompanying him through all his political exploits. When Netaji disappeared during the war,Abid Hussain returned to Delhi and joined Jawaharlal Nehru as a Minister in his cabinet. Abid Hussain introduced Suraiya to Subhash Chandra Bose’s nephew Aurobindo, a political activist in Calcutta. Aurobindo Bose had spent many years in jail while fighting for an independent India. He had now joined the trade union movement in West Bengal.

Suraiya and Aurobindo Bose married when she was in her late 30’s. Of course, she had fallen in love with him, she says. ‘Marriage would have been difficult if I had not loved him.’. Pupul Jayakar transferred Suraiya to Calcutta after her marriage, but there was not enough work thereand she returned to Delhi. Separated by their independent careers, the couple lived as best as possible between Delhi, Calcutta and Hyderabad till Aurobindo’s untimely death in 1986.

Abid Hussain Safrani returned to Hyderabad after he retired from Delhi in 1972. He invested in 10 acres of barren land outside the city and called Suraiya back from Delhi to look after him.According to Suraiya, the landhad only a few mango and fig trees, a mosque and a well, when it was bought. She took on the challenge of a new career. ‘I started cultivation. I didn’t know ABC about agriculture. I learnt about rice and grain, about vegetables and fruit, and flowers. I bought nagger (bullocks) to work the land, and personally milked the cows. I planted basmati rice, and every crop possible and kept a staff of 50 women to look after everything.There were 150 jasmine trees, all types of flowering creepers, a pond with lotus flowers and a large farmhouse.’

This land became the base for Suraiya to build her legacy.

Post Independence the government started supporting cottage industry through its design centers and emporiums.

But the market could not support realistic salaries for the craftsmen, and many moved away from their vocation.

Suraiya recalls that there were over 75 Himru weavers working on their looms in Aurangabad and Hyderabad in the mid 60’s. By the time she returned to Hyderabad, there were hardly12 left. Some were weaving shawls at government centers that would sell at a paltry Rs.16.Others were employed in offices. Most returned to their villages. The loss of these skills was becoming a national tragedy.

Suraiya Hassan started working seriously with handloom during these years. She built relationships with master weavers and their families. She worked with designs, changing colours and patterns to suit the export markets she now knew. She reconstituted the construction of the fabric, decreasing and increasing counts of thread to suit different products, from bedspreads to garment fabric. Advance money was paid to the weavers to help their cash flow. Together with John Bissell from Fabindia, theyrevolutionized the handloom industry in Andhra Pradesh. Most of this business was developed for export, first through Fabindia and later, independently, to companies across the world.

Ikat was sourced from the villages of Potapaka, Kuelagudam and Velinki. Weavers were taught to identifyquality yarn,to dye fast colours, and work with sophisticated colour combinations.There were times when a whole village of 50 weavers would beworking for Suraiya, trying to keep pace with her orders.

In 1977 Terence Conran visitedIndia looking for new products for his chain of Habitat stores. John Bissell took him tomeet Suraiya in Hyderabad.She decided to develop a new product by incorporating ikat designs on cotton durries. Traditional durry weavers in Warangal were taughtto work on ikat by a master weaver. The experiment worked and the ikat durry became a huge success, notching up an order for 150 durries at the first glance.

There are many more such stories that make up the legend of Suraiya Hassan.

35 km from Warangal is Kanchampalli. Here the duo developed a cotton durry in a very fine count. Over the years, the Kanchanpalli durry, as it was named, became the most successful handloom product exported to the UK, through the Habitat group of stores.

Kalamkari prints from Machalipatnam used thousands of block prints designed by Suraiya. Restricted to colours produced from vegetable dyes, new designs were introduced throughcombinations of different shades, of light and dark. It is healthier to use natural dyes on fabrics that touch the skin, says Suraiya,‘black from jaggery, indigo from the indigo plant, red and yellow from flowers, brown from the barks’.

In 1982, Suraiya Hassan set up a company, Deccan Exports, with her cousin Sumbul, and her uncle, Abid Hassan Safrani. The export business was a runaway success till the world economy collapsed in 2003. In 2001, the House of Kalamkari & Durries was established to deal with the rapidly expanding domestic retail market. Both these companies have now ceased to exist. The letterhead now carries Suraiya’s name.

When Suraiya Hassan returned from Delhi there was virtually no Himru being woven in the state. She wanted to revive Himru and Mushroo, the weaves from her childhood. But she didn’t know how to start. In 1982, Qadir sahabretired from the government and needed a job. He was a Himru master weaver. Suraiya requested him to work for her and set up one loom for him. He knew how to prepare the graph (jaala) for weaving the fabric. Suraiya had been sourcing samples of Himru from old Hyderabad families. She had also purchased old pieces, left-over from the Cottage Emporium store.Since there were no weavers left who knew how to weave Himru, and men would not agree to sit at the looms, Suraiya hired young widows who needed an income.They were taught to work the loom. Another master practitioner,Syed Omar joined the unit. He too had learned the art of preparing the ‘jaala’, or the graph.

The jaala is developed out of an existing sample of Himru fabric that is to be replicated. The weft is pulled out and new threads are attached painstakingly to the warp. That is how the pattern is formed.This process could take 2 weeks. Then the loom is prepared. A simple himru weave requires a 4-pedal loom. Two girls work together over one fabric. One throws the shuttle and the other presses the pedal to lift the graph so that the yarn for the weft can be thrown through easily. Even so, only 3-4 inches of fabric are woven in a day. It is a slow and laborious process.

After her uncle Abid Hussain passed away in 1984, Suraiya focused on her weaving center. By 1988 the Production Unit had 8 looms. Qadir sahab had passed away but Syed Omar had recreated several jaalas. Suraiya selected the designs that were to be revived, prepared the jaala and put it on the loom. The weaves were exquisite and sold as they were completed.

Himru is traditional wedding Sherwani material and 3-4 meters of fabric are required for each one. This fabric takes 2-3 months to weave. The cost of production of 3 meters of Himru is a minimum 30,000 rupees. Suraiya charges less than 50% of the cost. She says nobody will buy it if she raises the rate. The weaving center loses about 50,000 rupees every month. The profits from Suraiya’s retail shop subsidizes the looms.

Himru is wovenwith cotton in the warp and weft, and the design in silk. Complicated designs require an 8-pedal loom. Himru’s motifs are mostly floral orpaisley, but every detail has to be woven distinctly, ‘like on the plant’, says Suraiya. Mushroo, on the other hand is simpler, though it also requires 8 pedals. It is often a tie-and-dye silk weft on a cotton warp. Patterns are typically lines with an ikat effect. In a Mushroo fabric, the reverse side shows up plain since the design remains on its right side.

Suraiya says these are Persian influenced designs and their weavers were patronized by the Nizams. The Himru sherwani is a family heirloom passed on from grandfather to grandson. It is a tough fabric and has to last the wear and tear of generations. Mushroo is more fragile and is used to tailor loosely worn jackets and cushion covers.

Today there are 10 looms and 12 women weavers in the unit, laboriously trained by Suraiya and Syed Omar.Suraiya’s unit has 2 looms reserved for Paithani borders, and 1 for the Telia Rumal.

36 orders for Himru are pending. But the London Museum has ordered a Himru weave for an exhibition on textiles and that is top priority. This is the only handloom unit in the world weaving good quality Himru and it will survive on goodwill.

The Safrani Memorial School has 600 boys and girls on its rolls.Besides the academic curricula there are etiquette classes, lessons on planting kitchen gardens, environment preservation and water management. Suraiya plans to start spinning and weaving classes for the children. After all everyone should know how to produce khadi.

Each corner of the property contains a lesson to be learned from Suraiya’s ageless and exquisite aesthete, the creation of beauty. Her legacy is the recreation of her heritage.


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