The silk route to Bangalore

Last Updated 27 May 2013, 13:20 IST

Mukund V Kirsur charts the rise and fall of the silk farm in Bangalore set up by Jamsetji Tata way back in 1896. What remains of the famed farm today is a locality in the City that goes by the same name.

Silk has been an integral part of our culture and tradition. Over centuries, no other fabric has been quite able to take its exalted position. It remains the unconquered queen of textiles! Behind its great success lies the struggle, toil and sacrifice of many. While kings and queens patronised this fabric, farmers, weavers, reelers, artisans, craftsmen, scientists, technologists, policy makers and administrators worked for its development for centuries.

Among the personalities who helped develop sericulture in Karnataka, J N Tata ranks very close to Tipu Sultan. Firstly because, J N Tata was a pioneer in building the then traditional sericulture and silk industry along scientific lines. And secondly, during this process, he developed a sericulture farm with a filature and weaving unit in Bangalore, which was also the first training centre as far as sericulture is concerned.

A great visionary

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904) was not only a great philanthropist and business magnate but also one of the greatest visionaries the country has ever seen. During his frequent foreign tours, if he came across anything new — be it machinery, a new plant variety, a fruit or vegetable, he was not only known to purchase it but also introduce it in India. For instance, he had cultivated peach trees in his home garden in Panchgani, which he had brought from California; in Bangalore he had an exclusive experimental fruit farm; in Poona and Deolali he tried to revive the cultivation of grapes; near Surat he tried growing different varieties of grass for industrial use.

Japan as the model

He knew the potential of sericulture towards generating employment, especially for the rural populace, and silk had a great demand in the export market.

Being a keen observer, he had studied Indian silk industry at a close range. During his foreign tours, he visited sericultural organisations/institutes, held discussions with experts in countries like Japan, France and Italy. He observed that, unlike in India, the silk industry prospered in these countries because it was built on scientific lines. He  decided to give the Indian silk industry a fresh start.

He chose Japan as the model for his silk farm experiment. The Japanese succeeded because they embraced the best skills and processes from other countries. For instance, Japan borrowed the silk egg production system from France, developed by Pasteur, while the filature industry was from Italy.

The Japanese had modified these practices to suit their climatic conditions and industry requirements. His visit to Japan in 1893 convinced him that scientific sericulture on Japanese lines could be extended to his own country. Tata brought with him to India a Japanese couple, the Odzus, to supervise the farm. The reeling machinery which was simple, durable, inexpensive and efficient, was imported from Japan. During his several visits to the then Mysore state, Tata had realised that the region was ideal for the development of sericulture. He selected Channapatna as the centre for his project and wanted to establish a big sericulture farm, a grainage and a filature unit. He had other noble reasons also. In Channapatna, he had observed that silk reeling was carried out by poor people by adopting very crude methods and it was difficult for them to earn even a square meal a day.

He wanted to help such people. But, when he held discussions with some local leaders about his ambitious project, some records say that he was discouraged to proceed. Therefore, it was in 1896 that Tata decided to shift this project to Bangalore. Thus, Channapatna’s loss was Bangalore’s gain.

With his charisma, influence and good office, Tata could convince K Sheshadri Iyer, the then dewan of Mysore to co-operate in this venture.

With encouragement from the dewan, Tata established a silk farm encompassing a grainage and a small filature in the Basavangudi area of Bangalore in 1896. The investment was Rs 50,000, a huge amount in those days. He provided all the necessary infrastructure and facilities. A few locals were trained in mulberry cultivation, silkworm rearing, seed production, preservation of cocoons, reeling, hank making etc. Under the supervision of the Odzus, the farm very soon achieved rapid progress. While it became the centre of attraction for the common man, it turned a pilgrim centre for sericulturists and others who formed part of the silk industry. Sericulturists in and around Bangalore started buying silkworm eggs from the farm. The demand was so huge that it was not possible to meet it, on many occasions.

First training centre

Famed as Tata Silk Farm, it was the first sericulture training centre also. Those who attended were given training free of cost for three months. During this period, they studied the cultivation of mulberry, rearing of silkworms, cross-breeding, detection of disease by using the microscope, preservation of the cocoons for seed and for silk, hank making, packing etc. Veterans like Appadhorai Mudaliar and Lakshman Rao were among the first trainees.

The silk samples from the farm were sent to European experts who declared it the best. Satisfied with the results, Tata, on visiting Mysore in 1899, decided to purchase some more land for the cultivation of mulberry. Taking a cue from these experiments, the Government of India also established two farms based on the Tata model by consulting Tata.

After Tata’s death, his sons decided to dispose of the farm. Though the farm was originally set up in the interests of Mysore, the State was not in a position to take over. It was then offered to the Government of India, but they too were compelled to refuse the offer, as they had already established quite a few farms on the Tata model.

And the dream ends...

Within a few years, the farm was taken over by the Salvation Army at the request of Tata’s sons. However, the name of the founder was retained. In the beginning, with its new owners, the farm saw a lot of progress. Unfortunately, later on, the Salvation Army authorities failed to understand the plans of Tata. They terminated the services of the Odzus, and the supervision of the farm was handed over to officers who did not know much about sericulture. The farm fell on bad days. Meanwhile, some of these authorities thought it wise to utilise the juicy mulberry fruits for the preparation of jams and pickles. They converted the rearing house and grainage to accommodate their automatic fly shuttle looms to create employment for the inmates of their orphanage.  However, in a couple of years, the mulberry bushes grown across 13 acres of once flourishing lush green farm were uprooted. The authorities grew cereals and pulses to feed the inmates of the orphanage. But none of their efforts succeeded. Eventually, it was curtains for the farm.

However, the farm made a great impact on the Indian silk industry. “The impetus thus given to the silk industry in India,” writes commissioner and a senior Salvation Army official, Booth Tucker, “can hardly be overestimated. Governments, which before had given up the effort in despair, have now recommended operations. Orders have been issued for the general planting of mulberry trees and bushes. Bulletins and pamphlets have been issued giving instructions regarding the cultivation of silkworms.

Public demonstrations have been made in connection with exhibitions. In the not distant days when silk will have become to India what it is already in such countries as Japan, China, France and Italy. The name of the man who launched the enterprise will be held in grateful remembrance by those who will have been benefited by his forethoughts and labours”.

With time, the entire farm merged with the modern extension of Basavanagudi in Bangalore. What remains today is only a signage which indicates the area as Tata Silk Farm colony.

(Published 27 May 2013, 13:20 IST)

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