The silk route from Italy

The silk route from Italy

The smooth and luscious silks that Mysore is synonymous with is a legacy left by an Italian mastermind. Mukund V Kirsur traces the contribution of Signor Washington Mari, whose ingenious breeding techniques helped the growth of the silk industry in Mysore.

In 1911, an economic conference was organised under the chairmanship of the great visionary Sir Visvesvaraya. The main objective of the conference was to make systematic efforts for the overall development of Mysore State. Among many others, sericulture was one of the subjects of the discussion thanks to the efforts of K P Puttana Chetty, the chairman of agricultural committee and others concerned. Sir Visvesvaraya accepted and encouraged the ideas of the agricultural committee and of Appadhorai Mudaliar regarding the development of sericulture. In the later part, he approved the recommendations of agricultural committee to appoint Mudaliar as the first inspector of sericulture.

Taking a big step

Sir Visvesvaraya personally invited Dr B G Gorio, the then Consul General of Bombay and a close friend to advise the Mysore government about the steps to be taken for improving the silk industry. Dr Gorio advised the government to engage the services of a sericulture expert to prepare a scheme for organising the sericultural activities on scientific basis. Dr Gorio recommended Signor Washington Mari — a silk expert from Italy to take up this challenging assignment. Mari arrived in Mysore in December, 1913.

Basically a chemical engineer, Mari was a partner of a reputed grainage — Ascolo Picano in Italy. To begin with, the expert toured the sericultural belt of Mysore state. A roadside village near Channapatna was Mari’s head quarters. F M Quddus of Mastan family — a leading silk merchant of Channapatna donated some land along with a building to the government of Mysore for establishing the lab and office for the expert. Mari studied the situation and decided to carry out his work from this place itself.
Mari soon realised that Mysore sericulture basically needed good races. Hence, before leaving for India, he had dispatched 12 varieties of pure European and Chinese races of silkworm, assuming that all the required facilities would be available for him to conduct his experiments in Mysore. But although Mari arrived at Mysore in December 1913, his consignment from Italy reached Mysore only by March 1914.

Mari and Mudaliar started breeding experiments with these imported races at the Channapatna silk farm in 1914. It was a Herculean task to incubate the hibernated eggs. While Mari was always busy in his breeding laboratory, it was Mudaliar who took care of rearing these foreign races. They lived in tents, skipped food, not taking a single day’s rest till these worms formed cocoons. Fortunately, the experiment was a great success. Almost all the eggs of these races hatched and formed cocoons. After this initial success, Mari focused on cross breeding. He successfully crossbred these foreign races with the local Mysore race. As anticipated by the Italian expert, these cross breeds were better than the original European and Chinese races.

Mari’s appointment as silk expert gave impetus to the idea of establishing Mysore Silk Association for the development of the silk industry. In 1914, Mari’s headquarters was shifted to Bangalore. The breeding work however, continued under Mudaliar’s supervision. Mari was keen on the development of indigenous races of silk worm. While in Bangalore, he revisited the sericultural areas of the state, this time to plan better rearing conditions, rearing houses, rearing appliances for the proposed sericulture farms at the leading silk centres of the state. Mari did all this work with utmost dedication and interest. After his tenure of one year, Mari returned to his country.

Establishing a techniques

However, the silk industry witnessed a gradual decline in 1914-15. Sir Visvesvaraya further felt the need of an expert to take care of the overall development of sericulture in the state. This time, Mari came back to Mysore as the director of sericulture. Bangalore became the headquarters of the new department. Mari studied the problems and prospects of sericulture in Mysore state and submitted a comprehensive scheme for organising a new sericulture department. And rest is a history. During his tenure, an efficient and dedicated Mysore Civil Services Officer Navarathna Rama Rao was appointed as the superintendent of sericulture department.
Please look at the facts, as early as in1914, a silk farm was established at Channapatna under this Italian expert to produce disease-free silkworm seeds for the sericulturists; He contrived a hot air drying chamber and dried the Mysore cocoons and sent them to Italy for examination. It was reported that they could be reeled well on the reeling machine in Italy. As a venture on the part of the silkworm rearers of the state, in 1915, chawki rearing was developed. In the same year, Mari successfully prepared a hybrid between the Mysore race and the exotic races. In 1917, 35 per cent of the total seed requirements of the state were disease free. By 1918, the demand for disease-free layings was raised to 5,000 a month. The Italian expert started renovation of the rearing rooms, rearing appliances etc. He persuaded people to use wooden frames instead of bamboo ones, organised a central station at Channapatana and planted mulberry, started seed examination, disinfections and hybridisation. And all these, he achieved in a short span of time.

The foundation of sericulture department laid by Mari and the like under the guidance of Sir Visvesvaraya is so perfect and strong that even today Karnataka produces the lion share of country’s total silk production. And, obviously it is in No. 1 position. Thanks to Mari, and his work, that would remain with us for the years to come.

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