Nifty in 90s

Meet Suraiya Hasan, the 91-year-old textile revivalist who has held onto a near-extinct chapter of Indian textile history through her handloom unit in Hyderabad

The clock strikes 9.45 on a warm morning in Hyderabad and a 91-year-old Suraiya Hasan Bose is ambling along to reach the door of her handloom unit, housed at her ancestral premises at Rai Durg in Hyderabad.

With her hair tied into a bun, she picks a few jasmine petals from her garden and pins it to her hair, as the workers await her entry into the office. A couple of students pursuing their Bachelors in fashion designing are keen on an internship at her unit.

The nonagenarian’s morning begins at 5 with her morning prayers and the routine has been no different from over four-and-a-half decades now, as she single-handedly scripted a revival of the textile industry in the country.

The looms at her unit lay emphasis on the Persian brocades, specifically, the mashru, himroo (made of silk and cotton), jamavar and paithani weaves. 

Since the beginning, Suraiya’s family has been unsurprisingly revolutionary in their own little ways. Besides her father’s active involvement with the Cottage Industries Emporium in the city and his work in reviving bidri, Suraiya’s family members had actively participated in the freedom movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

Inspired interest

Naturally, the love for khadi and the innate understanding of the textile industry across generations sparked an interest about handloom in a young Suraiya. Her zest for life and dreaming big came from adequate family support. “My family was particular about not interfering as far as my interest areas were concerned. They let me do what I wanted to do. I had a free hand to contribute my bit to the textile industry. I think it was an age where I was involved in what I did, and I had no barriers,” Suraiya says.

What explains her fascination for himroo and mashru? “We essentially grew wearing pyjamas made out of himroo at home. This was sort of a legacy that a mother passed on from one generation to another. The clothes made out of the weaves were a symbol of royalty that I couldn’t let disappear,” she says.

Suraiya’s association with the cultural revivalist and writer Pupul Jayakar got her career progressing in the right direction. Her next stop was Delhi at the newly established Handloom and Handicrafts Export Corporation, a learning ground, that opened her to the nitty-gritty of the textile industry.

“Though the experience ensured my awareness, it frankly didn’t teach me much about running a handloom unit. It was a government organisation that had its own limitations,” she recollects. The veteran also cherishes the time she’d spent at Cambridge University for her year-long course in textiles but isn’t certain about its contribution to her career. “I think I learned more while I was at work. But I can tell you for a fact there was a huge demand for clothes made out of the himroo and mashru weave in London back then.”

It was during this phase that she got married to Subhash Chandra Bose’s nephew Aurobindo Bose, and unfortunately, his untimely death meant that he couldn’t witness the heydays of Suraiya in the textile space. Her uncle Abid Safrani Hasan also happened to be a private secretary to Subhash Chandra Bose. As Suraiya returned to Hyderabad in the 70s, the inception of the school in the name of her uncle (Abid Safrani) and the establishment of her handloom unit kept her relatively busy henceforth.

The popularity of the himroo and mashru weaves had substantially reduced in the city back then. Instrumental help came in from two master weavers (late) Abdul Qadir and Syed Omar, who created intricate jaalas (graphs) for the weaves with little or no reference points.

Her work with ikat too merits attention because of her foresight to look at the weave beyond saris and also utilising it as upholstery material. Such was the demand for her fabrics that it was even exported to her clients abroad, besides Fabindia’s founder John Bissel.

An entrepreneur with an uncanny social streak, Suraiya trained and provided employment to widows at her looms and provided them with much-needed financial independence to run their families. “This continues even today, Omar saab helps over 12 women go about their daily routine,” she informs.

During our conversation, Syed Omar directs us to an almirah at the unit that’s a treasure trove for history enthusiasts, consisting last imprints of himroo material worn by the descendants of the Nizam dynasty.

The unit now is significantly driven by personalised orders from her trusted clientele in the city, who insist on himroo and mashru for their wedding-wear, with the sherwanis, the over-coats et al. The women at the unit manage to work on four inches of the material each day, making it a two- month ordeal for a four-metre-long cloth. “This is the only unit in the country that works on the himroo weave now, after the Aurangabad loom was shut recently. We source the cotton and silk used for the cloth from Hyderabad and Bengaluru now. The customer-base is niche, also because the orders are an expensive affair after all.”

What’s in store?

At a certain distance from the handloom unit is the store where select durries, gadwal, uppada saris, and other handloom material with kalamkari work woven by several communities from the Telugu states, are put up for sale.

“We opened this small section for sale because we can’t merely have a hand-to -mouth existence.” She doesn’t feel tired one bit about running the show, for, the passion to continue the legacy of a neglected chapter in Indian textile history keeps her motivated even in her 90s.

“It’s true that I didn’t have any retirement age. I’d have felt jailed if I wasn’t allowed to do this. Sab Allah ka shukr hai.” She’s certain about the future of the unit, ever since her cousin Dominic Hasan had turned a partner of the enterprise. It’s only fitting that Suraiya’s friend and biographer Radhika Singh took up the initiative to document her path-breaking journey in a book form with Suraiya Hasan Bose: Weaving a Legacy. She’s all smiles showing the book and hopes that the documentation serves its purpose of reviving the interest in Indian textiles among the younger generation. “I am happy as long as I’m doing this. I don’t know how much time I’ve left though,” she signs off.

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