The fact that no matter how old she is, nothing can stop a woman on a mission as Suraiya Hasan Bose and Ratnamala both prove.
Read between threads, and you’ll see the story of two women driven by passion, who have been instrumental not only in reviving traditions but also continuing to contribute to society at an age, when most people want to kick up their heels and retire.
The Reviver of Textiles
Though she has never worked on a loom, 85-year-old Suraiya Hasan Bose or Suraiya Aappa as she is fondly called, is credited with reviving the himroo and mushroo textiles in Hyderabad.
Himroo, a Persian style of weaving came to India during Aurangzeb’s time; patronised by the Nizams, it almost disappeared with their decline. In the ’70s, when the livelihood of weavers in a village near Warangal was endangered by the lack of patronage, Suraiya Appa encouraged them to make dhurries. Today, over 500 families make a living through weaving dhurries and other essentials.
Suraiya Aappa visits different villages scouting for designs, weaves and techniques. Her workshop employs economically challenged women from nearby villages, many of them widows, and trains them to work at the looms. Frail, but not weak, she supervises every step that goes into the making of beautiful but lesser known ethnic fabrics such as himroo, jamawar, mashroo and paithani.
You’ll find an intriguing variety of fabrics, saris, furnishings and handicrafts in her store at Hussain Shah Wali dargah. Be it hand-woven Ikat or hand-painted Kalamkari, Suraiya Aappa ensures the quality of the weaves she stocks is top notch. Age hasn’t dimmed her ability to spot defective or sub-standard fabrics. “They have to be genuine,” she insists.
“I make sure we use real gold zari for the sarees. Unlike the yesteryears, today, sarees are made of fake, cheap zari, which does not last long,” she complains.
“The graph design, by our 75-year-old master weaver takes weeks. While a simple design may take only 50 threads, a complex one may involve as many as 500 threads. Once a loom is prepared, two weavers working on it can create two inches (at most) of fabric per day.” Suraiya explains.
Suraiya lost her father when she was young; but her interest in handlooms grew as she watched her uncle and other family members at work. She completed a one-year course in textiles from Oxford University, before her marriage to Aurobindo (Subhash Chandra Bose’s nephew) took her to Delhi. Her work with the department of handicrafts and handlooms and the Cottage Industries Emporium, led her to handloom connoisseur John Bissel, founder of Fabindia; with his help she revived the Warangal weavers’ livelihood. She returned to Hyderabad, on her husband’s demise, and with some help from her uncle set up the workshop as well as the school next door.
“It is an English medium school, with about 600 students from lower- and middle-class families. Some of them have even gone abroad to study and work,” she tells me with pride.
A recipient of the Ugadi Puraskar for Innovative use of Puppetry in 1998, an NCERT award at the State Level Educational Toy Competition-Puppet in 1987 and a Nandi award for the Puppet play entitled Maya-oka Japan Katha, Ratnamala has been using puppetry for social communication and to work on women’s issues for several years. Though meant to entertain, her plays are also creative teaching aids.
In association with organisations such as NCSTC and CAPART, she has conducted workshops that help women create plays to communicate effectively and resolve issues including education for women, untouchability, alcoholism, nutrition and family planning.
The shelves of the Nori Art and Puppetry Centre, are lined with colourful characters, old and young that speak diverse languages and wear different attire. Ratnamala manoeuvres a glove-and-rod puppet called Miss Sunshine into our conversation. The cheerful personality says a warm hello before looking back quizzically, enquiring who I am. As she sits at the entrance of the Centre designing puppets called ammamma (grandmother) and her granddaughter for an upcoming production of “The Pious Cat”, Ratnamala, who uses a variety of puppetry techniques tells us about Indian puppeteers deep-rooted story-telling traditions, “The leather puppeteers (probably the first known story tellers) had two dimensional puppets; hence their faces were always in profile but their bodies faced forward. The katputhlis (string puppets) were popular up north; the number of strings used depended on the intricacy of the character’s movement. Rod puppets, first used in West Bengal, are part of a lesser known art form called putul nach, where two rods are used for controlling their hand movements. Hand puppets known as pavakathakali, date back a few centuries in Kerala.”
It may have been pure coincidence that led this visual arts specialist to discover puppetry, when the director of a workshop at Bal Bhavan in 1986 requested her to pitch in, as there was no one to represent Andhra Pradesh. And as you already know, she never looked back.
Images by Lakshmi Prabhala