A recent talk traced the inspiring journey of Malkha, the freedom fabric
Around 250 years ago, British planter Francis Carnac, deposing before revenue officials, said, “The story of cotton in India is not half told.” It is still not half told enough. But, here is hope. Twenty years of archival and field research has led to the creation of a field-to-fabric cotton textile where the journey is as meaningful as the end product — the soft, durable, lustrous and eco-sensitive Malkha, the freedom fabric.
The Malkha story finds links and fills in gaps, and could well spell the realisation of the Gandhian dream of making India’s villages self-sufficient. And its weavers empowered. It is a story of freedom for both the weaver and the cotton grower, hope for old relationships established among the weaver, the cotton grower and the peripheral worker, and for the use of gentle technology based on respect for the environment.
What decimated India’s incomparable 3,000-year-old tradition of cotton, whose import, according to Roman historian Pliny “depleted the Roman treasury” and which everyone “wore from the Cape of Good Hope to China”? According to Uzramma, who spearheaded the Malkha movement, the roots of decay lay in East India Company’s policy of imposing mechanisation on India’s cotton growers and weavers.
A regimen of centralising ginning and spinning as well as forcing the cotton grower to grow a standardised type of cotton for yarn which would suit the spinning jenny all but destroyed the diversity and quality of cotton. The technology of steam processing, bailing of cotton, followed by un-baling and blow room technique introduced by the East India Company decimated the Indian cotton’s qualities such as softness, lustre, and elasticity. Weavers had to abandon home weaving and work in sheds. This policy of centralisation is still being followed, destroying rural relationships and making it a purely commercial enterprise.
Pages from the past
Uzramma’s talk Cotton Comes Alive: The Malkha Story at Apparao Gallery in the city recently featured evocative photographs of cotton manufacture in India of 200 years back. With happy artisans weaving on reed looms, seeding, dyeing etc., the photographs reflect a people in harmony with their work. In a sepia-toned photograph, a young girl lays the warp while the reed maker watches. The story then was one of close relationships, the weaving of diverse textiles, of trousseau saris made specially for village folk and of the weaving of a culture itself…
The Malkha idea is a revival and reaffirmation of this nearly lost cotton manufacturing culture. It bypasses baling, un-baling and blow room. In place of heavy spinning mill machinery, the Malkha revolution has introduced small and light, electronically driven Malkha pre-spinning carder, draw frame and fly frame, which retain the natural buoyancy of cotton. With ring frame spinning the carder, draw frame etc. can be set up near farmers’ fields and handloom weaving centres.
“We have reintroduced domestic spinning as also self management and democracy in our units, of which we have six in Adilabad district. Incidentally, micro space units could save a lot of power,” said Uzramma. “Malkha fabric is doing well in the market. There is a growing demand, and weavers are more than open to it. We have plenty of customers among the young, and it is also being used by the fashion industry. As for replicating Malkha India-wide, that will happen if it makes economic sense.” The lovely, mellow-hued, flower-spattered Malkha sari that Uzra wore makes sense — aesthetically, fashion-wise and ecology-wise. It also makes sense that the Malkha experiment is creating jobs in rural areas and bringing prosperity to cotton country.