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Kozhikode’s fading fabrics and tiles

Textile and roof tile businesses, which were once an integral part of the city’s transition from a feudal society to a modern one, are dying a slow death

Nothing can usually link a piece of textile cloth with a roof tile. But they were part of Kozhikode’s transition from a predominantly feudal society to one influenced by colonial modernity.

Some remnants that will help us connect with this past of the city are slowly fading into oblivion, though. The Calicut of yore was known for its textile business even abroad. It was here the Calico brand of plain-woven textile originated. Made from unbleached and incompletely processed cotton, it was later popularised by the British. The Comtrust Weaving Factory carried on this legacy of cotton business until a decade ago. Sadly, the factory building is left to go to wrack and ruin. It was closed down in 2009.

The tale of roof tiles of Kozhikode is hardly different. The Calicut brand of roof tiles was once the most sought after for house construction. The tile factories that dotted the banks of the Chaliyar river in Feroke are closing down one by one with little chances of a resurgence.

The tiles and textiles of Kozhikode, interestingly, have a common history. Missionaries of the Basel Mission started the textile factory overlooking the Mananchira tank in the 19thcentury. They dabbled both in tile and textile business, apparently to give jobs to neo-converts from ‘lower castes’ to Christianity. They introduced European frame looms that can weave broad clothes. Dyeing was based on chemical process, and the yarn was mercerised. The company’s ownership had changed hands in the meanwhile. The British and then an Indian management took it over, and the institution came to be run by a trust later.

The first tile factory in Kozhikode was also set up by Westerners in the 19th century. That was the time when houses with thatched roofs were giving way to tile-roofed structures. The tile factories at Feroke on the shore of Chaliyar river benefited from the abundance of clay there. The roof tiles from Calicut were very much popular across the State as they gave a cooling effect to the rooms. But it is not business as usual for them any more.

It was mounting losses, business setbacks, and natural dominance of powerlooms that led to the closure of the weaving factory in 2009. The tile factories of Feroke, likewise, started winding up with the shortage of raw material and intrusion of Chinese ceramic tiles. Environmental regulations that blocked the procurement of clay added to the woes faced by tile manufacturers. There were around 15 tile factories operating in the 90s. The number has dwindled to four now, a majority of them being run by employees themselves. The rest have either diversified into other sectors or converted themselves to convention centres or auditoriums.

Perhaps the shakeout in the two industries was inevitable. For, no industry escapes its life cycle. Comtrust employees managed to get a Bill passed in the Assembly for a government takeover. That would have led to the setting up of a modern handloom factory and a textile museum. The proposed museum, if it becomes a reality, will showcase the history of the weaving factory. But chances of its revival are dim. The tile industry is also unlikely to have a bright future. If the companies can be managed by employees-run cooperative societies or groups, that option has to be explored.

The tile and textile industries, sharing a common history here, should not be left to die a slow death.

(Malabar Mail is a weekly column by The Hindu’s correspondents that will reflect Malabar’s life and lifestyle.)

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 6:00:34 PM |

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