Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stories from Chinnur: 1

Chinnur used to be an important market town until the mid-20th century. Much earlier, the Mannevarlu jati in the surrounding villages smelted steel in earthen crucibles, the famous Konasamudram steel that was exported to Damascus to make Damascene swords. When we first came to Chinnur, in 1989, and began our visits to the villages on foot [there were no buses then] we could see the ancient slag-heaps near the local cheruvu as we approached.

It had been a heavily forested area, but by then most of the forest had gone except for the odd majestic beheda standing solitary in a field, though you could see the tendu forest in Maharashtra across the Pranahita river. Our Padmashali weaver friends, husbands & wives, used to abandon their looms in the tendu leaf picking season. They would set out in the mornings with a gourd flask of fermented jonna ambali for their midday meal and return in the evenings. It was frustrating for us, but they earned more at this unskilled task than with their hereditary skills.

It was the traders among the Padmashali community who had introduced cheap powerloom cloth to the local market. As Odelu said "We made an axe from the branch of a tree and used it to cut down the tree": with the introduction of cheaper cloth local handloom weaving gradually disappeared. There was still a demand for the things that powerloom did not weave - the thick, heavy dupattlu that, doubled, served as blankets in winter. When word spread that under our project some looms had started again, people came to weaver homes asking for headcloths, lungis, and the traditional designs of sarees worn by the Golla women. This was before television came to Chinnur, when local traditions were still strong.

These were also the days before the Mineral Exploration Corporation began its ultimately successful search for coal just outside Chinnur along the 2 km stretch of highway we regularly walked between Chinnur and the weavers 'colony'. The trees lining the road would at night be lit by clouds of fireflies. There were little bloodstains on the tarmac surface, from the unshod hooves of the bullocks pulling carts. The axles of these carts had long ago been made of Kunasamudram steel.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Krista Uppal and her father Tony of Pee Empro, Faridabad, have done malkha a huge favour. This year's Nature Bazar held in Delhi by Dastkar will specifically target the Commonwealth Games, and we were wondering how to make malkha garments for this, as we have absolutely no experience or contacts in the field of garments. Krista has designed and sampled a lovely simple unisex malkha tunic while Tony is getting 300 of them tailored for us at his facility. They have done the kind of finishing of the fabric that malkha needs in order to bring out its natural softness, and also got the malkha labels woven for us. We are just overwhelmed.

This will be the first garment to be sold under the Malkha brand name.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It rained all night here in Hyderabad last night, a slow soft gentle rain that seeped into the soil and the roots of plants and trees, unlike the heavy downpours that carry away topsoil into rivers and the sea. The little bit of land around my house has become a green jungle as it always does at monsoon time.

Sometimes slow gentle processes are more fruitful than fast and forceful ones.
Following Shoba's article we've had a flood of enquiries [well about 14 to be precise] about where malkha is available in Mumbai, Delhi & Bangalore. This tells us that either Mint is more widely read there than in other Indian metros, or that people in these three cities are more interested in khadi type cloth, or both. Curiously enough it is in these 3 besides Pune, that malkha plans to hold exhibitions in the next 6 months, followed perhaps by one in Kolkatha.

Of course we would like to make malkha available everywhere at all times, but that day is yet to come: our production at present is only about 2500 metres a month, hardly enough to supply our regular customers and still have enough stock for 3-4 exhibitions a year. But as Shoba mentioned in her article, we have large ambitions. We hope to increase output gradually by setting up more and more malkha production centres in villages, particularly those where there is little opportunity for regular employment.

Meanwhile, we expect to reach the 4000 metres a month mark very soon from our 4 existing centres.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Shoba Narayan has written a lovely piece on malkha in yesterday's Mint. She stumbled onto malkha on a chance visit to the Sampoorn exhibition in Bangalore last month, and took the trouble to call and interview several people associated with it. In the article Shoba has wrestled with a description of the various stages of cotton textile production, something most people can't be bothered with. The point is that unless one knows something about how damaging the mainstream processes are, one cannot appreciate the vast difference in the way the malkha process using Gramaspinner machinery treats the delicate cotton fibre. At the malkha stall at various exhibitions we have a chart showing the stages of both the mainstream and the malkha process, but most customers are attracted just to the look and feel of the fabric itself.

For all the Bangaloreans who missed the Sampoorn show, the good news is that malkha is going to be in Bangalore again next month, this time at Dastkar's Nature Bazar.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The goal of the malkha initiative is to put all aspects of production, including management, in the hands of the producers, the people who do the actual work. In other words, to achieve true democracy in production. Unlike the corporate model, where almost the entire cadre of top executives is drawn from the elite sectors of society, the malkha model can be run and managed by people who do not have access to expensive education, or who do not come from a privileged or business background.

Now here is the problem: Any business venture involving new technology needs a long period of support before it becomes self-supporting. In the conventional business world, this support is provided by venture capitalists, who look for eventual financial returns on their investments. But what malkha needs is social investment, from investors who look for social rather than financial returns, who are prepared to invest their money in developing a just and equitable society...and that is what the malkha enterprise is searching for. The Gramaspinner technology is at the take-off stage: Only those familiar with the spinning process can appreciate the magnitude of the achievement. Now malkha is waiting for a social investor who will see its potential and share its vision.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The original malkha production unit was registered in late 2008 as a micro enterprise, the Kranti Nulu Vastrautpathi Vikraya Kendram which translates roughly as Revolutionary Yarn & Fabric Production & Sale Centre. It has fitted itself smoothly into the local handloom culture of Chirala, using the existing skills of sizing, warping and of course the actual weaving. KNVVK is managed by the six machine operators [one more has been recently inducted] who buy the lint, turn it into yarn, send the yarn to the dye-houses, get the dyed yarn wound and sized into warps, and distribute warps and weft yarn to weavers. Weavers deliver the fabric to KNVVK who send it to Malkha Marketing Trust by transport each month. KNVVK also handles all its own financial dealings, accounting and documentation, in fact all the business aspects of the enterprise. The greatest disadvantage which KNVVK and all the other malkha production centres face is the lack of reliable electrical power. Not only are there long stretches of the day with no power, but there is no time-table for the power cuts, so that it is impossbile to plan production.

MMT has helped them learn financial management, and is committed to buy all their production, at least upto 2000 metres per month - the unit breaks even at 1400 metres. MMT also helps out with advance payments to tide over gaps in production. Quality is KNVVK's responsibility.

It is a remarkable achievement that this group which began with none of the advantages of educational qualifications has turned itself from employees to management, and that too of a complex production process.

Sales at the recent event in Bangalore were satisfactory, and we were able to introduce malkha to new customers who had missed the malkha stall at last year's Nature Bazaar. The new variations of prints were popular, and we hope to have matching plains in fabric-dyed colours from Kutch for the first time in August.