Special Column
A Frayed History : The Journey of Cotton in India

By Rajesh Govindarajulu

Mar 10, 2019

Cotton has been known as white gold. India has always been at the forefront of the textile industry because of cotton. There was a time when more than hundred ports in India used to export textiles. The textile activity has been existent from time immemorial in the sub continent. Indian textiles were preferred by the people of Rome during the zenith of their empire. Thanks to our cotton textile exports a lot of Roman gold and silver found its way into India. Archeologists and historians have discovered coins belonging to several Roman emperors in India. Most of the coins were discovered in Tamilnadu. The Kongu region has been the largest source thus far. Dinamalar Krishnamurthy has published a huge number of books and they contain a large number of details about the coins from Rome. Prof Vijaya Ramaswamy of The Jawaharlal Nehru University has written much about the textile exports from India to the rest of the world. Dr.R.Nagaswamy has authored the book ' Roman Karur ' and its an important compendium which contains details about all this and more. Our textile exports acted as a cultural exchange and many Romans visited our region for centuries. In fact Coimbatore had a Roman settlement at Vellalore. The second Chola ruler, Aditya ( 875 - 907 AD ) had taken away the stashed Roman gold while annexing Kongunad. The gold was used to cover the shrine of Lord Nataraja at Chidambaram with gold by his son Parantaka Chola I ( 907 - 0955 AD ). The temple is known as ' Ponnambalam ' and perhaps its was the first temple tower to be covered by gold in the south. 



Cotton has been a cash crop and it has always added to the wealth and prosperity of India. The cotton farmers, spinners , weavers and manufacturers of implements were part of the village economy and this network created the economic backbone for the country. Cotton has a ' frayed history ' in India and this has been brought out in an absorbing manner by Meena Menon and UZRAMMA in the Oxford University Press Publication - A frayed History : The Journey of Cotton in India. Meena Menon is a senior journalist and she had begun her innings in the year 1984. She has worked as the Deputy Editor of The Hindu, Bombay Magazine, United News of India, Mid Day and The Times of India. Menon is the author of ' Reporting Pakistan ', Riots and after in Mumbai, Organic Cotton - Reinventing the Wheel and the Unseen Worker , co written with Sharmila Joshi. Urzamma is the director of Malkha Marketing and the founder of Dastkar Andhra, a non profit research centre for handloom weaving. She has been having a role in the cotton textile industry for the last 30 years. Urzamma founded the Decentralised Cotton Yarn Trust and the Malkha Marketing Trust. She has been a member of policy groups for the handloom industry and has participated in multiple seminars on cotton growing, weaving and marketing. 



The book is quite riveting and seeks to absorb the reader for good. It contains a list of tables , list of abbreviations, acknowledgements and a neat introduction. This part of the book is quite enriching for it will help readers who are not fully familiar with textiles to get acclimatized with the subject. The concluding part of the book has the appendix in two parts, references, index and a note on the authors. One must say that the authors have done a fantabulous job. The eight chapters are kind of eight sentinels who would lead the aspirer into eight directions which would help one understand the world of cotton textiles.

A total of 320 pages help us to navigate the world of cotton. The chapters are (1) Webs of Woven Wind : A Walk through the History of Cotton and Cloth in India ( 2 ) Cotton in Colonial India ( 3 ) The agrarian Crisis in Maharashtra ( 4 ) How the Government Failed the Farmer ( 5 ) Bt Cotton in India ( 6 ) Weaving Cotton Cloth on the Handloom : Stories of Cotton Weaving ( 7 ) The Malkha Story (8) Conclusion : Looking to the future. About 25 tables, boxes and maps are carefully strewn around within the book. These are a must for the reader. It is amply clear that the authors have put in years of their work and perception into the book. The book kind of resembles the huge ocean called cotton textiles and the awareness created by the authors should hopefully create a churn through which the nectar called ' prosperity based on contentment ' is extracted in the interest of the stakeholders. 



The book has references to Marco Polo and also later day developments like Suvin cotton ( created out of Sujatha and St.Vincent ). Coimbatore District had been a pioneer in dealing with the same. The authors speak at length about the connection between cotton and India. Cotton fabrics had been discovered in the ruins of Mohenjodaro and they belong to the 3000 BCE. The fabrics had been expertly spun and woven. Harrappans wove a range of cotton fabrics. It was used by the rich and the poor those times. According to the authors, cotton had been worshipped and held sacred by Brahmins and tribals too. Cotton fabrics were being exported from India for more than 2500 years. The export continued for thousands of years until cotton became an export commodity during the colonial times. Ancient Indian scriptures talk a lot about cotton for it was used to make the ' sacred ' thread worn by the initiated. 

India had the home to several varieties of desi cotton and the country was perhaps home to the largest cotton seed diversity in the world. Every region had its own type of cotton and pattern of cultivation based on the local geography. The locals used to spin cotton with simple implements that were made with the locally available materials. Thereafter, the yarn thus spun was given to weavers for making fabrics. Dhotis , sarees and head gears were made along with other items for the local populace. The surplus was sold to merchants who came visiting the centres once in a way. Therefore different weaves, colours and traditions became part of the repertoire. There was a time when such activities made our country the largest exporter in the world. China overtook India much later, but it stood second until it was run over by Europeans. Long ago, the farmer, ginner , spinner and weaver co existed and they worked with each other during lean seasons. 

Unforunately European incursions and the effects of industrialization destroyed the role of our country which had been a fountainhead of international commerce. India's share in international trade shrunk to less than 2% in the year 1900 it was a far cry from 18% plus that existed during 1800. The Lancashire cloth destroyed the lives of local spinners and weavers over 100 years. Slowly India became a cotton exporting and textile importing country. The loss of ' value addition ' had made our people poorer. Several varieties of desi cotton lost out for they could not be used in the new spinning machine because of the staple length. Unfortunately, the machines could not make fine fabrics with short staple cotton but the weavers could do it effortlessly. Fine high count cotton yarn spun by the weavers was made into the finest of fabrics that could be made. Everyone loved it but crass industrialization destroyed all of this and this issue has been studied well by the authors. 

The authors have written well about Bt cotton and its drawbacks. They have mentioned that cotton was a rainfed cash crop and the later day developments made it consume more water. The use of fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation for cotton cultivation has been studied fully. For the authors say that it lead to losses, debts, psychological problems and suicides which have crossed 300,000. The agrarian crisis that was caused in Maharashtra between 1999 and 2014 has been brought out in this book. A lot of water had been diverted for sugarcane. The authors have tried to make the reader understand more about the failed American cotton experiment in Coimbatore. A full chapter has been devoted to underline the failures of the state. The Malkha Story has been brought out well. The good work of the champions of Malkha have added to our faith. Malkha , was coined from joining the first two halves of two traditional Indian fabrics, Mulmul and Khadi. The success of the concept reached a peak when Indian Fashion Designers praised it ,used it and they included Tarun Tahiliani, Wendell Rodricks, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Mayank Kaul, Peter d 'Ascoli and Aneeth Arora. 

The industrial revolution had kind of made a lot of sectors miss out on diversity opine the authors. The inability of technology to make use of the diversity of nature has been brought in the case of cotton and cotton textiles. We can surely understand the concept ' One size does not fit all '. The hangover of colonialism had in fact made life difficult in this arena. The authors want everyone to look into history and build on natural advantages. It becomes important to choose a future for Indian cotton, in the interest of the farmer and weaver. Gandhiji had made people understand that , the charkha , the handloom were symbols of political and economic freedom. However , policy makers post freedom seemed to have missed out and bungled. Europeans had just used cotton for making wicks whereas Indians had a huge application. The wheel had helped the people and the economy to move ahead. The Author's have stated that cotton cotton should be freed from colonial policies in our country. They want yarn making technology in India to be revolutionized , so that it is flexible enough to service the diversity that is the hallmark of Indian cotton. They want a decentralized approach towards to manufacture and weaving of cotton. The authors feel that growing varieties which require fewer outputs that may reduce the cost of cultivation , starting with seeds will be important and even it meant reinventing the wheel. They feel that choices will have to real and not enforced, whether in buying the seeds or even to leave cultivation and weaving altogether for they feel suicide cannot be the alternative for the distressed farmer. 

Cotton seed diversity, geographic diversity, weaving diversity and fine fabrics made with finest of counts have been brought out well. Accolades to Ally ( Ahalya ) Mathan and Mayank of the Saree Registry for having given an oppourtunity to the people of Coimbatore to dwell into a past which saw the region as a major player. The collection of Martand Singh and more would not just be safe in ' The Registry of Sarees ' but will spawn more in the same line and methods hopefully. A big clap for Lakshmi Mills for having hosted this event successfully.

The authors have made the book thoroughly interesting and it is sure to make people understand the bio diversity can survive only if we used technology in a specialized manner. They have also stated that small scale but cost effective manufacture will help the farmer, weaver and the village economy. The bad effects of Bt cotton and irrigated cotton have been brought out appropriately. The preservation of desi cotton seeds and Indian methods are sure to add to the economic flavor of the country. The book is well written and a few photographs could have helped the cause further. 

On going through this book, every Coimbatorean is sure to know that the region was a great cotton and textile centre long before it became the ' Manchester of South India '. The samba godhumai from this region was grown along with cotton in the rain fed black cotton soil of this region. The curd made out from the milk of local cows used to mixed with the uppuma and had happily by the farmers and weavers as well. Late industrialist V.Sathyanathan of Palani Andavar Cotton & Synthetic Spinners used to state that the lands which had cultivated both cotton and samba goghumai made sure that the farmers were better off. How true .

A Frayed History - The Journey of Cotton in India by Meena Menon and Urzamma is a really fascinating journey. Let us all take this journey forward in a fascinating manner. Yes, we owe to nature, our country, our farmers, our weavers and our people. 

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