When writer Radhika Singh was working on her book on the lifestyle retail brand Fabindia, there was one name that kept coming up in her research: Suraiya Hasan Bose. She first found it on the list of people she was requested to speak to and then again in the letters Fabindia founder John Bissell wrote to his American parents over a period of four decades. In the letters, Bissell spoke “very fondly” of Bose – how they interacted, how much he respected her and her immense contributions to the textile industry in the Deccan.

Her interest piqued, Singh decided to find out more about the diminutive and soft-spoken Suraiya apa, as she is popularly known. The research, as soon as it began, hit a roadblock: very little had been written about one of India’s leading textile revivalists. “It was shocking that this person who...had contributed so much to the textiles of our country had no book on her,” said Singh to Scroll.in. “I knew then that I had to be the medium to share her story.” Her new book, Suraiya Hasan Bose: Weaving a Legacy, released in March, documents the life story of the unsung legend, who is responsible for bringing back forgotten weaves like himru and mashru.

Originally from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, Bose’s family moved to Hyderabad in 1874, where Bose was born in 1928. Her father Badrul Hasan, as Singh details in her book, was a trailblazer in many ways. A Congress loyalist, an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and a participant in the Swadeshi movement, he set up Hyderabad’s first English book store, Hyderabad Book Depot, opened the Cottage Industries Emporium in the city, and worked to revive the intricate metalwork, bidri. It was hard for Bose not to inherit his passions.

Bose studied textiles at Cambridge University, and then returned to Hyderabad to work as the assistant manager at the Cottage Industries Emporium. Soon after, she met professor Maria May from the University of Hamburg. May was a consultant to the Indian government, helping it create a global market for Indian textiles, and was in Hyderabad researching Indian textiles.

Impressed by Bose’s work, May set up a meeting between Bose and the “czarina of culture” Pupul Jayakar, which resulted in Bose’s move to Delhi in the mid-1950s and her long association with the newly-constituted Handloom and Handicrafts Export Corporation. Over the next decade, Bose worked with legendary figures of the Indian textile world, including Martand Singh, Lakshmi Jain and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Her two-decade stint in Delhi gave her a thorough grounding in textiles that would hold her in good stead on her return to Hyderabad. It was also during this time that she married Subhash Chandra Bose’s nephew Aurobindo Bose.

Kalesham, a weaver, touches up a wall hanging while Suraiya Hasan Bose adds a detail.
Kalesham, a weaver, touches up a wall hanging while Suraiya Hasan Bose adds a detail.

Bose returned to Hyderabad in 1972 at the behest of her uncle Abid Hussain Safrani. He had bought 10 acres of land outside the city, where Bose would start a school – named after her uncle – and her own handloom unit.

In her book Singh writes that Bose seriously started to work with the region’s rich hand-woven textiles upon her return to Hyderabad. She built relationships with master weavers and helped change designs, colours and patterns based on what she had learnt would appeal to the export markets. She used her Delhi experience to reconstitute the construction of the fabric, increasing and decreasing the thread counts to cater to different clients, including Fabindia. Under her helmsmanship, unique products were created, such as durries with ikat and kalamkari prints as well as gadwal and uppada saris. Her dedicated work resurrected two near-extinct weaves – himru and mashru.

“Her [Bose’s] story is the story of Indian textiles,” said Singh. “It’s an integral part of our history. Through her work, one can see the history of the process of weaving, and how textiles were revived in independent India by committed individuals. Himru would have been just an artefact we [would have] read about if it wasn’t for her.”

Himru (derived from the Persian word hum-ruh) was developed in Persia as a cheaper substitute to kum-khwab, a brocade woven with silk and gold threads and worn by the royalty. While the Nizam’s court kept himru weavers busy for two centuries, the fabric fell out of favour after Independence. In 1972, Bose was surprised to see that there were only 12 looms on which the textile was being made in Hyderabad. Her first step towards redressing this was to seek the help of Abdul Qadir, a master weaver. Qadir had worked with the Handlooms and Handicrafts Board, but the declining focus on himru meant he had been transferred to a glass fabrication unit.

In the book Bose recalls that she was shocked when she saw Qadir’s condition. “The greatest himru weaver in the country at the time had sores all over his legs due to the fact that he had been handling glass in a factory.”

Suraiya Hasan Bose and Syed Omar, the master weaver, work on a complicated jaala.
Suraiya Hasan Bose and Syed Omar, the master weaver, work on a complicated jaala.

Woven on an eight-pedal loom, where the thread must pass through eight eyes, himru is an extremely complicated weave. The warp and weft are mostly cotton yarn and the design, viewed on both sides of the cloth, is in silk. Complicated designs can have as many as six thousand threads.

Bose’s search for old himru samples led her to odd swatches in the Old City of Hyderabad. The Cottage Industries Emporium had old himru pieces in their forgotten inventory, including faded stoles, damaged sherwanis and pieces of fabric. She bought old graphs or jaalas (the blueprints) of himru designs from a family of weavers living in Aurangabad and started cataloguing them. Traditional designs were identified, new graphs were painstakingly prepared, and some experimental weaving began.

Another weave that Bose is closely identified with is mashru. The weave, which is also woven on eight pedals, was woven for Muslim communities, who believed that silk should not touch a person’s skin. In mashru, the warp is in cotton and the weft, where the design is visible, is in silk. The upper silk layer has the design and the lower layer is plain cotton. Sometimes the silk yarn used was tie-and-dyed together, giving it the appearance of ikat.

Men dressed in sherwanis woven at Suraiya Hasan Bose's handloom unit.
Men dressed in sherwanis woven at Suraiya Hasan Bose's handloom unit.

According to Singh, Bose’s greatness lies in the fact that her efforts helped preserve “what our ancient culture of weaving gave us and its art, its craft and its history. She gave the two weaves of himru and mashru everything she has – her energy, her brain and her commitment. Her samples of himru and mashru were little rags of four inches by eight inches from which she pulled out threads and made jaalas...her work in reviving these two weaves and ensuring that generations have worn them is unparalleled.”

Bose’s weaves also included paithani (a gold and silk sari) and telia rumals (double ikat weaves). Her designs became a hit with handloom enthusiasts and Hyderabad’s upper crust who valued her singular pieces – unique double ikats, rich gadwals, the signature Hyderabadi rumal sari or an innovative kalamkari. Her designs were also showcased at The Fabric of India, an exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2015.

Bose now owns over a hundred graphs that have been laboriously made over the last 30 years. Each one is a unique blueprint of a particular design and exists only because she cared to recreate them. Singh says that the importance of Bose’s work is beyond superlatives. “Creativity can’t be institutionalised and in her work, you get a clear sense of the post-Independence history of Indian textiles,” she said. “It’s about individuals like her who can make a change at the grassroots level. Her story makes you question why...our own handlooms, which have existed for centuries, are languishing for want of patronage. I only hope that people realise that our textiles are our country’s art, craft and history. That is the sole premise behind this book.”

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