At 75, Suraiya Hasan Bose has energy levels that can put a teenager to shame. But when she chats, she exhibits the languid grace of a long-forgotten nawabi culture. As women work magic on the looms at her weavers’ workshop at Dargah Hussain Shah Wali (a village on the outskirts of Hyderabad), in the adjacent Safrani Memorial School run by her, children race around with unbridled enthusiasm.
Suraiya employs a large number of poor women, many of them widows, from the village. These women are trained to work on himroo, jamawar and paithani—fabrics that were brought into India by the Mughals. "I want to see these women stand on their own feet. I wish to see looms in all their homes and hope they can train future generations too," she says. Suraiya’s unassuming demeanour envelops the large room as the women go about their work.
On the other side of the fence, the children’s learning curve, under Suraiya’s tutelage, spreads an air of hope. Like the women, students of the school too come from poor households—children of farmers, labourers or vegetable vendors. Suraiya charges them a nominal fee.
Suraiya attributes her passion to her father Badrul Hasan. Mahatma Gandhi too has been her idol. When Gandhi first visited Hyderabad, it was in front of Suraiya’s house that the first bonfire of English mill-made cloth was lit. Suraiya’s father died when she was only five but she had others to look up to. Her uncle Abid Hasan Safrani was the personal secretary to Subhash Chandra Bose and she was married to Bose’s nephew Aurobindo Bose. "My late husband was based in Calcutta, and used to be in and out of jail. Both our families understood the importance of Gandhi’s ideals of preserving traditional handlooms." It is after her uncle that the weaving society and school are named since he was the one to encourage Suraiya to follow her passion for handspun textiles.
While Suraiya is credited with the single-handed revival of the Nizami-Persian fabrics of himroo, paithani and mashroo in Andhra Pradesh, she has also worked extensively in the village of Kanchanpalli, close to Warangal. In the early ’70s, due to lack of patronage, weavers in Kanchanpalli had almost given up their profession. They merely made decorative calendars woven with portraits. Suraiya encouraged them to make durrees. Today, over 500 weaver families in Kanchanpalli make a living through durrees and other weaves.
In Warangal too, when Suraiya began her efforts to revive weavers and fast-vanishing forms of royal designs, there were just two such families. Following Suraiya’s constant efforts, there are now a thousand families involved in weaving, research and development of textiles. Several of them also come to Suraiya’s workshop to learn the intricate art of himroo. Now, Suraiya plans to train women from the nearby villages of Hafizpet and Miyapur.
Funds are slow to come by but Suraiya believes if the passion is there, money will soon follow. As the school bell rings and children rush out, Suraiya says, "Half my heart is with them. Since they come from the poorer quarters, we also teach them to use cutlery, to speak softly and even pick up any garbage they find on roads and put them into dustbins. We basically want them to be honest and respectful citizens."
Despite Suraiya’s busy schedule, she is at the school every day at 8 am. "What’s heartening is, marriage is not a priority for the girls passing out from my school. College is. That’s our greatest achievement," she says, her eyes shining through her bifocals.
Her future plans? Adding weaving classes to the school curriculum. For like Gandhi, Suraiya’s dream is to see a loom in every home.
Contact Suraiya at: Safrani School premises, 1-86, Dargah Hussain Shah Wali, PO: Golconda, Hyderabad: 500008 Tel: (040) 23563792, 23560992.