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Sunday 24 March 2013

South Indian sericulture- portrait of a bygone era

Dr. Simon Charsley
An interview with K.V. Achuthan Nair, by Dr Simon Charsley, University of Glasgow
That Bangalore hosts International Sericultural Commission, is in recognition of the importance of South Indian Sericulture to global silk industry. The story, how sericulture took roots in these parts lay buried deep in history, relics sparse. What toils, earnest and selfless efforts have gone into its making! The story unfolds through this interview; conducted by Simon Charsley with K.V. Achuthan Nair (DD Seric Rtd, Department of Sericulture, Karnataka) on Friday 11 September 1992. Achuthan Nair passed away on 8th August 2010, at 96.

To Achuthan Nair in the morning.
From Kerala originally but no family home left there: we discussed the tharavad[1] and its advantages a little.
Now 76, having retired at 55 in 1972, so must have been born 1916/ 17[2]. When he retired he thought it would be good to relax, take up some social work or some such, but people had kept coming to consult him about sericulture. They then asked him to keep the chemicals etc he was recommending so that they could get them conveniently. So he set up R.V. Enterprises[3]: they have their own product, Polmr dust[4] for grasserie and flacherie.
In 1943 he joined the Madras Department in Kollegal together with Punja[5], Ranganatha Rao[6], Venugopalan Nair[7] – 5 or 6 of them. It was hard because they had no stipend during the training period. At the time unemployment was very bad in Kerala. He knew someone in the government secretariat who    let him know about the opportunity. So it was chance that he came to sericulture.
It was the war that gave impetus to it. The British Empire had no-one else to supply silk for parachutes and they asked all states to implement projects for it. Madras put up a project for making filature silk and was given 300 basins and the filature was started. Nobody worried about the supply of cocoons, but there were only 25,000 acres - or should this have been 2,500? - under mulberry and this would be sufficient for 50 basins only. So then they got further a project for expansion of the mulberry acreage, production of eggs, research, etc.
1958 training batch of All India Sericulture Institute, Mysore
Achuthan Nair is seen sitting fourth from left
During training they were taken to Berikai just south of the Mysore border, northeast of Hosur Town in Madras, because there were a few Muslims there rearing worms on just three acres of mulberry and the Department had a small unit for purchasing cuttings from them for use in new areas. It was indigenous varieties and they were very mixed. They would just select the better bushes in the field to take cuttings from.
At Denkanikottai there was also a little rearing going on. When they went there as students during training, it was very remote, no good communications. Just one bus and because of the petrol shortage this ran on charcoal: it burnt charcoal to make gas and ran on that. No sanitary conveniences or anywhere to get food. They joked about who would be the unlucky man to get posted there. When he actually was he was asked how he felt about it. He said 'I like it, sir'. Surprised, his officer asked why: 'Because you are posting me there', he said. There was no source of food there, and he also had a problem that after he graduated he had been given charge of the family land in his own place in Kerala.
It was a sort of sacrifice they made to go to such places, but he formed a club there, the Friends Union, out of the few educated people around, in the Department and others. They used to play cards but not for gambling. They got a badminton court in the farm and in the end people started coming there on leave.
But before that A.T.Janakiram[8] was his senior officer. He had joined as a Probationer as early as 1930 and had a reputation for being very strict and difficult about allowing anyone casual leave. But he came to visit, saw him there and asked V.R. Uttaman[9] who was his immediate superior (and still living at the time), why he had not given him leave: he looked reduced and needed to go home. He replied that he could not go because he had too much to do. 'I will look after your work', said Uttaman. Of course he did not; someone else was deputed to do it, but he was very appreciative of his efforts - but he did not reward him by giving him a transfer from that place.
One particular drawback of the place was that, if there were a reduction in the cocoon rate, everyone blamed him and came and pressured him, since he was alone there. He had also to be a bit deceitful since Kollegal had to have seed cocoons every day. If left to themselves, when one man cut his mulberry others would follow, so they tended to get everyone wanting to rear at once. He would have to prevent this happening by telling them that the layings were pebrinised: if they wanted to risk it that was up to them. 'No, sir, we will wait'. The seed cocoons went by van to Kollegal at night, via Bangalore, in special cylindrical baskets. These were bamboo with gaps for ventilation and lids and they travelled on their sides, piled to allow plenty of ventilation and avoid crushing. They would get to Kollegal in the early morning.
They also started a farm in Hosur with 80 acres under mulberry, under the big Andivadi tank. Government acquired the whole irrigated area, 100 acres and it was divided into 7 units, each run independently but co-ordinated by a senior officer. It was for rearing Foreign Race (FR) seed cocoons which also went to Kollegal, and there were good selected rearers around the farm too. Hosur Cattle Farm was where the basic FR seed was prepared, i.e. it was already an embryo P system. Stock races were maintained at Coonoor, with J(apan) and C(hina) nos. There were also farms at Berikai and Denkanikote for the improvement of the indigenous race. They were therefore quite independent of Mysore, except that they would get in Mysore race from time to time as new blood, to be crossed with their own. Apart from this there was a little rearing in Hindupur which was also in Madras at the time, and there were small demonstration farms there.
Locally, 'Pure Mysore' - so termed - was being reared, very crudely. They would allow the moths to emerge from the seed cocoons, mate, and the pairs would be removed to other trays. The males would be removed; the females would lay just on the tray itself, with no disinfection. Eggs would hatch and the worms would be fed on the same tray. They would then be given to whoever required them. It was not rearing as chawki but immediate selling. Later they began using paper for laying. Another practice was to keep eggs on brass eating plates. When the worms emerged they would feed them on the plates and cover the plate with tray. This was to keep them cool, and in the coolest part of the house. After second moult they would transfer them to ordinary trays.
The price of cocoons was very low, Annas 3-4 per lb., and why sericulture continued was questioned. The answer given was that Karnataka was airconditioned, i.e. very good for worms naturally, whatever rearers did to them. There were landlords with plenty of  land, 30-40 acres under mulberry. They would go out and bring the leaf home, giving it to family members, the women, to rear. They might be taking 1000 layings for 30-40 acres, getting only 15-20 lbs per 100. The money was pocket money for the ladies, and the waste went for cattle food. The cuttings of mulberry would be stacked up like a haystack and would provide the fuel for months.
[Were tenants the rearers?] The basic idea was that it was the landlords themselves, but a portion of mulberry might be given to the poorest families on share basis. This was certainly happening then too. There was not much irrigation; most land was just rain-fed and by September the dry crops had been         harvested and there was no work for the labourers. Sericulture could provide work for the idle labourers since the mulberry would still sprout up to Jan/Feb. Rearing, it seemed, was essentially by the family. SCs[10] could not enter houses of caste Hindus so could not work in rearing there. During menstruation ladies could not touch the worms. They said they were Lakshmi and there was puja to them, especially at moulting. This was felt to be a bad time for the worms when they had to be looked after well, hence the puja. An attachment to the worms was certainly felt. [This may actually refer more to Kollegal, since he went on to say that the Hosur rearers were almost all Muslims.]
So he joined the Department after training in 1944, and was posted as Seed Campaign Officer at Hosur for the indigenous seed. His job was to expand the mulberry planted and get people rearing. In the initial stages people were very resistant, fearing some calamity in the house if they took it up. When he approached they would also ask him, what was the charitable thing in rearing? If you grow sugarcane, the thief may come and take it and we may also offer it to visitors. So there was dharma in growing it. Where was the dharma in mulberry? Of course we may get money, but we do not want to do it. So he would contact an important man and go and visit him. They would enquire about the welfare of the country, and what his sons were doing, and would go away. He would repeat such visits. Eventually he would ask him to do one thing for his sake: plant 2 acres of mulberry. He would say 'Sir, for your sake I will plant it'. So he would guide him and rear the worms as if they were his own in that man's house.
For Muslim rearers, sericulture was convenient because their ladies were not allowed to go out, but inspection was a problem. They would have to inform them in advance that they were coming, so that they could bring the worms out. But then he used to tell them that if they insisted on this he could not make them seed rearers, so they then allowed the Department people in. In fact it was identified with Muslims and they had a joking term, 'Pashadega' or some such - about which he was worried in case it implied derogatory attitudes to another community – because it seemed to be all Pashas who did it.
He was also preparing the layings and issuing them, limiting it to 100-150 per shed. He had to prepare the layings himself; he could not entrust it to anyone else because if someone missed disease, it would be he himself who would be blamed by the Department and by the sericulturists.
Kollegal was a small area and the Department there could do everything very well. In Mysore they always had big areas and a large number of rearers to contend with, and this was more difficult. He was very preoccupied about not criticising the Mysoreans: they had been good to him, so he should not do so.
He also at times had some difficulty about being a Keralan[11] and running things in Karnataka, but clearly he does have the feeling that things do not quite work properly there. The Madras officers were well trained and they had experience of everything. Everywhere the rearing was in patches of several or single villages. Even distant villages might take it up because of some marriage connection, but even neighbouring villages might not. It was a matter of personal inconvenience and convictions. He stressed that village heads were very strong in those days. If a leader did not want it done, it would not be done. He accepted also the other way round: if a head wanted to introduce it, others would follow.
A good idea to regard the rearing area as made up of villages rather than individual rearers, with clusters and isolates, e.g. the three acres at Berikai where rearing somehow managed to persist. There the rearers, who were Muslims, would reel their own cocoons on charkas. After the seed area was established, such reeling was not allowed but in practice the reject cocoons which did not go for seed continued to be reeled locally. The main centres for sericulture in Kollegal were Kuntur, Kamagere and Hanur, a little at Palya, [i.e. not a very different pattern to subsequent.]
Kuntur: there is a story that Tipu passed that side and saw it. He had heard about Kollegal silk and announced 'This is Kollegal'. [The significance of the story is not quite clear, but it seems to be that Kollegal was claimed to have been identified with silk in Tipu’s time.] There is a pond in Kuntur which was said to have absolutely neutral water which was the source of the very good colour of the silk there. It was one of the early reeling places, also Doddinduvadi and Surapura.
Cocoons were purchased by reelers who would go to the rearers’ houses, see the worms and advance money for the cocoons. The rearers were then bound to sell to them. The reeler would take a handful and put it aside 'for God', before weighing the rest and paying for them. They also charged interest on the advance. It was to avoid this kind of thing that cocoon markets were set up. The reelers were Muslims mainly.  ...  [Discussion of prominent individual reelers]....  Achuthan Nair did not know much about the silk trade. The Filature got cocoons from Mysore in the end. He thought there were small purchasers of silk in Kollegal but the big people like Rachegowda would go to B'lore. There were lots of cocoon brokers who took the cocoons to Mysore. The markets the Department set up were at Kollegal, by the filature, Kamagere and Hanur, but the cocoons from them were being bought for the filatures since there were no reelers coming to them.
Later in his career he was in charge of the silkworm gut manufacturing section at Coonoor. Ripe worms were soaked in acid and the gut was removed and stretched. Then the sericin was removed by boiling with soap. It was for external use only and was replaced with nylon, but that has disadvantages: people may be allergic to it and it snaps, neither of which happens with silkworm gut. Previously it had been produced in Spain by ladies incubating the cocoons under their breasts and exported to Johnson & Johnson in London: a complex and extraordinary tale in fact here. He also tried to develop gut for fishing as it is undetectable in water, and even to make brushes out of the waste, but the operation had to be closed.
Farewell to KV. Achuthan Nair, from All India Sericulture Institute,
on  31.03.1960 Mr. Nair is flanked by MN. Narasimhanna
on his right and NK. Guruprasad (Principal) on his left
1948-53 he was at the Hope Silk Farm in Hosur for FR production, and in 1956 when Kollegal joined Mysore he was Sericultural Superintendent in charge of the Central Grainage there.
Their separate organisation continued for some time. He then went to CSB as Sericultural Expert in the All-India Sericultural Training Institute here in Mysore. At the time research was still at Channapatna under the State government, but he was starting it at the Institute. All the sericultural processes had to be organised there and he trained two batches. They came from all over India and are now in good position everywhere.
He would have been happy to continue there but he had not had experience of serving in Karnataka. Had been in Madras [Hosur and Kollegal] with its different atmosphere: competitive and with the opportunity to have experience of all stages of sericulture. Uttaman became Director at this time. He called him and told him that there were vacancies at Chamarajanagar, Kolar and? Channapatna: which did he want? He said he wanted to go where he could best show good work. So Uttaman told him to take Chamarajanagar. There had previously been no organisation there and he had to establish everything. It also had the hill station at BR Hills and Uttaman thought his experience at Coonoor would be useful. So he organized the division. This was in 1960. He had to give technical advice to the villagers and there were farms to be opened. He wanted to purchase the land there where the Farm/and grainage are now, but the 21 or 25 Uppaligashetty landowners were not willing to part with it at the rate of compensation offered. ... [Account of obtaining land there, told off the record, apparently because it implied criticism of what went on in Karnataka.]  ... . He was in charge of 3 taluks and had also to start chawki rearing there. The rearing at the time was by very crude methods and the object of the centres was to demonstrate better. For each there was a demonstrator and a labourer, supposed to be supervised by a committee of sericulturists. The committee was expected to lease mulberry land for the use of the centre but sometimes this was not possible. Then the farmers would have to bring in the leaves to feed their own worms. Maybe ten people would bring leaves from ten different gardens: that was not good as they tended to get mixed up in the feeding. If the committees had worked well, Chawki Rearing Centres (CRCs) – would not have turned out badly.
Sericulture was always a side industry. The poor man can't afford to produce a successful crop because of all the drawbacks he labours under in the form of shortage of resources. And for the rich man, he has other diversions, so is less interested. They used to consider sericulture as a poor man's industry, but just recently it has turned into a richman's.
Markets: along with the CRCs they were opening cocoon markets in Chamarajnagar. The first idea was that should be one within 5 miles of every rearer, so that he would be able to get there easily. They would have 4/5 reelers present for auctions and they would be forced to attend. But then the reelers would not come: suppose the rate was lower in some other market, they would want to go there. And rearers similarly. It was not possible to control it by legislation. A rearer went to court arguing that he had produced the cocoons and should be able to sell where he pleased. So they retained the markets where transactions were good, but in the end could not force people to use any particular one. Finally few survived but the big ones, and more people go to Ramanagaram. [So what about small markets like Harave and Hanur that still existed?]  They were big markets earlier and still have some people wanting to sell only there. Harave was at a centee of rearing. Nearby is Maliyur with MLA[12] M.C. Basappa whose brother M.C. Swamy was a very good rearer from the beginning. He was an Agriculture graduate and used to take 400-500 layings and rear continuously. He is one of his customers for chemicals.
After the War there was a setback. Imports began and a tariff of 150% was imposed to maintain the home industry. It was sericulturists’ capacity to make use of idle labour which interested government, safeguarding the interests of labour. Indian silk was costly, hence the need for protection.
Killing silkworms: In Berikai there was a Tamil family, Gowdas, Mariswamy & Co. They were vegetable seed preparers and suppliers. They were good agriculturists and friends of his, and they used to attend his functions. He requested them to plant mulberry, but for all of 32 years’ friendship they resisted. They asked him not to press them. And it was the connection with killing worms which worried them. So there were some people who did think like that. A story of an orthodox Brahmin lady in Madras: when she saw a boy in charge of reeling she asked him what community he belonged to. He said he was an Iyengar Brahmin. She: ‘Why, being born as a Brahmin, should he do such a cruel action? Is it not sinful?’ Then seeing some silk fabric, she immediately wanted it. So the boy wanted to know, was that not sinful too? She: that it was different’.
The purity of silk: Pithambara = 'yellow silk' and it is mentioned in the Puranas as being used by the Gods. [Why?] Because silk is a non-conductor of heat and electricity. So even now Brahmins used to wear silk only. For worshipping, they didn't allow the pupa to be killed. Ripe worms are put on a plate and allowed to roam around producing silk. Maybe 5-6 and they move about the plate forming a sheet of silk, and this sheet is used to keep the idol on in old Brahmin homes. He himself clearly feels that it is a somewhat illegitimate betrayal of the silkworm to steal its cocoon and destroy it in the process, a creature dependent on man. But nowadays nobody has any such sentiments anymore.
Sericulture before Tipu. There were no sources for this. [This led him to stress how] in the 1940s there was no book to refer to for sericulture. Even when he was the sericulture man in the Institute he had to note down everything for himself. All aspects of science come together and interact in sericulture. He would discuss points that occurred to him with the specialists in Botany etc. [In fact there was already some good Indian literature, e.g. N.G.Mukerji’s Handbook of Sericulture of 1910/11, N. Rama Rao and M. Yonemura’s on silkworm rearing of 1925, Maxwell-Lefroy’s Report of 1916/17, On the Silk Industry of India, and others; but none have been easy to find.]
Any new people wanting to take up sericulture come to contact him. They come with grand notions of starting with 20-50 acres: he tells them to plant 2 acres for a start. Can then continue rearing from that and know all the pinpricks of sericulture. Then they can expand. If you fail after plunging in, you will fail really badly. His contribution he sees as increasing yield by 1 kg. He did have a scheme after retirement to set up a grainage and farm, get in other retired people to establish a consultancy service, but there were problems in getting a grainage licence etc, so he settled down with just himself and consultancy. The only thing is that he cannot go and visit the farms. If he went to one, he would have to go to all and that is impractical. But he does see private consultancy as the way the industry has to go.
He is also keen on people setting up local sericulture organisations, with their own grainages etc, on the Japanese model. [I commented that in the 1920s there had been so much talk of conferences and associations and that kind of thing, but it had gone away. Why were things different now?] He thought it was because there were so many more educated sericulturists now that it is increasingly possible to organise. Such a scheme with which he is associated - confidential - was now under application.
[Individual contacts:  ... .]
He was also in the Seed Area for 5 years as Assistant Director in charge of the whole thing: in these days there are so many Deputy Directors and a Joint Director and still it does not run properly. He noted that it was cyclical, every 5 years. In 1965 there was talk of pebrine but with the co-operation of his staff they could easily control it. Responsibility is the thing. [I put it to him that in the early stages of the industry Brahmins had played a big part, subsequently Lingayats had been very important.] He agreed and also that this had something to do with the idea of service they had. Subsequently people just in it as jobs and not really interested. [The way things were running down was an inevitable theme, but there was also a very positive side to his account.]
[Mr Nair was, as seen above, a very interesting informant, a charming man as well. It was a pleasure to spend time with him, his delightful smile animating an otherwise aging face.]

Editors Notes

[1] Tharavad: name of the joint family of Hindus in Kerala. The Nair tharavad used to be a complex house hold with unique joint family lifestyle, now almost nonexistent.
[2] Achuthan Nairs’s son, Krishnan Unni confirms that Mr. Nair was born in February 1917 in a village called Cheramangalam in Palakkad district, Kerala State, South India. Having lost his parents at an early age, he grew up under protection of relatives and graduated from Annamalai University in Science (a rare achievement those days).  
[3] RV Enterprises: Achuthan Nair set up his company together with Mallaraja Urs, Assistant Director Sericulture. R in the name came from Ratna Urs (Mrs Urs) and V from Valsala (Mrs Nair) - Reported by Sivakumar, Mr. Nair’s son.
[4] Krishnan Unni reports that the name ‘Polmr’(pronounced as ‘polmer’) was coined by Mr. Ravi Varma, a friend of Achuthan Nair, and then Area Manager of Kerala Soaps & Oils Limited (now Kerala Soaps), a state owned soap manufacturing company. Mr. Ravi Varma’s daughter Samyukta Varma is a well known Malayalam film actress. Both sons think that the rather strange name was created by combining the first letters of various chemical constituents of the powder. However they aren’t sure what these chemicals were.
[5] Former Deputy Director, Department of Sericulture, Karnataka
[6] Former Project Coordinator, National Silkworm seed Project, of CSB
[7] Former Director, Department of Sericulture, Karnataka
[8] Former member Secretary of  CSB. He was instrumental in the foundation of Department of Sericulture, Uttar Pradesh.
[9] Former Director, Department of Sericulture, Karnataka
[10] Scheduled Caste: The Indian constitution recognizes list of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes eligible for various reservations on account of their socially deprived status.
[11] One hails from the southern state of Kerala, and speaks Malayalam; commonly called Malaylee.
[12] Member of (state) Legislative Assembly.
Contact Prof Charsley:
Acknowledgements: We thank Mr. Krishnan Unni, CSR&TI, Mysore, to whose collections the two photographs belong and Mr. J. Justin Kumar, CSR&TI, Mysore who made available the scanned images. We are indebted to Mr. M.N.S.Iyengar, Joint Director, CSB (Retd) who (over telephone) shared some interesting information regarding individuals whose names appear in the text. This info is used in editor's note


chinnaswamy, K.P. said...

nice article ,usefull for all sericulture students and teachers, of course planner too

Anonymous said...

So much sacrifice has gone into the silk industry. The way things have panned out for instance in the silk factory in Mysore which was started by the visionary Raj Guru Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar has improved by leaps and bounds and Nair's contributions must be recorded in golden words.
N Niranjan Nikam
Journalist (Retd)

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