Mysore Silk: The Penchant of Sultans and Maharajas, the Glimmering Crepe Sarees of South India
TIPU’S SILK: HISTORY OF SERICULTURE IN MYSORE
In the early 1780s, an ambassador from the royal court of the Qing dynasty in China visited Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore himself, and gifted him silk cloth. Tipu was immediately entranced by the lustrous fabric and sent one delegation of courtiers to Bengal and another to China solely for the purpose of collecting silkworms. The deputation from Bengal returned to Mysore in 1785 and the one from China returned in 1792. With these worms, Tipu set up 21 silkworm breeding stations in his kingdom. And so was the sericulture industry founded in Karnataka.
Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, was the only Indian ruler to die fighting the British and also happened to be the father of the sericulture industry of South India
On Tipu’s orders, mulberry leaves were cultivated on which silkworms could feed and cocoons could be reared. Within a century of Tipu’s first consignment of cocoons arriving in Seringapatam, the Kingdom of Mysore became the top producer of silk in India. Today, the silkworms that are reared in Karnataka are a hybrid variety of the original Chinese silkworms and, as a result, they are better adapted to Indian climes, do not hibernate, and produce two broods per year. Silk production grew exponentially from 1985 to 1793 despite the ongoing Third Anglo-Mysore War (1789 to 1792), which Tipu was, of course, deeply embroiled in. Tipu was so fascinated by silk and his kingdom’s production that even in the middle of the war he would stay updated about the latest weaving techniques and trends in silk imports.
PATRONAGE OF THE WODEYAR MAHARAJAS
Silk production in Mysore began to decline in the 19th century until the Wodyar Maharaja of Mysore supported an Italian industrialist in his efforts to set up a Silk Filature Company in Kengeri, a village that has now been absorbed into the Bangalore Urban District. It got its strongest boost in 1902 when Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata set up Tata Silk Farm on a farmhouse in Bangalore, that was owned by the then Wodeyar Maharaja of Mysore and who allowed Tata to use it on a rent-free basis. Sericulture and silk production took off once again under Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV who set up a silk manufacturing unit in Mysore and bought 32 power looms from Switzerland to weave what are today known as Mysore silk sarees. This unit remains today and is run by the Karnataka Silk Industries Corporation (KSIC), a public sector company; it is India’s oldest silk manufacturing unit.
Maharaja Wodeyar IV was a critical patron of the silk industry in Karnataka who modernized the weaving process
Gradually, weavers started migrating to and settling in Mysore as well as in the nearby districts of Channapatna and Bangalore. The Maharaja initially commissioned fabrics for the Mysore royal family’s apparel and for some of the military’s attire. The unit’s capacity kept expanding and the Maharaja ended up buying 138 looms in his time. During World War II, all the silk production of Mysore went into making parachutes for the British war effort. In 1947, when India gained Independence, the government Sericulture Department took charge of the 17-acre silk factory in Mysore, but the royal family of Mysore never ceased to care about it. Srikanta Datta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, the descendant of Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, is still keenly involved in the silk weaving traditions of Mysore and has designed and developed a brand of Mysore silk called the ‘Royal Silk of Mysore,’ which is sold in a boutique that now stands on the Mysore Palace Complex. The royal family’s silks are also on display at this showroom.
POST-INDEPENDENCE SILK PRODUCTION IN MYSORE
Once the government of India took over the silk factory and silk production in India, The Central Silk Board was established in Bangalore in 1949, which was
Karnataka Silk Industries Corporation Ltd (KSIC) in 1980. With a Rs 27.3 crore grant from the World Bank, the KSIC modernized and upgraded the factory with the latest weaving technology. The factory now has 159 looms, two warping machines, prim machines, and other equipment, that outfit it with a production capacity of 800,000 meters per annum. Presently the factory is producing about 35,000 meters of silk per month primarily as sarees, dress material, and dhotis. The KSIC invites collaborations from students of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) to obtain design inputs and to contemporize the saree patterns. They have, consequently, introduced a ‘fusion label’ that employs hot press nanotechnology, making it difficult for counterfeit sarees to be produced. About 115 designs of sarees are produced in 300 different colours in crepe-de-chine, Georgette, zari-printed crepe, and semi-crepe textures. Depending on the complexity of the design, the price of a Mysore silk saree can range anywhere from Rs 3,000 to Rs 2 lakhs. In 2005, KSIC obtained Geographical Indication (GI) Registration for the production of Mysore Silk. As a result, KSIC has intellectual property rights over Mysore silk weaving and imitation sarees from China or elsewhere cannot be considered genuine Mysore silk sarees.
KSIC’s Mysore Silk Factory produces about 425,000 meters of Mysore Silk fabric per year
PROCESS – FROM COCOON TO THE LOOM
Today, 9,000 metric tons of silk are produced in Karnataka alone. This constitutes 45% of India’s entire mulberry silk production. Ramanagaram (about a 100 kilometers from the factory in Mysore) is the largest cocoon market in all of Asia! KSIC buys about 650 kilograms of cocoons from sericulture farmers per day, most of which they procure in Ramanagaram. The cocoons are transported to a factory called T Narasipura where they are sorted for quality. Once sorted and boiled, they are placed in semi-automatic machines, which reel fine threads of about 27 denier (a gauge of thickness, density, and weight of the yarn) out of them. One cocoon can produce up to 900 meters of yarn, but once the yarn is reeled, only about 50% of it passes quality control tests for weaving purposes. Most of the silk yarn is twisted several thousand times as this is what gives the final woven fabric a crepe texture.
Sericulture farmers selling cocoons in bulk at Ramanagaram market
The raw silk yarn reeled at T Narasipura is sent to the Mysore silk weaving factory set up by the Maharaja Wodeyar in 1912 and run by the KSIC today. In most weaving traditions, yarn is first dyed and then woven into sarees, but this is not the case for Mysore silk where sarees are first woven and then dyed. The weavers use either Dobby looms, which require machines feeding patterns into them, or jacquard looms, which tend to be more labour-intensive. Once the fabric is woven, it undergoes a process called “degumming,” which is what gives it its smooth texture. After degumming, the fabric is put into fabric-cutting machines which measure 5.5 meters of fabric for the length of each saree. Finally, the sarees are embellished with a gold zari border. Often, real 24 carat gold zari from Surat is woven into the border. By and large, the silk fabric is dyed a single colour that is plain and un-patterned so that the contrasting metallic border is resplendent and the brilliant sheen of the silk is magnified. Sometimes motifs are embroidered on to the pallus such as floral and mango butis.
Single-Toned, Emerald Green Mysore Silk saree used to upholster a Sihasn Rocking Chair
Sihasn Rocking Chair and accompanying Circular Storage Ottoman upholstered with Emerald-Green Mysore Silk Saree having a Rich Gold Pallu and Zari Border
Signature feature of a Mysore Silk Saree is the Glimmering Gold Zari Border that Contrasts well with the Shimmering Crepe-Silk Saree
Gold-Patterned Pallu was used to upholster a Sihasn circular storage ottoman