Amritsar Calling: A city that boasts of a fabric, both beautiful and strong
A society is defined by its social fabric, the feel of its interwoven milieu, the twists and turns in its moral fibre, its content, the blending of constituents, and finally the strength of its texture. Its robustness flows from age-old bonds, relationships, and even a shared history, much akin to the textile heritage of its confraternity.
The three faiths that coexisted in the early 1800s were primarily the Hindus, the Sikhs, and the Muslims. Amongst the Muslims, more than half of the population were of Kashmiri origin who came as traders during the Khalsa rule and settled with strong ties of business, friendships, and social partnerships that ensured tolerance and sustainability. Once the English crossed the Sutlej, the influence of Christianity began to surface towards the turn of the century. St Paul’s Cathedral and St Francis Church were the first colonial architectural-cum-spiritual influences on this landscape.
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The tradition of unity
‘Sanjhivalta’ is a beautiful word in the Punjabi language. This word truly is the soul of Amritsar. It loosely reflects the inclusiveness of its character and even the togetherness flowing from its shared heritage, despite the testing travails of times, and the machinations of politics. The fabric of society that has not worn thin or torn notwithstanding the stresses and the strains on its social milieu.
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We were brought up in that inclusive environment. The family’s closest friends were from varied political hues, the Jan Sanghis, Congressis, Akalis, and Communists. They could joke about Khaki Knickers and even pull each other’s legs about flowing with tides rather than taking sides. They would have heated debates on the terrors of bad tidings and yet come together to find ways to contribute and apply the balm and mend the bent minds of town. They were the members of citizens’ councils and community groups that formed during wars and militancy, floods, and famine – the safe keepers of the city.
Anyone trying to give them a rundown on the need to harmonise would be unanimously rebuffed with resounding hilarity and jovial embraces. “Lao hun baardey bandey saanu japphian paunian sikhaangey? (Now outsiders will teach us how to hug).”
The core, regardless of the era and the generation of the day, has stood firm since the terrible partition of the subcontinent. That exodus, the vendettas that occurred, and the aftermath of the refugee rehabilitation, were nothing that the world had ever seen. And this city suffered and endured, rebuilt, and moved on despite the scars that remained. There were many that provided succour, counselled, embraced, and healed wounds. That was not an incident of this city, but a national upsurge, a sub-continental tragedy, and a colossal mistake in its execution and planning, the blame for which rests squarely upon the colonial mindset, uncaring, hurried and mis-planned, just simply ‘Radcliffed’.
Militancy yet again tore at the living strands of the community, but the overall texture still held firm. Eventually, regardless of claims made by the powers that be, it was the people in the cities and the villages who came together to shun divisive forces and hold hands in firm grips of brotherhood. There is thus no better representation of multiracial and democratic principles than this city where diverse opinions may sway some, but the majority voice carries, binding even the fragmented few or the frayed ends.
In fact, this city is not just a metaphorically blended cloth of its cultural constitution, but ‘fabric’ defines its economy as well. Many of those paisleys and motifs that models wrap around, walking the ramps of fashion, have in all probability been sourced from this textile hub. Historically, even as far back as 1883-84, nearly 4,000 handlooms were documented in this city making shawls and other textiles, thus enumerating its manufacturing prowess from that bygone era to the present.
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Said W.S. Caine in 1891 in the famed account Picturesque India: “The serai at Amritsar is one of the most interesting sights in India. It is a great open space, surrounded by small houses, in which are lodged the travelling merchants from Central Asia. Here are white-skinned Kashmiris, stout Nepalese, sturdy little Baluchis, stately but filthy Afghans, Persians, Bokharans and Tartars, and even the ubiquitous Chinaman. These people bring to Amritsar the raw material for the great staple manufacture of the city, the soft down, or underwools of goats of the Great Tibet plateau and Kashmir, from which Kashmir shawls are woven. Besides the shawls of home manufacture, Amritsar is the chief emporium for those of a similar kind made in Kashmir….”
The textiles of the holy city
Textiles were always a mainstay. In fact, Amritsar became the port of Punjab for imports of silk and pashminas, blankets, and carpets of that time. Later art silks from China, rayon, dyes, and chemicals were imported. In fact, down the years, European goods imports to Amritsar were twice that of Delhi and Lahore combined. Amritsari acumen in importing as well as manufacturing shawls and stoles is legendary. They would make some, import as well from Kashmir, and thus offer an unmatched range to buyers across Europe.
Fabric is an institutional phenomenon with many cogs that fit the wheel of the eventual finished cloth. The harnessing of the fibre, its blending, spinning of the yarn, weaving of the textile, the multiple darning and clipping operations of the Rafoogars, and then the processing of the fabric to get the required drape, feel and finish. Eventually, the inspection and the cutting to size the piece goods for delivery to the wholesale and the retail shops.
One is tempted to share the story of the Rafoogars in the textile mill set up by my father in 1956 which did remarkably well for nearly five decades. The Rafoogar contractor in our mill was called Mohan Lal, a virile old Kashmiri who had acquired a Hindu name, much like the Dilip Kumars of the era. Lal had a permanent roving eye on his women darners. One was told that he had a few wives and yet was quite the tiger in the darners lair. Each time we came to know that he had used the raven black fabric dye onto his greying hair, we knew that trouble was brewing in the darners den.
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Weaving dreams is what the millers and the weavers do. They know the blends like the back of their hands, the feel on their fingertips, the designs in the depth of their minds and the tricks of the trade at the tips of their tongue. Masters in their craft of spinning yarns and twisting fibre, they bring out the best in the yards that finally roll into the showrooms and into garment factories. It is the handiwork that has been perfected over a century plus, and is now handed over to more savvy marketers, abler digitally enabled entrepreneurs of the new age to take forward. These young nerds have improved design and packaging, they understand fashion and the changing tastes, the trends of today, and are more adept to change, quick-footed and nimble-fingered.
I know of a dear friend who had a penchant for girlie magazines. Much as I thought for a while of him as a horny sod, I soon discovered that he was looking for Victoria’s Secret. He would also walk into lingerie stores while travelling overseas pretending to buy unmentionables for his wife, but basically he was glossing over designs, inspirations for his next range of laces and nets. He pretty much has been the king of the marketplace with design ingenuity and insight. Little did competition know that it took a peep at bikini bits for him to stay on top of the competition.
Amritsar and enterprise
This is the spirit of enterprise of the city, evident from the Hindustan Cottons and the Amritsar Rayons, the Shelkas and the Niemlas, good old Mr Nayar’s Japani Mill of yesteryears to the OCM, Hemla, the Amritsar Swadeshi and the Himalaya Woollens among others that have sustained. Quality manufacturers, weavers, dyers and processors who have kept the proverbial pot boiling and the boilers steaming. All said and done, the fabric manufacturing and trading culture of the city has come a long way. The fabric firmament of town has been diverse and expansive and continues to be so.
Much in the same vein is the remarkable range of cloth manufactured in town. From the grey fabric imported into the city and processed, the manufacture of woollen Melton & Serge, recycled and fresh wool blankets and tweeds, the synthetic blends of suitings and shirtings, embroideries and knits, the industrial fabrics and mosquito nets, even tennis ball fabric for that matter, to the smooth green surfaces of snooker and billiards tables, are made with fascinating dexterity by the Amritsaris.
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Let’s not forget the virsa of Phulkari, a cottage scale industry in the villages of the region producing the most colourful of patterns that drape the shoulders of our elegant and beautiful women. Oh, and how can you forget the export history of rural Amritsar, especially, the Raja Sansi belt, that hand produced druggets and carpets for western shores. No wonder then that Amritsar was oft applauded for its textiles, knitted and interwoven, traversing the nation and sailing the seas to distant lands.
In 1857, Fredric Cooper had said, “Every caste and creed of Asia was represented in the city of Amritsar. So much was the pull of trade, of jobs on textile looms and elsewhere that this was a melting pot of communities.” This may perhaps be one of the reasons that the fabric of the loom and the fabric of society have held firm in the Holy City. When the constituents themselves are diverse, bound by the binding warp and weft of harmony, the ultimate product is woven tight indeed, and so is its social milieu.