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Threads for thought
by Rajashree Ranganathan

November 12, 2003
In most eastern cultures, including Indian, silk has long been regarded the chosen fabric to represent prosperity, culture and tradition. Not many of us know how silk is made or even think about it? Many of us even take it for granted, just like I did, until a little while ago when I really learnt what goes into making it.

The silk industry is not exactly a 'saatvic' one - pretty comparable to the fur industry, if not worse.

The first stage of silk production is hatching the silkworm eggs, which have been previously examined and shown to be free from disease. Larvae are then fed cut-up mulberry leaves and after the fourth molt climb a twig placed near them and spin their silken cocoons. The silk is a continuous-filament fiber consisting of fibroin protein secreted from two salivary glands in the head of each larva, and a gum called sericin, which cements the two filaments together. Pupae within cocoons are killed by steam or fumigation to prevent adult emergence, which would cut and tangle the silk filaments. Cocoons are later softened in hot water to remove the sericin, thus freeing silk filaments for reeling. Single filaments are drawn from cocoons in water bowls and combined to form yarn. This yarn is drawn under tension through several guides and eventually wound onto reels. The yarn is dried, packed according to quality, and is now raw silk ready for marketing.*

Another concerning factor, with reference to especially the Indian silk industry, is child labour. Children as young as six and seven are bonded labourers in silk factories. Parents, driven by poverty, are forced to borrow money. In turn, the children 'pay off' the loan by working for the lender. But, the loan is never regarded as paid off and the children are forced to work in abhorrent conditions for a major part of their childhood, if not entire life. These children work twelve or more hours a day, six and a half or seven days a week, under conditions of physical and verbal abuse. They suffer injuries from fumes, machinery, sharp threads, boiling water, and dead worms. Girls face particular abuses, including sexual abuse by employers.

The report by the Human Rights Watch on the exploitation of child labour in the Indian silk industry provides more details on the issue: 

With all the efforts that have gone into eradicating child labour, the irony is that it seems to have gone quite unnoticed until someone from another country has investigated it. We always seem very oblivious to the happenings around us. This is a message not to the artists alone, but people as a whole. We are all so lost and caught up in our own world that we don't seem to have the time to even think about what repercussions our actions might have.

Many art institutions work towards helping the financially challenged people to discover the artist within themselves. My sincere appreciation of course to all those who play fabulous roles in this endeavour. However, the use of silk, at the very least, negates this effort. The accepted attire in any cultural set-up is silk. All, but a handful, are draped in silk. This issue is in need of some serious attention. Most artists' choice fabric for public appearance is silk, be it a performance, meeting/interview, gathering, etc. We have played a big part in creating a tradition of this.

Why not we lead the way in breaking it and lead by example! We, as a community, need to be more socially aware. Our actions have far-reaching effects that we can imagine. The purity of the art is lost, when we become oblivious to them. The arts community thrives on inspiration. We derive it from everyone and everything, especially ourselves! Hope knowledge inspires us to bring about the wave of change. Each one of us that makes the effort makes a difference. We live the very difference we make.

However, all is not lost for ardent silk lovers. There's Ahimsa silk, of course! In making of Ahimsa silk, the cocoons are left alone for seven to 10 days. Once the worms mature, they are allowed to pierce the cocoons and fly away as moths. Only then does the manufacture of silk begin. Each cocoon is checked individually to ensure that the moth has escaped before the silk thread is spun. The result, although not as lustrous as regular silk, is a much softer fabric. But the arduousness of the process increases the cost of production and thereby, the price for the consumer! Many stores in India now carry this kind of silk.

Hope this endeavour helps retain the 'Saatvic'ness of the arts that bring and keep us together. These may be just our few drops into the ocean of compassion, but then, every drop counts.

* Source:

Rajashree Ranganathan has learnt Bharathanatyam and Mohiniattam and Carnatic music for over ten years. Till she resumes further training, she remains an avid rasika.

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