The Manchester of the East | Milaap

The Manchester of the East

Through the wounded roads of Wadhwan, in a small township in the heartland of Gujarat lies the reason that has deemed this state the Manchester of the East.

A Bandani colouring factory

The notorious cotton factories East India Company were once famous for their quality of linen that it forcibly stole from India’s farmers. Almost 200 years after the end of the colonial rule, Manchester is still evoked to embody its might in textiles although the sub-alter rightly argue that its prowess never left India and especially from Gujarat. It is not difficult to chance upon this industry as almost every big city in Gujarat has a thriving clothes market for exporters and wholesalers alike - the one in Ahmedabad deemed to be one of India’s biggest. However, while the big cities cater as showrooms to the finished product, to trace the life of a prominent Gujarati textile “Bandini” you will have to walk through these wounded roads.

Bandani is work of tie and dye but not in a way most European hipsters will have you believe. They are usually made on cotton cloth with bright colours to contrast with the intricate designs.

Ripping the seams apart to reveal intricate patterns

The more intricate the pattern the higher the number of knots in the design The traditional textile is woven first on white cloth by hand into intricate patterns, dyed a number of times before the desired colours start showing and then unwounded to reveal some of the most quintessentially Indian patterns. To unwind the story of this traditional textile we took to a tiny house with a courtyard in Wadhwan - where at least ten women have gathered around tea, knotting patterns in huge pieces of white cloth.

The matriarch, Subhanben tells me that she is the eldest of the lot and responsible for bringing this group together.

Subhanben at her residence

“I was the first one to be given a loan from Prayas (NGO working in Microfinance and Milaap’s prominent field partner). Upon successful completion of my first order, I encouraged my daughter-in-law and neighbours to form a group and start getting the initial loans to invest and get the orders from the nearby contractors", says Subhanben.  

She is a  part of a lively band of women engaged in the traditional art of tie and dye famous in the western flanks of India. We are led to a small room where women sit on the floor, overflowing into the courtyard busy tying knots on white fabric. This white fabric will then be taken to its next stage where it is dyed, dried and unravelled to reveal some of the most delectable prints resulting out of the minds of these women. She has also been a longstanding member of Prayas (Milaap's field partner) and her loan was for INR 35,000. From this amount, she makes small investments to procure the fabric from the distributor to tie. The distributors often require monetary security and much of the investment is diverted there. These women work at a pace of a hummingbird, hands switching knots, cutting threads with as much agility as of the former.

"We earn at 1 Paisa for one knot. For hundred knots within a piece of fabric we can earn 1 INR."

One of the borrowers from Subhanben's group laughs at a joke being shared at lunch.

When asked about the workplace sources of entertainment, they say, "We sometimes gossip but it's not in a poor taste. Most of the times we will try to compete with each other who can thread the fastest". It is evident that the profit margin increases towards the end of the supply chain but these women work diligently for they have families to support.

Rukhshadben working away on her coloured pieces

"Our arms ache at the end of the day but we still manage to do our household chores", says Rukhshadbahen.
Her loan was for INR 25,000. She is also skilled in colouring the cloth and it's evident through her elegant designs. "I'd need a bigger loan in future in order to colour the cloth myself instead of selling it to the contractor", she says.

Two streets away, Jetunben is another leader of sorts. To meet here we are led to a small courtyard where men are at work, busy dyeing the tied cloth into a multitude of colours and patterns. Through her Microfinance loan amount, she supports her factory, pays the workers and procures the material. The distributors often require monetary security and much of the investment is diverted there.

Jetunben at her residence

Jetunben's son at the factory

Her son manages the entire floor like song work and it is quite a contrast to his polio-stricken feet. Still, he is quick to throw in the commands and get the order ready before the sun sets. Jetuben is happy to oversee the work while leaving the groundwork to her son. The factory itself employs about five more people and is a great case in point as to how supporting one livelihood can support others.

Safe to say, the  indigenous textile industry puts the vibrant in the "vibrant Gujarat"