Indications of socio-economic change in industry and society
In contrast to its urban focus elsewhere, reeling in Mysore district has always been scattered through the villages of the sericultural region. The area to the east of Kollegal town centred on Kamagere has been prominent in sericulture since the nineteenth century. Within it are such noted reeling villages as Singanallur and Doddinduvadi, Kamagere itself, with Kongarahalli, Mangala and Kannur. Up to the 1930s, reeling was the business mainly of Muslims, people of the depressed classes, afterwards Scheduled Castes, and other small, middle castes. They are described in a source from the period as 'special men with machines of a primitive kind, which does not give sufficient twist or uniformity to the silk thread'. These were the age-old charkas. The same source claims that reeling was then carried on in only five villages of the entire Kollegal taluk, against thirty-two in which there was silkworm rearing. (Supplement to Kamagere, Madras District Gazeteers. Coimbatore District, Government Press, Madras, 1933:155) The reelers were not particularly rich or particularly poor people. They might have land and farm on a small scale as well as reeling; in this area, no caste or religious group was barred from owning land, and some members even of the most depressed castes always did so. The silkworm rearers were, however, mainly members of the dominant agricultural castes, Lingayat, Vokkaliga and Kuruba. It was therefore these predominantly who supplied cocoons to the reelers in their own or nearby villages. They would not expect to be paid until the reeler had prepared and sold his silk, perhaps eight or ten days later. Reelers needed a reputation for reliability in paying; what they did not yet need was any large capital in order to reel. Their machines, traditional charkas, they could make themselves with a little assistance from potter and blacksmith, and their suppliers in effect took care of working capital for them.
An important figure in the development of reeling in Kannur, a village near Kamagere, was Madappa. He was born in 1914, a Lingayat, the only son in a well-to-do agricultural and sericultural family. He went to school in the village and, despite disruptions to his schooling from plague and other vicissitudes, he attained Std. 5 in 1929, one of only two pupils in the village to do so. The family were unusual in the scale of their mulberry-growing: they had as many as seventeen acres. The scale certainly meant that they could not rear the silkworms with family labour; they took on others to rear for them, supplying their labour in return for a third of the proceeds. The cocoons were sold to reelers either in the village or in Doddinduvadi. There were no brokers buying cocoons in those days. Madappa recalls how difficult it sometimes was to get the reelers to pay; you might need to go there twenty-five times in pursuit of your money.
Reeling in the village, he thought, had begun about 1918. In his childhood it was Muslims who were the reelers here. There were perhaps twenty charkas in the entire village. About 1925 some Lingayats had started too, but it is likely that in the Depression of the early 1930s reeling died out again. During the 1939/45 War it was in any case for a time banned, in order to reserve the supply of cocoons for the new filatures which were intended to supply silk to the war effort.
The new order in reeling
It was after the War that reeling acquired a new aspect. Some old reelers doubtless re-started, but at the same time numbers of substantial agricultural caste men set up units on a larger scale than had ever been attempted before. These established a new style of reeling in which the workers were entirely separate from the management and the families of owners did not involve themselves in reeling, let alone actually working on the charkas. A common pattern was for one brother in a family to take charge of reeling, whilst others managed the family's agricultural, sericultural and sometimes other kinds of business, and, increasingly as time went by, were educated and in government or other kinds of employment at qualified and officer levels.
Reeling workers were mainly people from the Scheduled Castes from which field labourers had been drawn previously. Employment came therefore to be modelled on the relationships between agricultural castes and their labourers, a quasi-traditional relationship with a strong patron and client element involved. In some cases at least, there was a basis of experience here since such people had already been reeling in the pre-war period. At the same time, however, these units introduced a new discipline. They commonly aspired to higher quality production, to silk with a reliability and reputation for which they could be proud and widely known. For this, work on the machines had to be more controlled, attentive and the number of cocoons or ‘ends’ being reeled together more regular and correct. Standards using the factory-constructed machinery for basin reeling might be substantially improved on anything that could be achieved even with considerable skill and dexterity on the part of the workers.
The new-style reelers also enjoyed a different position to the old when it came to the supply of cocoons. The old had depended on rearers to provide them with the necessary cocoons on credit. The new reelers could take advantage of this tradition too, but, as leading men in the agricultural community, they could also exploit a relationship of patronage. Running large units, they needed to assemble far more cocoons and with more regularity than had ever been done before. They might therefore use their superior position in the community and their relative wealth to mobilise and organise their suppliers. They would need, like the ‘silk merchants’ they were often called, to manipulate available funds, taking cocoons on credit from some suppliers, providing advances to others, in the interests of ensuring their supply of raw material and at as advantageous a price as possible.
Madappa, the focus of much of what is reported here, was a member of this new class of reeler, but his way into it was unusual. It was via an association with one of his hereditary labourers, Manchaiah, an enterprising man of Scheduled Caste origin and Christian leanings. In 1941, Manchaiah had received Rs 300 through the good offices of the local Catholic priest in order to buy bullocks and a cart, to set himself up as a carrier of foodgrains. Perhaps this was an opportunity created by wartime requistioning of grain, but not finding it very profitable, he took up buying cocoons from rearers for supply to reelers, i.e. cocoon brokering. This must either have been collecting cocoons for the filature – in which case it is possible to see how this is a next stage from carting foodgrains – or after the War when reeling started up again.
Certainly it was after the War when he took the next step. By then he was supplying to private reelers. Finding on one occasion that he was not being paid for a previous lot supplied to a reeler from a nearby village, the situation he faced was urgent: he had another lot to supply which he could not hold back because the emergence of the moths from its cocoons was imminent. He decided therefore to get them reeled on his own account. This he did in the unit of one Honnappa, a Lingayat. Thereafter he was for a time working in partnership with this unit, supplying its cocoons. By this time Madappa had become interested in getting into the reeling business himself. He saw an opportunity in himself teaming up with Manchaiah, and in 1950 they starting a joint unit. The investment in fourteen charkas and in labour for them – the workers needed to be paid advances in order to come to work – was Madappa's and he attended to the financial side of the operation, while Manchaiah managed the running of the unit.
The charka unit ran successfully but without much profit. This is not surprising since it was a difficult time in the industry at large: high prices in 1950 fell away badly in the following two years. Undeterred, the partners decided to try the new ‘basin reeling’ which others were taking up instead. In 1953 they built the Viswanathan Silk Filature in Kannur’s Harijan Street and started reeling there. They began with five five-end basins supplied by the manufacturer, Sitaramiah & Co. of 130 Cottonpet, Bangalore, and sometime after they had actually begun work there was a ceremonial opening on 10th February 1953.
This seems to have been a time of expansion in the village and more widely too. In the same year a particularly splendid Kamagere chavadi or meeting hall – 'none other to match it in Kollegal' – was built in the SC section of the village for the Nirmala Yuvaka Sangha. Adult classes were held there and it was a centre of musical activity. It was also the period at which the government in the form of the Sericulture Department of Madras State, since Kollegal had not yet been transferred to Karnataka under the boundary revision of 1956, was campaigning for the new style of reeling.
The event was arranged around the visit of M.T. Raju, ICS, Barrister-at-Law, the Madras Government's Director of Industries and Commerce. A photographer was called in from Kollegal and his photograph survives as a witness to the occasion. In its centre, the Director stands, a large, youngish man in a baggy suit – ‘Oxford bags’ – with open-necked shirt and formal leather shoes. On his left stands Madappa, in a dark jacket over collared shirt and untucked dhoti, on his head a village-style turban and on his feet nothing. On the other side of the Director, to his right, is the resplendent figure of M.K. Malaraja Urs, the Manegara, head of the village. He wears an Indian-style coat over tucked dhoti, a magnificent tailored turban on his head, his face emboldened with a prominent white moustache, and sandals on his feet. Three Sericultural staff are also present, distinguished by their ties and jackets, and, for the two older men, their spectacles. On the right of the picture stands, A.T. Janakiraman, the Madras Silk Expert, a large man in a pale suit, who would later be the Secretary of the Central Silk Board. On the other side stands Subramaniam, the second in command, who had been in Kollegal since the 1930s. He is smaller, wears a light jacket over dark trousers. He holds a garland over his left arm, either retrieved from the Director or about to be applied to him, and in his right hand there is what looks like a speech of welcome. Tucked in behind him and the Manegara is his assistant, V.R. Uttaman, who would also go far in the Mysore Department, retiring as its Director . Behind them cluster another twenty or thirty villagers, young and old; all are male. Manchaiah is not there though; he was away making arrangements at the time. On the ground is the shadow in the bright afternoon sun of the strung mango-leaf decorations put up for the event.
Ambitious 'filatures', basin-reeling workshops, were therefore being set up at this time. In Kannur there was another too, established in the same year, the Sri Brahmalingeshwara Silk Filature. This was a Kuruba Gowda establishment. The Department was to provide a 50% subsidy on the cost. Instructors came from the Government filature to train the workers for six months; in 1975 the man who had come to Kannur was still there, though now retired and suffering from asthma. The Department took samples for testing the silk produced and reported back on them; and there was help with marketing the silk. The Madappa/Manchaiah partnership was, like others, put in touch with Chenai, a Bombay firm with a branch in Bangalore, reputedly the leading silk merchants of the time. Their representative came to inspect and gave them a certificate of quality too.
The table shows the build-up in the numbers of basins in the Kamagere area from this time: the source was a chart still in the Sericulture Office there in 1975.
Nos of domestic basins recorded in Kamagere
1952/53 35 1955/56 140 1958/59 356
1953/54 77 1956/57 245 1959/60 419
1954/55 119 1957/58 257 1960/61 506
Madappa and Manchaiah continued to be part of this expansion. They first added another seven basins, to make twelve, and then another six. In the course of this build-up, the five-end machines originally being worked had been increased to six-end, allowing more cocoons to be reeled simultaneously as long as their quality and the skill of the reeler were adequate.
All these machines came in two parts: in front of the reeler was the basin and the mechanism for the tavelette croissure, behind the reeler a stand to which small, hexagonal reels were attached. These small reels had been introduced by Chinese technicians in Mysore during the War, there to set up a private filature unit.
In these village units the reels were driven manually, turned with a handle. The silk thread was drawn back over the reeler's head. When the thread broke, as it would inevitably do from time to time, the reeler would have to turn round and knot it, before starting to reel again. There were however advantages in the greater distance the silk had to travel: it would dry in passage and there was little problem of gum spots building up on the reel. Their silk was in any case to be re-reeled. It was in that respect that the small reels had their own advantage, being much more convenient and easier to handle for that purpose than the large reels on the Italian and French machines which had preceded them. These distinctive machines with a reputation for producing superior silk, were to survive in some places, though not in Kannur itself nor in Kollegal.
The ownership of the two filatures that have been named represented the two leading communities in the village, Kuruba Gowdas and Lingayats. Kannur is typical of the area in having a set of substantial caste communities within it, living in more or less separate but not physically separated blocks of housing. As the seat of a Lingayat mutt or matha the village had a special status for that community, but they and the Kuruba Gowdas were otherwise balanced in their standing in the village, both a step behind a small but wealthy set of Arasu households belonging to the caste of the rulers of Mysore. Together these made up the main land-owning section of the population, most undertaking sericulture as well as general agriculture. The other main communities were Scheduled Castes and Parivaras. Neither of these were landless but they had far less than the main agricultural castes, led in that respect by the Gowdas. In addition, there were about a dozen Muslim families in the village, with a small mosque, and also a Catholic church with a small number of Christian converts of SC origin.
Landowners were in 1975 living in expectation of irrigation for their lands from a channel being dug from the new Gundal reservoir locally and there was already rumour that a channel from the far larger Kabini scheme would eventually reach the village's lands. Nevertheless – or in perhaps realistic distrust of the work ever being completed – the number of pumpsets for irrigation about doubled between 1975 and 1991, with members of each of the main communities owning at least a few.
Over the following years basin-reeling replaced charkas entirely in this village, except that one charka would usually be retained by each reeler, in order to use up cocoons and parts of cocoons not reelable on the basins. This would produce a small quantity of rough 'dupion' silk which would be disposed of separately, as were the various kinds of silk waste. Of the two major filatures of 1953, the second continued operation over the next twenty years and more. It was owned by B. Mallegowda in 1975, and was still operating with 15 basins, by then the largest in the village and probably anywhere in the vicinity. Not long after, however, it seems to have closed, having perhaps served its purpose. Of Mallegowda's sons, Shivaramegowda was, in 1991, employed as a purchasing officer at Kumbakonam, presumably in the Marketing Board (KSMB), and K.M. Shivarajappa was a member of the Zilla Parishad.
Continues as Part 2
 For further and rather later analysis of reeling and the village context, see Simon Charsley & G.K. Karanth 1998. Challenging Untouchability, Chapter 8, “Increasing autonomy: The Harijans of Rateyur”.