A Japanese model: the Tata initiative
In 1898, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904) began to establish a 'silk farm' at Basavanagudi on the then southern edge of Bangalore. His earlier travels had taken him to France and Italy where ‘with his usual ardour,’ he had ‘studied and seen something of the cultivation of the silkworm’. A visit to Japan in 1893 impressed him with the scientific development of sericulture there. He considered that it had ‘incorporated all that was best in European methods’, and that ‘through Japanese instruction, India would obtain a thorough knowledge of the trade, fortified by experiments which were better adapted to the East’. He noted, with significant foresight, that ‘care of the soil was far in advance of anything done by the Indian’ (Harris 1925: 110). Quddus (1923: 21-22) commented that ‘no small part of the credit‘ for the revival of sericulture in Mysore in the early twentieth century belonged to J.N. Tata’s initiative there. ‘It may be pardonable to state that Mr Tata showed a more lively and more sincere interest in the improvement of this valuable Industry than even the British Government when they were in direct charge of the State or the Government of His Highness of the Maharaja soon after the rendition’ of 1881’.
By the time his active involvement with the Bangalore initiative began, Jamsetji Tata was entering the last and amazingly productive period of his life. It included, in 1902, the finalising in the course of a seven-month journey to England and the United States the great enterprises for which he would be mainly remembered: the founding of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, his great Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO), and the development of hydro-electric power for Bombay, all of which would come to fruition only after his own departure from the scene. The IIS opened in 1911 as a university devoted to practical scientific and technological research, the forerunner of all the prestigious Indian Institutes of the new century; TISCO was founded in 1907 and was producing at Sakchi, which was to be developed as Jamshedpur, from 1912; and the hydro power for Bombay was switched on in 1915. As Lala, his latest biographer, romantically exclaims: ‘And the light he brought to India is still shining’ (2004: 209). It was in the midst of all the stupendous activity entailed in getting these large enterprises under way that the Tata Silk Farm was opened. According to one of his earlier biographers, he spent Rs 50,000 on the project (Harris 1925: 110).
In Mysore his contact was the best, another of the great modernisers of the age, the highly successful Dewan of the State since 1883, Sir K. Seshadri Iyer. In Mysore in 1895, Tata had also been in touch with the old and influential silk-trading firm of Mustan of Channapatna – which also had a branch in Bangalore at the time – as a source of practical and financial information relevant to dealings with the Japanese industry in which he was already interested. In this connection a calculation of the costs and proceeds of reeling was made. A maund (mana) of cocoons, for long the standard unit in which they were bought and sold, equivalent to 11 kgs, cost Rs 12-4-0 (= Re.1.11 per kg). This would yield 3¼ seers of silk, a renditta of 12.3. Labour for reeling cost 5 annas per seer, making a total labour cost for the 11 kgs of Rs 1-1-3. The silk would sell for Rs 4-4-0 per seer, Rs 15.45 a kg., of which Re 0.63 was the profit margin. This is the kind of schematic calculation which for long prevailed in the industry, ignoring both overheads and additional income such as from silk waste. Mustan was already interested in the latter and in using Tata as a route for the export of waste as well as dried cocoons via Bombay (Quddus 1923: 23-25).
On a visit in 1897, Tata selected the land for the mulberry plantation and a rearing house, and subsequently obtained a rent-free grant and an annual subsidy of Rs 3,000 from the Mysore Government (Watt 1908: 1018; Tucker 1912). The farm was aimed at reviving the silk industry of Mysore which Tata saw as having been deserted by Government and become largely defunct. This latter understanding was wide of the mark but it presented him with a noble challenge. It was the industry’s potential value for the country and its poorer classes in particular, rather than any prospect of his own personal advantage, that motivated him. His Farm was to revive it by demonstrating Japanese methods and teaching them free to apprentices engaged for three-month periods. They were to study, as well as mulberry cultivation and silkworm rearing, ‘the possibility of improving the variety by cross-breeding; the detection of disease by means of the microscope; the preservation of cocoons for seed and for silk; the handling of the thread; its packing and its preparation for the market’ (Harris 1925: 111).
From Japan, Tata hired a Japanese couple as sericulture experts to run the farm, the husband, Mr Odzu, was generally known as the Expert, and he also recruited for him as an interpreter a Japanese servant of his cousin, R.D. Tata, who already spoke some English and Hindustani (Harris 1925: 110; Lala 2004: 54). Odzu arrived the following year, 1898, and was soon travelling by train from Bangalore to Mustan's base at Channapatna to inspect the mulberry the rearing and the reeling of Mysore. He came for a second visit, this time for three or four days, and by then he apparently spoke some English. He settled at the silk farm in Bangalore and started to experiment with the rearing of worms, first from seed cocoons obtained from Ramanagaram ('the Closepet breed') and then with others from Channapatna reared by Japanese methods. 257 seed cocoons were sent to the Farm by post. It was reported that Tata himself wanted preference to be given to the Mysore silkworms rather than importing French or Japanese (Lala 2004: 56). Mulberry leaves were also needed to feed the worms until they could be supplied from new plantations in the Lalbag Botanical Gardens in Bangalore or from their own plantation. In the meantime, obtaining the leaves from Ramanagaram proved practical: a contractor put a packet of them on the train to Bangalore each evening. But in Channapatna Mustan found himself unable to obtain a supply of cocoons: it was by now the height of summer. Reeling was more significant there than mulberry growing or rearing and Mustan was soon encouraging Odzu to experiment with reeling himself. A filature of 10 basins was constructed, the machinery imported from Japan. At the end of the year they were trying to buy 50-80 maunds of ‘raw’ cocoons, presumably to supply their reeling machines, and also planning to experiment with reeling at Channapatna. Both supply of cocoons and sale of silk would probably have been more convenient and cheaper there than in Bangalore.
The following year small numbers of seed cocoons were still being supplied to the Farm by post: they were to be well packed in a ventilated box. There were also bulk orders for reeling cocoons. In May, the height of summer again, these could be supplied at just over Re 1 per kg, but Odzu was contesting the price. ‘Everything was done upon the Japanese model, and the dexterous fingers of Indian children were quickly trained to revive an old trade’ (Harris 1925: 111). ‘Jamsetji’s experiment in silk farming proved’, it was claimed, ‘a success from the start’ (Tucker 1912; Quddus 1923: 24-5; Saklatvala & Khosla 1970: 54).
Tata himself died in 1904. By 1906, the Mysore Government was again showing a more active interest in the industry. It took advantage of the farm to provide training (Sharma Rao 1936, ii: 225), and two years later there were eight schoolmasters who had trained in sericulture there and were ready to take up teaching it in schools. At the same time Odzu, the Japanese Expert in charge, was commissioned to visit rearing centres to give advice on the proper selection of silkworm seed. There were also efforts to introduce new mulberry and better methods of cultivation.
The Farm was soon, however, to pass out of Tata control.
See Part 2.