Friday, October 4, 2013

A rug factory that was in Amritsar


William Sloane arrived in America as an emigrant from a Scottish town famous for weaving carpets and rugs. In 1843, William Sloane along with his younger brother John W. Sloane went on to form a company called W.& J. Sloane, importing rugs and carpets into America and changing the way the rich and famous decorated their homes in that country.

In 1876 at Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, William Sloane noticed that the most popular attractions was the Oriental rugs. He bought the entire collection for a millions dollars and then displayed them at his New York store where it is said they sold 'like lollipop'. The average price was $10,000 with one Persian masterpiece even selling for $75,000. This was the first time in America that a retail house was selling Oriental Rugs. Looking at this success, soon others jumped into the market but Sloane was still at the top of the game.

In 1882, to maintain his lead, Sloane's got in touch with a rug manufacturer in Amritsar offering to buy their entire output. The deal was done and Sloane's was the  become only American retail store with its own Oriental rug manufacturer. 

The manufacturer was Khan Bahadur Shaikh Gulam Hussun & Company. Shaikh Gulam Hussun's Great-grandfather was a Kashmiri migrant shawl weaver, who probably arrived in Punjab at a time when Shawls were in much demand in Europe. But that business died with the end of Franco-Prussian war. Now, the American's it seemed had arrived just in time. Shaikh Gulam Hussun & Company had left the shawl business and moved to carpets in around 1880. While weaving was done in Amritsar, they got material from Kashmir where they maintained another workshop.

It was a mutually beneficial agreement for both the parties. Sloane's could now give their designs and requirements for rugs tailored for American taste and yet retain Oriental touch as was manufactured in India.

But this design and requirement transferring was easier said than done. The method employed was ingenious but laborious. A design once approved was traced on a huge sheet of graph paper, each square representing a knot in wool. The minute specifications and texture design were appended to the sheet and sent off to Amritsar. In Amritsar, the master weaver, the only one who could read the instructions duly translated in Urdu and intone them to the other workers. It was a painful process, considering that an average rug was 12 x 15 foot and had 3,500,000 hand tied knots, a process that took three to four years. 

This business partnership lasted right until 1948. Then India became Independent, Pakistan arrived and like many other threads, this thread too got severed. Violence engulfed the areas around the newly created borders. Shaikh Gulam Hussun found himself in middle of it all.

On April 8, 1947, Shaikh cabled Sloane's:
"Thank god we and Swadeshi (a subsidiary wool spinning plant) escaped damage. If no further trouble hope dispatching from Amritsar fifty per cent more yardage than last year."

The people caught in conflict were yet to grasp the scope of this violence. They were yet to understand how deep the cuts are going to be and how long will the bleeding go on.

Violence soon caught up with Shaikh's optimism. 

In October Shaikh reported pillaging of Amritsar, the burning and looting of his home and factory. The machinery that survived was requisitioned by the East Punjab Government.

Then in 1948, India and Pakistan had their first war over Kashmir. Shaikh's luck was finally out, but still he clung to a hope. 

"Owning to various difficulties," wrote Shaikh with amazing stolidity in January, 1948, "we do not think we will be able to resume out business as quickly as anticipated for now we are cut off from Kashmere. The rumour was that our factory has been confiscated over there."

That was the end of the story for Khan Bahadur Shaikh Gulam Hussun & Company. Sloane, on the other hand now started sourcing their material directly from Kashmir.

In 'The story of Sloane's' published by W.& J. Sloane Firm in 1950, we read:

"Thus was this friendly personal and commercial tie finally broken. Some day, it is hoped, Shaikh may re-establish his enterprises in Amritsar; but this is doubtful as all the Mohammedans, who were the weavers, have fled. the remaining Hindus do not weave. Sloane's is now receiving its hand-woven rugs from Syrinagar, in Kashmere."


Young hands at Shaikh Gulam Hussun's factory, Amritsar. 1915.
Photograph: 'The Bombay Presidency, the United Provinces, the Punabb, Kashmir, Sind, Rajputana and Central India: Their History, People, Commerce and Natural Resources' (1920) by Somerset Playne
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1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr Vinayak , I am so grateful to you for directing me to this story ..This is such a wonderful and absorbing story and well written too ..thks dear ... I shall also request you to keep an eye for all stories or incidents that bring in the Amritsar Kashmir connect ..Many thanks once again ...Rashmi ...rashmitalwarno1@gmail.com

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