A Woman Known as "Auntie"
In India, beyond the level of the clouds there is a palace in the sky. This former home of the last Nizam, the hereditary ruler of Hyderabad, who was once the richest man in the world, is today the Taj Falaknuma Palace, a hotel of unimaginable grandeur and opulence. Walking up the marble staircase is like walking back in time, each step deeper into the past of turn-of-the-19th-century India. There are Venetian chandeliers, rare copies of the Quran in the wood-paneled library, and a rooftop lounge where the call to prayer can be heard drifting on the wind. And tied to the stories of visiting kings and diplomats, heads of state and glamorous actors, there is also the tale of an 84-year old woman known simply as “Auntie.”
You’d have to wander into the hotel’s exotic boutique to find where these stories intersect. There among the precious jewelry and Rajasthani artwork are swaths of intricate brocade fabrics that can be attributed to Suraiya Appa, or Auntie. During a recent visit to Hyderabad, Cathy Holler, Travcoa’s VP Business Development & Product Innovation had the opportunity to meet with Auntie and learn about her selfless commitment to improving the lives of the women and children in her community while reviving an almost-lost art.
“In her early years Auntie lived in Delhi where she worked in the textile industry. After her husband passed away, she returned to her hometown of Hyderabad, where she couldn’t help but notice the poverty and challenges the city’s women faced,” Cathy says. “She told me, ‘We had to do something.’”
What she did was set up a small studio with two retired weavers and a loom next to her home and embarked on teaching women from the community the ancient royal Persian styles of weaving: mashru, himroo, jamavar and paithani. What began with just a handful of women in 1985 has today turned into hundreds of women who are skilled in this intricate technique. At any one time, 16 women are working the looms in the studio.
“It’s labor-intensive for sure,” Cathy says. “Making a graft of thread for the loom takes many weeks; it can range between 15 threads to 5,000, depending how complicated the pattern is, and if you miss just one line, the design will be wrong somewhere.”
Two women working together can weave only 3-4 inches per day due to the complexity of the design. But the elaborate work fetches anywhere from 1,500-2,500 rupees (about $24-$40 USD) per meter. Auntie’s contribution has preserved an ancient art form that had been celebrated in the Nizam’s palace. But more importantly, she has empowered a group of local women to support themselves and their children.
“With the money the workshop earns from the sale of these fabrics to designers, exclusive shops, and hotels, Auntie is able to fund the education of new weavers, pay them salaries and purchase new weaving materials,” Cathy explains. “She also uses the proceeds to partially fund a school for local children that she built on her family’s land, located next to the workshop.”
More than 600 students attend Safrani Memorial, the English-speaking co-ed school. The students come from poor households — children of farmers, laborers, and vegetable vendors. There is a nominal fee, and the children of the women who work in the weaving center attend for free.
“The program offers the women — who can neither read nor write — the chance to provide for themselves while breaking the cycle of illiteracy with their children,” Cathy says. It’s cottage industry programs such as this that the Taj Falaknuma Palace supports. Not only can guests visit the weaving center, the hotel also donates vital supplies to the center and the school. In addition, fabrics made using the royal weaving technique can be purchased in the hotel’s boutique, a high-end purveyor whose motto is “meaningful giving — luxury with a purpose.”
Cathy admits the out-of-the-way weaving cooperative isn’t the first stop for most travelers to India, but it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.
“India hits you like a firecracker; a cacophony of smells, sounds, stimuli, people...” she says. “It takes you four or five days just to acclimate. But when you do, you want to engage, take a closer look, and enjoy a truly authentic experience.”
It’s at that point that Cathy suggests travelers leave the comforts of places like the Taj Falaknuma and travel down little-known dirt roads.
“Get away from what’s familiar and you just might find yourself watching some women work an old-fashioned wooden loom,” Cathy suggests. “It might seem like a simple thing, but you’ll be watching the world become a much better place.”
For information on Travcoa's journeys to India, call your Travel Agent or a Travcoa Journey Consultant at 1-800-992-2003, email firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to check out our private itineraries and luxury small group tours to India.