Silk has always been synonymous with opulence and refinement. The collection of traditional silk attires that matriarchs pass down as prized heirlooms are taken out only to ‘wow’ others on special occasions.
Many people’s livelihood is dependent on silk both in terms of practising sericulture and weaving beautiful creations from the silky yarn.
However, the cruelty attached to silk production cannot be ignored.
Conventionally, cocoons of silkworms are boiled to obtain the smooth thread that is ultimately woven into beautiful sarees and other traditional attire.
So, is there a way to wear this beautiful fabric without harming the worm that creates it?
Hyderabad based Kusuma Rajaiah began thinking about the ways silk was produced in the country while he was working at the Andhra Pradesh State Handloom Weavers Cooperative (APCO) Society.
“The question was first planted in my mind in the early 1990s when Janaki Venkataraman, former President R Venkataraman’s wife, asked me if there was a non-violent way of producing silk. I had no answer and that was the beginning of the search for cruelty-free silk,” says the 64-year-old.
Now, he is the founder of Ahimsa Silk, a clothing brand that makes silk sarees, scarves and fabric spun out of yarn that does not harm a single silkworm.
In fact, the moths are allowed to break out of the cocoon. “Depending on the size of the cocoon, almost 20,000 to 30,000 are killed to make one saree. But, I have always been a big propagator of the idea of non-violence and I am glad with our process, moths are able to live and complete their life cycle,” informs Kusuma.
Founded in 2000, Ahimsa silk sells close to 200 sarees, 1,200 stoles, and 10,000 meters of fabric in a year. The entrepreneur also informs that he gets orders from abroad like the US, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and European nations.
Moreover, he has presented his beautiful silk wearables to the likes of Courtney Cox and the Pope.
Through his operations, he supports a cluster of weavers which comprise about 30 to 40 artisans.
In conversation with The Better India (TBI), the entrepreneur speaks about the journey of Ahimsa Silk.
A Strict Follower of Non-violence
“I was born and brought up in a forested area about 100 km away from the Warangal district. There weren’t any schools in the area that taught children from all standards. I had to change about 10 schools until the 10th standard,” recalls Kusuma who belongs to a family of farmers.
Kusuma went all the way to the Indian Institute of Handloom Technology in Salem to pursue a three-year-degree in handloom technology. Immediately after that, he joined APCO and worked there all his life, slowly climbing up the ranks until he decided to retire in 2014.
When the idea of Ahimsa Silk struck him, he purchased 20 kg of cocoon from the government market and kept those at home in a cane basket at home. On the seventh day, the moth broke out of the cocoon and he kept them in a separate basket.
“The moth only has a lifecycle of slightly over a week and it dies. And the cocoon they leave behind is equally as good. Most people decide to boil the cocoon (with the worm inside) because they believe that it can give a smooth yarn. But, I got the fibers spun into a yarn too and it was perfectly fine. In fact, we even wove two beautiful sarees with the yarn that was obtained. All of this without harming a single life,” he says proudly.
Roughly 3,000 silkworms are killed to make a single pound of silk. That means that billions of silkworms are killed for this every year.
It was only about nine years later when he decided to pursue this in a full-fledged manner as his professional commitments eased. Ahimsa Silk was thus founded in 2000, and by 2006, Kusuma had all the trademarks and patents in place that distinguished his silks from the rest available in the market.
Going about making the cruelty-free silk
It has been close to 20 years of operations, but Kusuma still ensures that the moths live their fullest life at his home and not any unit as such. He buys the cocoons in bulk from silk farmers in Palamaneru in the Chittoor district of Andra Pradesh.
Once the moths break out of the cocoon, he carefully collects them and sends the silk to a spinning mill where it is spun into yarn. This yarn is then brought to weavers in Nalgonda who weave beautiful ikkat or jamdani sarees with it. He informs that it takes almost two months to get about eight sarees woven.
Kusuma conceptualises all the colors and designs of the fabric. Some of the yarn is also sent to a power loom in Bengaluru which produces pure silk fabric in white which is then sold to manufacturers and designers in the garment industry.
The cruelty-free aspect of his brand of silk is definitely something that has caught the eye of several of his customers.
Bengaluru-based Devika Ramaratnam, for example, first discovered Ahimsa Silk while she was browsing through Facebook. The 52-year-old runs an online handloom store in Bengaluru called Ithyadee and she was immediately taken by the concept of Ahimsa Silk. She decided to buy a beautiful plum-colored saree from the brand.
She even invited Kusuma to an event to give a talk about his unique methods.
“I can tell you that his sarees were a big hit among those who had visited the event. I love the ikkat design saree that I have. It drapes so well and it is really smooth. I also like the fact that Mr. Kusuma is a genuine and passionate man who really wants to make a difference,” she says.
Another customer from Chennai, CVK Maitreya first discovered Ahimsa Silk when he was looking for cruelty-free silk as it aligned with his beliefs. A business consultant and the proprietor of a mercantile company called ‘Phoenix’, he was also very aware of the textile market and wanted to buy cruelty-free silk fabrics for his own business operations.
“The quality of the product is so good. In fact, when my daughter got married in 2013, the bride, her younger sister, my wife and I, we were all dressed in Ahimsa Silk. We even got some special orders placed for my in-laws,” he informs.
Challenges and overcoming them
Despite being passionate about the work he does, there are a few things that Kusuma has found challenging and most of it has to do with other dubious products marketed as ‘Ahimsa Silk’.
“There are many who sell fakes without any certification or proof of authenticity. I would urge buyers to be careful before purchasing silk that claims to be cruelty-free,” he says.
Another challenge that he faces has to do with large scale production which is currently a challenge.
“I don’t have the capital at this age to set up my own spinning mill or unit for my own operations. I wish there was more support from the government. What is the use of schemes if they aren’t successful? A lot of groundwork needs to be done and our weavers need to be empowered,” he informs.
But learning from his own experiences, he has a few words of encouragement for those who are equally passionate about the work they do.
“Once you maintain quality, you can definitely be a star in the market. Also, believe in your idea and ensure that your products are rightly priced. The price should never be inflated just so one can make profits,” he says.
He is looking forward to manufacturing accessories and baby clothes using the Ahimsa silk.
“Through Ahimsa Silk, I want to profess the values of non-violence. I want people to know that silk is something that can be produced cruelty-free and that you can carry it in style without any guilt,” he says.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)