Jagdish Mittal looking at Kalamkari Sarees art by Lakshmi Devi Raj at ASCI
Amongst the few vanguards of what we say “Hyderabadi Tehzeeb” and “Deccani Urdu” that is the part of a unique identity, is Lakshmi Devi Raj. An epitome of grace and the old-world charm –Lakshmi Devi Raj, since decades now, has been working in reviving and restoring the authentic craft of Kalamkari and Venkatagiri handlooms.
She has created a special place for herself in handloom sector of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana by working with traditional handloom crafts. She always inspires and encourages artists and has dedicated her life to recreate these handlooms. Born in 1932, she did her schooling from Rosary Convent and Mahabubia School in Hyderabad.
After schooling, she did her Bachelors in English. Her interest and dedication towards handloom led to becoming a board member of 'Lepakshi Handicrafts'. Recently, she released her documentary titled 'The Art of Kalamkari', which was launched by Padma Shri awardee Jagdish Mittal. Her story of childhood, bond with the city of Hyderabad and her passion for handlooms reflect the core spirit of the city of Nizams.
Tell us about your childhood and marriage?
Our house was located in Jam Bagh, Hyderabad. My father Dr BS Raj was in Hyderabad Army. Later, he served as the family doctor to Azam Jah Bahadur, the eldest son of the seventh Nizam, and Princess Durru Shehvar's family; he got the designation of Raj Bahadur. His office was located in First Lancer, today we have Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital at the same place. Later, he went to Edinburgh, Scotland. In those days my father used to get the official vehicle and we were not allowed to sit in the same vehicle.
But today's generation is totally different they use their official vehicle for their personal purpose (especially their wife's). My grandmother was very religious but we never compromised with our mother tongue Urdu, though we were fluent in English. Political reasons or politicians might have defined that Urdu is for Muslims, but many people were like us who never give up Urdu, even today.
I want to recollect one incident; once, I visited Allahabad to some relatives place and the way I spoke and saluted them with Salaam, they got confused and thought Hyderabadi Muslims also use Lakshmi in their name. When I prayed in puja room they realised I am a Hindu. But, even today I can say that no other language can stand in front of Urdu, no other language can compete with Urdu poetry.
I was 17-year-old when I got married. In those days we used to be happy about getting married because we used to think marriage is all about new clothes and jewellery. I was interested in architecture and got my admission in Kamala Nehru Polytechnic College, but I was not able to pursue because I was poor in maths.
How did the journey with handlooms start?
My mother used to wear handloom sarees, and in those days for every season, we used to have different clothes. In the summer season, we used to wear Chanderi, Kota, fine cotton and Venkatagiri and in winters, Kashmiri or Karnataka silk. I still remember Himroo shawls of Aurangabad.
They used to be so warm that you will not need a Kashmiri shawl. In my childhood, I realised the importance of textiles and colours. Today, when I close my eyes I can see all the colours, though I am not a designer, I have a great colour sense. Once the famous journalist Mulk Raj Anand conducted a show at the Jubilee Hall and invited me on stage; I was wearing an Indigo saree. The same saree, I later gave to Nizam Museum, which is displayed there for the visitors. Mulk Raj spoke about Andhra craft, and on that day I decided to do something in handlooms.
It must have been a challenging journey!
When I started searching for artists, I used to visit their villages, which did not even have basic facilities, not even toilets. All the street lanes used to be dirty, but even then I never got tired of going. I used to get a separate table and my set of colours and all the family members of those artists used to shower love and respect. In those days when Chitra Ramachandran was the collector of Vijayawada, I had requested her for basic needs of the village to be met, and I remember she sanctioned some amount too.
It was very difficult but when it comes to passion, you can deal with the difficulties. When I have decided to do something in handloom I started my journey to Machilipatnam and Polavaram villages. I used to hire a taxi to reach these places and roads were in bad condition in those days. Later, I began travelling by train and the weavers used to send a car to pick me up. I learnt block printing and other handloom prints from one of the artists. I used to design one saree a day, on the other side the weavers used to design two to three sarees. I used to pay them the price of three sarees for one.
Since a few years now, these artists are leaving the art and moving into nearby factories started by the government. This is going to end the traditional art forms. The government should encourage these artisans to stay connected to their profession.