A desire to alleviate her boredom led Vijetha Bhoopal to start a block-printing business over four decades ago. Her brand Pallavi is a familiar name to lovers of sarees all over. Minal Khona talks to the lady.
Vijethathamma as she is known is embroidering a motif on a blouse when I meet her. With a ready smile and a droll sense of humour, she recalls how she started Pallavi, which has a dual meaning — a new shoot of a plant and for the exclusive pallus she created. “I was bored though I had two kids and was teaching at Vidyaranya school, of which I was one of the founder members. I wanted to do something else. I was familiar with the tie and dye process since I was on the Cottage Industry Committee and I decided to start my own business. When I asked the government for help, the officials said they could not pay the Rs 20000 I needed.”
By then, Vijethathamma had already rounded up artisans to work for her and they started grumbling as they had given up jobs to work with her. So she and a friend got tables and blocks from a person in the old city. That printer was selling everything so he could fund his daughter’s marriage. “I paid him Rs 3000 for all his blocks though he asked for only Rs 2000 as he needed the money for his daughter. We started the business by requesting friends and relatives to give us old sarees that they were not wearing, so that we could experiment with block printing as we didn’t have material to print on.”
Luckily, though Vijethathamma was married into a conventional family, her husband supported her and she started her business in an open garage on their property. She had one master printer — Ismail — who was a teenager when he started working with her. “There was nothing he couldn’t do,” she recalls with fondness. Anything we asked him to create, he would say, ‘Hau, hota amma, kaay ku nahin hoga?” He worked with us till he passed away recently.”
This fact is reiterated by Bharati Ramamurthy, the chief designer who now works with Pallavi. She says, “He was a legend here. Everyone called him Ustad. He even had names for blocks. Once, Sarojini Pulla Reddy, who was the mayor then, got a saree block printed on khadi to gift to Mrs Indira Gandhi, who in turn wore the saree when she visited Hyderabad. So the peacock motif he had used on her saree became the Indiramma block. And of course, Ustad was thrilled that Mrs Gandhi had worn one of his creations. “
Pallavi grew from made-to-order requests to a couple of stores — the flagship one on Sarojini Devi Road, opposite the Taj Mahal restaurant in Secunderabad and the other, on Tilak Road.
Pallavi’s workshop is where the business was first started but every section is in separate spaces. The fabric sourced from all over India. Venkatgiri, Kota, Doria mulmul and all kinds of cottons — find their way into Pallavi. The sarees are then dyed, dried in the sun, printed, steamed, washed in sulphuric acid, starched and then dried again. After that, they are rolled onto wooden shafts for 48 hours. When the saree is unrolled after this process, it comes out perfectly printed and ready to be sent to the store.
Vijethathamma recalls that when she started the business, she paid Rs 250 as rent for the store, and it would cost her Rs 8 to print a saree. She in turn charged her customers Rs 10. Today, the sarees start from Rs 800 onwards. Pallavi has expanded to include salwar kameez sets, table linen and bed linen in its range. The embroidery work on the fabric is outsourced to Muslim women who can do it at home in their spare time and the mirrorwork is given to the Lambada women.
Bharati oversees the designing part and works closely with the printers in choosing the combination of patterns and colours. Vijethathamma has retired and is not involved with the nitty gritties of the business anymore. But the octogenarian is still switched on about current trends and prevailing prices. She enjoys being a great-grandmother and is living out her sunset years, happy with the legacy she has created.
Pallavi Sarees, 86, Sarojini Devi Road, Opp Taj Mahal Restaurant, Secunderabad
Photographs by Sucharitha Rao