Forty-three years ago, my recently acquired husband, Leslie Stroh the improbable and impressionable new President of Fritz & LaRue, returned from his first trip to India and E. Hills bearing a large bag stuffed with silk and spouting tales of eccentric characters and exotic venues – Geoffrey Seager, Edward Oakley, Mahadev and Udaipal Singh, Mirzapur Club, Khamaria, Varanasi, the Kahns, the Big Bungalow, Clark’s Hotel, rose gardens and Imli trees, The Ganga, Brian Huffner, Kunwar Pahwa – and Kusum.
Now, Kusum Seager’s book Back of Beyond – The Romance of Hills Carpets places these lively characters in a historical continuum . How did they come to be way up on the Ganges, where boats can go no further? How did an Indigo pot become a pot to dye rug yarn? Who first bought New Zealand wool? When, why, and how did Project Mala start to address child labor? Currently there are c. 1300 children in 6 schools across remote parts of the carpet weaving belt of Mirzapur and Veranasi.
When did OBEETEE begin; how did OBEETEE and E HILLS relate, both English Raj companies, one “old” and one a “new comer.” How did Dolly and Rakesh Agarwal (Rug&Home) find their way to Western North Carolina?
Kusum Seager is not only the author, but also a central player in the evolution of rug weaving in the UP and the transition from being dominated by the English Raj to an Indian run industry.
It was Kusum, who led my husband on the Varanasi silk buying venture. She may have been the first non-WASP female he had known well, and listening to him exude about her grace, her intelligence, her laughter, I was glad our marriage was not a year old! Kusum was then married to Kunwar Pahwa, the first Indian officer an English rug company, E. Hills, reporting directly to Geoffrey Seager. Fifteen years later, Kusum Seager greeted my exhausted family in Varanasi after the overnight train trip from Delhi. She was the lady Leslie had admired so much. She captivated me and my children with more silk buying trips, sun rise boats on the Ganges, jeep trips to rug weaving villages and a visit to the aging brothers Udaipal and Mahadev Singh reclining on charpoys under a tamarind tree. The now mostly blind Mahadev blessed my children.
Kusum gives us an easy read in the hand woven rugs business. Aficionados of hand weaving will undoubtedly look down long academic noses at Kusum’s book, but mere mortals like me and anyone who wonders how that rug on their living room floor rug came to be will find Kusum’s story compelling. How yarn and designs are given out; how rugs are inspected when they are returned to the “manufacturer.” How “manufacturers” retain loyal expert weavers and thus control the quality of the end product. What happens when the Ganges floods the weavers’ sheds? Although I have been “married” to the rug business for over 40 years, I learned more than I didn’t know I knew.
I have a dream. Kusum’s book deserves a larger distribution than just her friends, family, and members of the Mirzapur Club. My dream is that when a retailer sells a high end hand knotted Indian carpet, they present a copy of Kusum’s book to the buyer and they say, “Have fun reading this book about th romance and history of the origins of your great rug. Pour yourself a good drink (preferably Black Label or a Pink Gin) and get to know the people who are responsible for the rug on your floor”.
Back of Beyond–The Romance of Hills Carpets copies are available at approximately $15 plus shipping from India.