Photographs courtesy of Shyam Ahuja
No story about Shyam Ahuja, a stubborn bull, can begin without the dhurrie. As hard to imagine today, the dhurrie – the most iconic and ubiquitous of Indian flatweaves – had all but disappeared by the 1960s. There were no weavers, no buyers and no interest in a textile. who could trace his lineage back to the Harappan civilization. My grandfather helped change this and with him changed the course of the Indian loom
Shyam, then a successful businessman and wool buyer for Tattersfield & Co., Philadelphia, came across dhurrie while visiting a prison workshop in Rajasthan in 1968. Determined to find an outlet for his creative bent, and recognizing the potential of dhurrie as a woven cloth, he resolved to sell the textile in America, a market with which he was familiar. Yet around this time he encountered an industry that wanted nothing to do with him. He would often tell me about those times later in life: “I wasn’t even allowed to cross the threshold of most of the big furniture stores,” he would say, telling me that they had no respect for Indian handicrafts. These insults, often tinged with racial prejudice and spoken with condescension, made him physically sick. Still, he persevered, working his way to meetings until he finally met Irwin Corey of the Rosecore Carpet Company in New York and received his first export order: a cotton dhurrie.
He finally had a client. All that remained was for him to deliver a product worthy of his vision. First, he convinced a master weaver, Habib – who had packed his things, sold his house and was about to leave for Pakistan – to set up a workshop in Kaval, a village near Varanasi, in the Uttar Pradesh. Second, he trusted his instincts and made a swatch of wool since he was unfamiliar with cotton yarn yet. Luckily for him, and largely due to the refinement of his construction, the buyer loved him and ordered six more. Unknowingly, he had made the first late 20th century weaving woolen dhurrie and with it launched his brand and legacy, SHYAM AHUJA. The rug, by the way, was named “Design #1” or “Cambay” and is still a favorite 53 years later.