Chennai: The sight of the poor in Madurai made Mahatma Gandhi choose to wear just a simple dhoti. The plight of weavers in the Tirupur region prompted a young man in 1983 to start a business selling dhoties to help them. The journey began six years earlier in 1977 for KR Nagarajan, who hailed from a family of small-scale farmers in Avinashi, near Tirupur. After failing the SSLC exam, Nagarajan joined a Khadi bhandar in Tirupur as a sales representative for a monthly salary of Rs 150.
“Tirupur was 14 km from Avinashi and I cycled to work every day. The store sourced dhoties from local weavers and sold them in Andhra Pradesh. I used to travel for 15 days to register orders and spend the other 15 days in the workshop coordinating production,” recalls Nagarajan.
The weavers brought the dhoties in the morning and waited outside the shop in the evening for payment. No one even offered them a glass of water. Most had no shirts and were dressed in torn dhoties. In the evening, they got their money back and rushed to catch the last bus home. “I couldn’t do much to help them except buy them tea or snacks with my purse,” says Nagarajan.
After a while I asked the owner to pay the weavers as soon as they deliver the dothies. “If they are paid early, they will go around Tirupur, visit other shops and supply materials to them and not to us,” the owner said. “It went against the sportsmanship that was instilled in me at school. I decided to help the weavers,” says Nagarajan.
His relatives and friends chided him for concentrating on dhotis when Tirupur was emerging as a hub for the export of knitted garments. “I told them that I was not here to do business, but to work for the upliftment of weavers. With great reluctance, a few relatives helped me and I opened my first shop in Tirupur in 1983 I paid higher wages to the weavers to ensure they get good meals three times a day and wear a shirt when they visit my shop An old weaver advised me not to get emotional and take back my old work,” Nagarajan recalls. Nagarajan paid them more and got better dhoties, which he then sold at a higher price. The business grew. From a handful of weavers at the start, about 50,000 weavers from the Kongu belt (Coimbatore to Salem, Dharmapuri) are now supplying dhoties and other materials to Ramraj Cotton.
After 15 years of successful business, Nagarajan went with nine other friends for a yarn supplier’s wedding at a five-star hotel in Chennai. He was refused entry because he was wearing a dhoti. He chose to sit quietly under a tree, asking his friends to attend the wedding. “Sitting under that tree I remembered that my family had been against the dhoti trade and now I faced the embarrassment of being refused entry to a hotel. do something more. That’s when I thought about branding,” he says. He made an announcement with actor Jayaram as his role model. It became a hit.
“It is a different story that after a club in the city barred entry to a VIP dressed in dhoti, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa passed an ordinance against the practice. ‘half a page in all the papers thanking her for the order,’ he said.
Today, Ramraj Cotton manufactures 2,500 varieties of dhoties and sells one-lakh-a-day pieces in 10,000 multi-brand textile outlets across the country and 212 exclusive showrooms, in addition online and offline. ‘export. It employs 10,000 people, with Tirupur as its hub. Since then, the group has ventured into designer shirts, loungewear and womenswear. The turnover is four figures.
What next? “I just boarded a flight from Coimbatore to Chennai. Of the approximately 140 passengers, I am the only one wearing a dhoti. I want to see more people on the flight wearing dhotis,” he says.