Z - Zardozi embroidery from Benares
Mohammed Feroze grew up in the by lanes of Shivala where every household is engaged in some form of trade that involves embroidery work at various stages.
His forefathers from the days of Mughal emperors of the 17th century have been Zardozi artists and have lived and worked on these impossibly narrow and meandering alleyways about 500 yards away from Shivala ghat on the river Ganges.
Zardozi embroidery came to India from Persia during the reign of the Mughal emperors. Apart from India, Zardozi embroidery work is also found in Azerbaijan, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This intricate embroidery done with fine tubes of metal used to embellish the attire of the kings, their ministers and the royal families since the 17th century have patronized this art. In the days of Mughal kings this would adorn the walls of royal tents, wall hangings and other paraphernalia particularly of the regal elephants and horses.
The royal patrons of the 17th and 18th century would commission elaborate designs using real gold leaves and silver wires. To these would be added studded stones and precious pearls hand-woven with intricate designs. In this generation the craftsmen make use of a combination of copper wire with a gold or silver polish and add silk thread to it. The pearls and stones have now been replaced by look-alike plastic beads and stones. However once in a while an order comes around for a Bridal lehenga for a very rich or powerful family when real gold, silver , pearls and stones are still used. These are normally commissioned by top designers who outsource the work through a chain of middlemen before a piece of that work lands in the bylanes of Shivala ghat area.
Shivala ghat is’nt just about Bridal lehenga and Banaras sarees. It may as well have been so until about 50 -70 years back in time. But with changing trends there are sarees of all designs and varieties that get created and finished within the bylanes that is home to thousands of men, women and their families within a few square kilometer radius.
As we step into Naseem Bano’s house, Naseem Bano and three of her daughters are busy sticking bright plastic beads on a hand woven saree which has been spread out on the massive cot which occupies about 90% of the drawing room. The fourth daughter, the youngest one has just arrived from school and is chatting about her day at school. Naseem Bano asks her to get changed, pick up some food from the kitchen and start work on the saree.
When the entire saree has been finished with the beads that are being stuck using fevicryl, Feroze would come over in the evening to collect the finished product. The labour for the entire day for the combined effort from the four of them would earn about fifty rupees.
‘It hardly fetches any money, but the fact that I get work sitting here at home and can work while supervising the house work and my daughters help me out.
It helps me make some money to supplement the income. Otherwise just the cost of vegetables for the day can be more expensive than what we earn from this work’.
Naseem Bano’s four daughters work on Zardozi work that men like Feroze bring to them when they get their orders from the wholesalers. There are many women and their families along those narrow bylanes and the work gets divided amongst all of them. The eldest of Naseem Bano’s daughter has finished her Master’s degree in arts from a nearby college. The other two are doing their bachelor’s degree and the youngest daughter is in high school. The four sisters have a younger brother who goes to school.
One of the girls has learnt the art of ‘Badge’ making from their uncle who has his workshop in the adjacent room in the same by-lane. She shows me the badge that she has made and I instantly recognize this as the one they use in public schools over the uniforms, the one that is used to decorate the soldiers and to design the coat of arms in England and Scotland.
The badge embroidery uses silk threads of various colours to design the coat of arms of churches, football clubs, schools and of the army uniforms of many countries when a soldier gets decorated. For the Indian army and airforce uniforms, the artisans from shivala used to get orders many decades ago.
However these are matters of government contracts and the powerful and the connected usually bag them and give them to their own connections.
The India army uses the Zardozi workers in Malerkotla in Punjab, to embroider their unifroms with the badges. At Shivala ghat there are very few artisans left who are skilled in this type of art work that requires absolute precision of font, colour and design.
Arifa, Naseem Bano’s daughter introduces me to Shakeel Chacha in whose workshop which in itself is 10 feet by 10 feet room there are three others focusing on making the coat of arms for a church in Belfast. The design has been supplied to him with exact specifications for color and size by a trader from the city who has in turn procured this order from another tradesman in Delhi.
The trade especially for orders that come from abroad is fraught with a chain of middlemen especially English speaking middlemen who take the amount in dollars, pound sterling or Euros while the final artisan who actually spends his 12 hours of the day poring over the intricate design actually ends up getting paid a pittance.
It is not uncommon for us to undercut each other and that is why we earn what we earn !!! Says an old craftsman who is poring over the alphabet 'H' that he is embroidering for a bulk order that has come from Europe.
A shop run by Nazeem bhai in the middle of the by-lane stocks and sells these products to the entire mohalla or neighbourhood whose artisans are mostly engaged in this trade.
Nazeen bhai would procure the raw materials from Mumbai or Surat and stock them. Today most of the raw materials required come from Luang Zhong from China and is much cheaper than the ones that used to come from Dharavi in Mumbai or from Surat. Nazeem bhai has never stepped out of the city. His son carries out his orders over whatsapp and his contacts in Mumbai (that is the port where the China goods arrive for this trade) and Surat send him over what is required. They are all networked and in the absence of the social media network they had carried on the trade by word of mouth and through a network of known contacts in the trade.
Arif sits in a corner of the verandah of his house on the edge of his by-lane. In a less modest world his business card could read fabric designer. However he is unaware of the word or a business card, possibly because he is illiterate.
He sits on the corner and draws out various designs on a translucent trace paper with slight creative variations to each design and pattern. About 6 -12 such patterns if approved by the wholesaler would fetch him about 150 Indian rupees.
These designs would then be pored into small holes and rubbed with kerosene and colour powder in order to etch it on the fabric. The fabric would then be embroidered by other women in their house further down the lane or set into a handloom where the design would then be reproduced over yards and yards of sarees woven with silk, cotton or gold embroidered threads.
We stop by Feroze’s godown where he has procured and stocked raw materials from the wholesaler. He has come there to pick up a receipt book or something when a middle aged matronly woman way lays him and asks him why he has not been giving work off-late to her. Feroze replies in a matter of factly manner that he has not been getting as much orders as she thinks from the wholesalers. She nudges him and says that she knows others have been getting work from him and that he is avoiding her.
He introduces me to her and we get talking. Meanwhile Feroze has stepped out to talk to some business acquaintance. The woman is in a mood to offload her rant. She tells me there are girls in her house who are waiting for work. They cannot come down to the lanes to collect the work so she comes down to his shop to ask for work. Her two daughter-in-laws and a daughter would do any work that comes their way. She herself is too old and her eyes have given way over years of poring into intricate embroidery that she is no more able to see the needle and the thread clearly.
Feroze is back after a brief chat and promises her work next week. He asks her if he may get me to their home to see and talk.
I am invited to their house. Later in the day Feroze walks me through a by-lane and stops. He calls out for the old lady in the first floor and she peeps out of the window. After some initial conversations he tells me he would wait at the landing of the stairs and I could go up to meet the matronly woman and her family. Three flights of stairs upwards in a bizarrely constructed house with no plastering from the outside, I can see the bricks with the cement layers in between. At the landing of the second floor a young woman is cooking possibly the lunch for the day on a kerosene stove while another is washing the utensils.
One more flight of narrow stairs upwards opens into a room which consists of a huge cot where I am made to sit along with the matronly woman. On top of the wall is a Television set re-telecasting the recent India-Pakistan cricket match. There is plenty of bric a brac like glass tumblers, photo frames and other plastic items gathering dust on the wall above the cot. I am served an extremely sweet and milky tea in one of the cups picked up and washed from that dust laden shelf. The house is extended beyond the possibilities of space vertically and horizontally.
We get talking and the woman tells me that the money here is meager and her sons have had to go to Kuwait to make a living. Both of them were the finest Zardozi embroidery workers in the entire mohalla - neighbourhood. They did intricate zardozi work for the rich and royal families not only from Benares, Allahabad and Lucknow but even from Delhi and Mumbai. Big designers who outsourced their work got it done through them.
Word got around and her eldest son was summoned to the Gulf to work on high quality Zardozi work over there. Kuwait apparently has a fledgling Zardozi craft and patrons which is where he went to.
The younger one later joined him, but he works as a tailor, although when there are orders he could double up as a Zardozi craftsman. Her daughter comes in to show some of the work that her brothers had done when they were back at home, which I guess must have been some years ago, . The Zardozi embroidery on one of her dresses is intricate and clearly a class apart from all that I had seen earlier in the day. It was a pretty worn down dress that she had picked up from the clothes lining and it is semi-dry, but the Zardozi embroidery is firm, intricate and gorgeous. A small piece of work like that would cost in tens of thousands of Rupees in the fashionable boutiques in bigger cities.
The irony is not lost on me.
The daughter who explained to me the difference between real Zardozi and the kind of junk work that comes their way these days, studies in a local college. When stepping out of home she is draped in her head scarf as are her sister in laws. She understands design and fine art. She herself has learnt some of the Zardozi work from her brothers and is clearly in awe of her brother who in his days was the master craftsman in Zardozi embroidery in the entire neighbourhood at a very young age.
While her two sons send money home from Kuwait to make ends meet, the matronly woman also goes out to get some work for the younger women in the house who in their free time could supplement their income. She is now aspiring to send her youngest son abroad and join his brothers. They had almost managed to get his visa and tickets done for Kuwait when at the immigration in Delhi airport it was discovered that they had been duped and the visa had turned out to be a fake one. About 100,000 thousand Indian rupees were spent on getting his passage out of the country which had gone down the drain. The family was into debt and she was desperate, for any kind of work to pay off the debts and to make money to send the boy abroad again, this time without getting duped. They were already in talks with a trustworthy agent known to the family.
As times change, fashion changes and the demands also change. The Zardozi workers have also adapted to the changing times. Feroze reckons that in his career he sees a fashion or a fetish for a particular design last about 2-3 years. In his childhood days when he apprenticed with his father and uncles, every Hindu bride carried at least 21 or 51 Banares hand woven sarees in her trousseau.
Today a couple of Benares sarees for a religious function and a heavily embroidered Zardozi lehenga for a reception are all that a bride would want for the traditional aspect of her trosseau. Most would prefer Punjabi suits or jeans and T-shirts for a normal wear.
Fashion and times have changed. Occasions to wear a grand benarasi saree are far and few. However with the population increasing manifold and the number of artisans practicing the craft the demand for Benares handloom silk is still going strong. With times the Sarees have now changed to other fashionable dresses and Benares silk also finds itself in as varied and unusual patterns like the ethnic file folders and other souvenirs that are sold the world over.
The current fashion among the lower middle class consumers seems to be the embroidery pattern on the back of the choli or the blouse. Thanks to the mid-afternoon soap operas that have caught the fancy of housewives in small towns, no choli or blouse is complete without exquisite embroidery work on the back. There apparently is a bulk order for a particular design of choli embroidery and artisans all over have set up their wooden frames with choli materials. In a day an average artisan would embroider about three to four blouses and that would fetch him anywhere between 60 to 100 Indian rupees for an eight to twelve hour day.
‘Could they not advertise their skills online? That could cut off a lot of middlemen. The online revolution has in fact successfully eliminated a chain of middlemen in many occupations in the last decade or so?’ I ask Feroze.
The old man sitting over the intricate hand embroidery designing the coat of arms for the Church in Belfast just laughs it off.
I would learn later from Feroze that they are all barely literate to read and write. Having an online presence is just beyond them, but more importantly, there are very few of the next generation of artisans left to carry on the art. These are people who are resigned to the fact that the art will die a natural death over a period of time.