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Sewing new life into zardozi

Pokemon, Eiffel tower, burgers; the traditional gold-thread embroidery has gone pop. New motifs are being used on scarves, jackets and ties, and finding takers around the world

Lavina Mulchandani

Helicopters etched in gold on denim jackets, kitschy autorickshaws on shawls, an Eiffel tower in copper on a pair of jeans — zardozi is changing its world view.

The word zardozi is Persian for ‘embroidering with gold’. This intricate work was once restricted to gold thread and floral patterns on rich materials like satins, velvets and silks. Now, it’s being used to create colourful Pokemon and parrots, aeroplanes, butterflies and peacocks using an array of metallic threads.

“It takes years to learn how to embroider with metal yarn, but once you master it, zardozi is a very versatile craft,” says Ritu Sethi, chairperson of the Delhi-based Craft Revival Trust.

“It started making its way back into the fashion industry post-liberalisation, in a more modern, more minimalist form, and we’re now seeing it on evening dresses and am/pm wear, on tops, pants and kurtis. Even on ripped jeans.”

A big driver for the innovation has been the boom in the retail market — design labels large and small trying new things, marrying the Indian aesthetic with Western silhouettes, offering over-the-top prints and patterns. The trend trickled down to zardozi over the past decade, and embroiderers in the hubs of Surat, Lucknow, and Mysuru began to see the nature of their orders change.

I used to make Rs 5,000 a month doing wedding lehengas and saris for wholesalers in Kolkata and Mumbai,” says Irfan Khan, 30, from Surat who has worked in the trade for 15 years and heads a team of eight. “Five years ago, they started to ask if I could make Eiffel towers, animals and Gandhi spectacles on cotton, polyester and georgette for kurtis and dupattas. They say such designs are popular there. Once I started saying yes to those orders, I started getting more work. I’m now earning about Rs 18,000 a month.”

You can replace the gold thread in zardozi with almost any metal, dye the thread any colour, twist it into new patterns, and that suits this new generation of designers and buyers, says Tasneem Merchant, a designer and guest faculty in trend forecasting at the National Institute of Fashion Technology. “This is also not a flat form of embroidery; it stands out on the fabric, adding an element of quirkiness, which is what many buyers are looking for.”

The orders are typically for mid-sized design brands that are now marrying zardozi and kitsch, like Mysuru-based Jayanthi Ballal and the Noida-based Kora by Anjali Kalia.

“Customers like zardozi, but not in the traditional motifs,” says Kalia. “They want things like zardozi pineapples on scarves and pants; burgers and fries on bags, jackets and even ties.”

A STITCH IN TIME

On the outskirts of Surat, at a 30-year-old workshop in a row of such workshops, eight zardozi artistes work on orders for a client in the UAE.

“Demands include a 4-ft Eiffel tower, a Pokemon on georgette for a skirt,” says Karima Babi, 45, one of the zardozi workers. “It wasn’t easy getting used to these new ideas,” she adds, laughing.

Strange as they may be, the demands are welcome, says Champalal Bothara, general secretary of Federation of Surat Textile Traders Association (FOSTTA). “When embroidery machines came became common a decade ago, zardozi craftsmen in Surat and other parts of the country started losing business. That’s because it is hand embroidery and so it takes time and it’s expensive. They then some years ago, these new demands began coming in and now they are earning thousands every month.”

Owners of zardozi units say most of their orders are from garment traders dealing in diaspora-rich countries such as Dubai, Singapore, the UK, the US and Canada. “We see as much demand for this kind of work from the US and UK as we do from Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai,” adds Kalia.

Ballal says the aim is to make it possible for anyone in the world to wear zardozi without having to necessarily wear something ethnic.

“The needle now runs on every kind of fabric — chiffon, cotton, denim, even leather,” she says. “It sometimes is integrated with other forms of handwork and embroidery like zari, aari and gota patti. We use it on bags, pouches, cushion covers and jeans. Such items are ordered in bulk for buyers in India and overseas. You also spot them in design exhibitions. And being popular has made it more popular, because that is the nature of fashion.”

IS THAT CLOSE ENOUGH?

How does someone who has only ever done the same design suddenly figure out how to create a tiger or an autorickshaw using the same techniques and tools? That is one of the challenges, workmen admit. “Work has increased and pay has increased,” says Khan Ali, 37, a craftsman from Mysuru who works with Ballal. “My grandfather got two orders a month, and I get 10. But he never had to research, attend workshops. Things were simpler then. There is a lot of design intervention and innovation now.”

Leena K, founder of Indian Craft Safari, a brand that sells quirky Indian crafts around the world, says she often sits with the craftsmen and women over tea to help fine-tune new templates.

“We look at photographs of a Harley Davidson bike, tinker with how we will represent symbols of the zodiac signs. The embroidery is as intricate as it used to be, so it takes time and effort to get it right.”

Farooq Sheikh, 29, a fifth-generation zardozi craftsman, recently learnt how to create a likeness of the Hindu deity Venkateshwara using metal thread on silk, for sari blouses. “It was a difficult design to learn,” he says, “but it helped me earn better in the wedding season.”

(HT Media)

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