It may be hard to believe but zardozi embroidery, an imperial craft and considered one of the most famous in the world, survives in Lucknow — the capital of India’s Uttar Pradesh state — in its dingy dwellings and narrow alleys of Amethi, Rae Bareli, Unnao, Barabanki, Hardoi and Sitapur.
Zardozi can be interpreted as needlework with gold and silver strings — with zarin meaning ‘gold’ and dozi signifying ‘embroidery’ in Persian. It’s beleived zardozi has existed in India from the time of Rig Veda, and the use of zari embroidery as ornamentation on the attire of Hindu deities often found mention in scriptures.
Rig Veda is one of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language. Literary and linguistic evidence indicates that the Rig Veda was composed in the northwestern region of India, most likely between 1500 and 1200 BC.
Zardozi reached its pinnacle in the 17th century under the patronage of Mughal Emperor Akbar. But under the rule of Aurangzeb, royal aid for the traditional craft ended abruptly and it resulted in the craft’s decline. Owing to the high cost of the raw material, which craftsmen could not procure easily, work suffered. Disappointed, many artisans left the trade.
The craft witnessed another setback during the 18th and 19th centuries due to industrialisation. The practice stabilised after India gained Independence in 1947 and the government took vital steps to promote certain crafts, including zari embroidery. Once again, it grew in popularity, and zardozi products are now part of high fashion and in demand by export houses.
Zardozi garments not only look grand but also weigh a lot. Depending on the design, each work generally takes about 10 days to complete."
“Zardozi is one of the oldest forms of hand embroidery, which was done on garments worn by the kings and royals in India,” Altaf, master craftsman, tells Weekend Review. “At that time, the priceless and exquisite embroidery was created with real gold leaves and silver wires on the attires.
Pure gold was beaten into fine metal thread that was used to embroider motifs on the fabric. Zardozi involved making elaborate designs wherein precious gems such as diamonds, emeralds, pearls and precious stones were sown into the fabric as part of the embroidery which further enhanced the look of the garment.”
The 79-year-old craftsman explains that today, “we use a combination of copper wire, coated with golden or silver polish and synthetic threads, as they are lightweight and durable. The question of using pure gold or silver just does not arise.”
Explaining the method of embroidery, the fifth-generation artisan says: “The process begins by tracing out the design on a fabric like silk, organza, velvet or satin, by poking it with a needle and outlining the entire pattern. The fabric is then fixed over the addaa (wooden frame) so that the fabric does not move. It requires the craftsmen to sit cross-legged around the addaa with tools which include needles, curved hooks, wires, threads, sequins, gems and beads placed nearby to be picked up with ease. The embroidery is done with the help of the needle that follows the basic design.”
Manufacturers claim that constructing a zardozi pattern is quite expensive even now, not only because of the high-priced raw material but also because embroiderers are paid on an hourly basis for doing delicate and intricate work. One small motif takes a lot of time, depending on the complexity of design.
Rizwan, who started out at the age of 14, is still enthusiastic about his trade. “Today, I have my own workshop with over 12 embroiderers,” he says. “Some artisans also work for me on a part-time basis, operating from their homes. I also provide training to youngsters who wish to join the trade. Although even neighbourhood women approach me to learn the craft so that they can add to the family income, I feel sad turning them down.
Actually, this form of embroidery is very stressful as a person has to sit cross-legged on the ground for several hours. That is the reason only so few housewives are involved in this profession. But of late, because of rehabilitation and livelihood schemes run by some NGOs, women are encouraged to learn the craft.”
An artisan at Rizwan’s workshop is busy working on a fabric. Bending over the pattern, one sees his hooked needle going in and out of the stretched-out saree on a wooden frame. With every stitch of embroidery, there’s assurance that his daughter will continue to study in a private school. Several such craftsmen are the sole bread earners of their families.
While one is working over-time to pay off a huge loan taken at the time of his daughter’s marriage, the other is fulfilling the family responsibility after giving up education to learn the craft, due to his father’s untimely demise. Rizwan has taught them the simple zardozi stitch and coloured thread embroidery, embellished with sequins and applique designs.
Despite having seen many ups and downs, zardozi has never been out of fashion. Available in boutiques around the country, it forms a major part of India’s bridal couture. Though it was earlier practiced only on organza fabric, fashion designers have given it a total makeover, and the art is now created on variety of textiles. Compared to the original designs that were very Mughal in style and form, they are now more linear and follow patterns comprising flowers, petals and leaves.
“Importantly, embroidery is done on fabric,” explains another manufacturer, Sameer. “The garment is stitched only after embroidery is completed. Zardozi garments not only look grand but also weigh a lot. Depending on the design, each work generally takes about 10 days to complete, and each piece is charged according to the design and fabric used. Zardozi’s grace can be attributed to its colourful hues, enigmatic elegance and elaborate designs that emerge from the hearts of its creators. For every artisan who works merely to earn a living, there are many who work with pride for this form of embroidery.”
Bilal learnt the art as a child. “I grew up seeing my father and uncles making drawings on paper sheets and working on addaas,” he says. Being deft at sketching initially I wished to become an artist, but a lack of opportunities and patronage led me to join the family tradition. Now I feel it was the right thing to do. My enthusiasm towards embroidery is such that I spend most of the time at work.”
The second-generation craftsman has not restricted himself to working on sarees and dupattas.
“There’s a huge market for zardozi items such as apparels, home furnishings, bags, bangles and footwear,” he says. “These products are sold all over India and also exported to many countries. I travel to different states to take orders. Though zardozi clusters are traditionally predominant in Lucknow and its surrounding areas, it is also prevalent in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
But I presume many prefer to buy authentic handmade items from manufacturers they are familiar with. The reason is people are passing off machine-produced work as handmade zardozi. Many such works find their way into boutiques and showrooms, which is quite a disturbing trend but there’s nothing one can do about imitations.”
The Lucknow zardozi has been a brand name since 2013. The intricate needle handicraft was accorded the Geographical (GI) status on being registered by Chennai-based Geographical Indication. This was done at the behest of Lucknow’s Kalatmak Handicrafts Self-Help Group Foundation. A GI is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and evolution over centuries. In the zardozi context, it is not just a unique heritage of the region but also the only source of livelihood for thousands of people in central Uttar Pradesh.
“The GI registration will be a major step forward in branding and promoting zardozi, which will give a fillip to exports of zardozi products,” noted Mansoor Nadeem Lari, CEO of Kalatmak Handicrafts on the GI registration. “Our foundation would undertake aggressive measures to achieve these objectives.”
Following this, it was hoped zardozi would achieve global recognition and lead to a quantum jump in exports. But the reality now is different. At one time, Lucknow had more than 400,000 zardozi artisans but later the numbers dwindled to about 175,000. Artisans claim the number is going down drastically.
“Manufacturers, retailers, exporters and artisans were supposed to become authorised users of the brand after paying the requisite fee to get GI registration,” one craftsman says. “But I have yet to come across anyone who has gone in for such process. Most fear one tax or another will be levied on them for working in this trade.”
Desolate and unsure of policies, a tone of pessimism has arisen in the minds of artisans. Now the hands that once crafted striking designs on fabrics with gold, silver and coloured threads are driving e-rickshaws [a battery-operated rickshaw]. The situation is such that artisans say it is the beginning of the end for zardozi.
Aslam, 35, bought an e-rickshaw three years ago. He does not mind the harsh weather conditions — whether it is scorching summer or chilly winter.
“Thankfully, I am able to earn much more than I did as a zardozi worker,” he says. “My family life had become miserable as often there were fights at home over money. I could not feed my family of six including elderly parents, who generally do not keep well.”
Aslam’s father had insisted his son learn zardozi embroidery. “Meagre work and low wages forced me to opt out,” he says. “But my father was very annoyed when I left the job and refused to speak with me for months, all the time cribbing that zardozi was in our blood and how could I break the three-generation tradition. Despite having mastered the art, I saw how the condition of artisans was going from bad to worse. For an eight-hour shift, Rs100 (Dh5.35) a day was not sufficient, so I used to work for an additional five hours for another Rs100. Lately, not much work was coming my way. Left with no choice, I quit. Now, I earn a minimum of Rs500 a day.”
He says he “spent hours doing a neat and clean job of heavy embroidery, but the entire credit would go to our master, who sold the products to big showrooms at a good price, without increasing our payments. Even fashion designers sell works for thousands of rupees, but the plight of artisans is becoming deplorable by the day. I find it so ironic that tourists aware of Lucknow’s zardozi desire to be taken to see the working of zardozi technique. Many are shocked to see craftsmen working under dim light and poor conditions. But then, that’s the reality.”
Aslam is not the only one. Thousands of workers known for their skills are driving e-rickshaws or have taken up other unskilled jobs.
“Growing popularity of machine work and low remuneration is killing this art,” says Mohammad Azad, who is working as an electrician for the past four years. “I set up my shop after much deliberation. Years of toil as a zardozi craftsman did not ensure enough to run the house. Though I am not minting money, there’s at least the satisfaction of not being exploited.”
Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.