Encouraged by the recent sale of their embroidered cloth, Tabassum Khan and Sheeba Khan planned to apply for a bank loan. “We wanted money to buy more cloth. We dreamt of having our own wooden frames, more needles and more thread,’ recalls Tabassum. However, after spending a few minutes with the bank official, they promptly dropped the idea of applying for the Rs 50,000 loan. “He wanted us to come home and told us that his wife was interested in learning embroidery. I felt he did not really mean what he was saying. I could see his actual intention,” says Sheeba.
As they made their way back home that day they never imagined that they’d eventually be able to realise their dream of becoming artisan-entrepreneurs, selling clothes embellished with exquisite handcrafted chikankari embroidery. Today, they are part of a group of 11 women chikan karigars, who have broken free from the exploitation that is intrinsic to their line of work and have established their individual identities as artisans.
How did they manage to accomplish this seemingly unimaginable feat? Ask Tabassum and she attributes this positive change to Jaspal Kalra, a professor of fashion design, who set up Sangraha, an organisation that not only conducts a ten-month training programme in design for chikankari artisans but also connects them with prospective buyers through an online platform, apart from encouraging them to participate in design exhibitions across the country. Essentially, Kalra is a teacher and facilitator, while the women take their own decisions regarding the kind of orders they want to take on. They even have a certain freedom to create their own designs, based on the clients’ needs. For women like Tabassum and Sheeba, who would otherwise never get to experience this kind of autonomy in their personal or professional lives, this partnership has indeed been liberating.
All of us came back from exhibitions with loads of orders. We have enough work for the moment and an assured income for
Married at 16, Tabassum was back at her parents’ home barely a year later. Disheartened with the way things had unfolded for her — she never went to school, was pushed into early marriage and then had to go through the heartbreak of a broken relationship, all in her teens — she took up chikankari to support herself. She learnt the craft under the guidance of Shilpguru Ayub Khan. For years she worked magic with her nimble fingers and though she was conferred with a State award for craftsmanship in 2005, her struggle to earn a decent living continued.
Indeed, awards or not, that’s the lived reality of chikan karigars. In and around Lucknow, chikan embroidery provides employment to about 250,000 artisans, mostly women, apart from a million people who are associated with the trade, as raw material suppliers, contractors, manufacturers and retailers. Despite being a thriving sector, it is largely informal, which means the artisans earn wages from sub-contractor
or traders, on a per-piece rate. Consequently, their bargaining power is non-existent and the earnings poor.
Both Tabassum and Sheeba have grown up watching the women of their household sit down to embroider after finishing their chores. This was the only way for Muslim women, in particular, to add to their usually unstable family income. Literacy amongst these families is low, poverty is high and they continue to live in conservative neighbourhoods where women are not encouraged to be seen or heard. So, for want of any other way to make money without having to step out of their home they readily accept whatever amount the contractors offer.
There was a time when Naima Arshi’s illiterate mother did not know what lay beyond the boundary of her courtyard. “Ironically, poverty liberated me. When I began to earn some money by doing chikan embroidery my husband did not object. How could he? We were so poor. He welcomed the earnings and I used them to educate my children. We are still poor but at least Naima is a university graduate and that gives me great satisfaction,” she says.
Whereas her mother may consider them to be hand-to-mouth even now, Naima does not see herself as either poor or deprived. She’s happy that unlike many girls in her community, she has a bank account. She has followed in her mother’s footsteps in so far as she has taken to doing chikankari for a living. However, her work experiences are very different. She too is attached with Sangraha. “Sir has taught us the finer nuances of design and shared the different ways in which we can sell our work. He encourages us to deal directly with customers. While other chikankars get around Rs 140, at Sangraha we earn Rs 180 for a day’s work,” she says.
Kalra set up Sangraha in 2015 with an idea to preserve the craft and help artisans gain sustainability and independence. With a mission to empower them with education, market-related services and finance, it started off by providing design education to
11 artisans and encouraging them to participate in various exhibitions in Lucknow, Delhi, Pune and Jaipur.
Not long ago, Tabassum and her fellow karigars had travelled to Delhi where customers showered them with praise and orders. At the time, says Tabassum, she sold embroidered cloth worth more than Rs 20,000. Mumtaz Jahan, another artisan at Sangraha, happily talks about how she came back from Pune having sold goods worth Rs 7,000.
“All of us came back from exhibitions with loads of orders. We have enough work for the moment and an assured income for several months,” smiles Tabassum, who is a guru of sorts to the women. Naima, Mumtaz and Shabnam acknowledge that they have fine-tuned their stitches under her expert guidance. The women also share that Tabassum is never scared to take up a challenge or to experiment. Fearless and talented, she has a ready wish list, “It’s my dream to own a house, travel around the world with my girl-artisan friends and I would love to see international models walk the ramp in Paris, clad in clothes designed by me,” she says.
All this will be possible when women continue to expand the scope of their work and Kalra’s direction will be valuable in this regard. “The government has introduced schemes for entrepreneurs but I have yet to explore how these can assist artisans associated with Sangraha. As I see it now, Make in India is more technology-oriented and Stand up India is targeted at women and SC/ST communities. Essentially, the core problem with many such schemes usually is that they don’t have any provisions for creating market linkages and simply stress on giving loans. Lack of education and understanding of market trends expose the artisans to exploitation by buyers and customers,” he says.
Dreaming big and having serious ambitions is never really an option for most women chikan karigars, but this lot has definitely moved on from the days of being exploited to being the masters of their designs and destinies.
(© Women’s Feature Service)