Zardozi artisans in Lucknow are living a life of penury with meagre incomes and hard-to-come-by government aid

Umr-e-daraaz maang kar laaye they chaar din

Do arzoo mein kat gaye do intezaar mein…

Kitnaa hai bad-naseeb "Zafar" dafn key liye

Do gaz zamin bhi na mili kuu-e-yaar mein.

The above lines were penned by the last Mughal emperor and poet Bahadur Shah Zafar during his exile in Rangoon; the words reflect the agony of the inglorious final years of his life.

These lines haunted the mind after emerging from the eight-by-six-feet room of 52-year-old zardozi worker Mohammad Shammy situated in the narrow, filthy Babbuwali Gali at Daligunj in Lucknow. Having suffered brain haemorrhage, his nimble fingers have lost the subtle touch of ari (needle used for sewing), his vision fading. But nothing could stop his zeal to sew zari on the sari spread on the adda (wooden frame on which the cloth gets fixed) in his room.

A noted zardozi artisan, Shammy had taught the fine craft to many youngsters who wanted to earn a livelihood through it. But the golden threads could not patch together their tattered lives — skilled zardozi artisans manage to earn a meagre Rs. 120 after eight hours of back-breaking work.

Thirty-seven-year-old Aslam Beg is still waiting to earn better to get married. He can hardly support his family of four with a monthly income Rs. 700-1,000. Suffering from appendicitis, he also needs to spend a hefty amount for his medicine. Asked about the future, his eyes blinked with a smile on the pale face, only to disappear a moment later.

A rundown dwelling, the Nayee Busti area of Daligunj is famous for its efficient zari workers. Though not a well-paying job, families cling on to the craft as their fate. Again, unlike chikankari, only male members practise this craft — resulting in insufficient earnings.

During a discussion with a group of artisans at a karkhana, they showed their identity cards issued by office of the Development Commissioner for Handicrafts under the Union Ministry of Textiles. “What is its use? It’s been years we got these cards but we received no help; they are useless!” said Aslam.

“Banks do not give loan to the artisans and they don’t have funds to start their own business. So, how will the craftsmen become entrepreneurs?” wondered Sayeed, another young zari worker. After receiving the card, he knocked on the doors of various banks for loan, but all went in vein.

Bhubendra Singh, Deputy Director (Central Region), Office of the Development Commissioner-Handicrafts, however, said that there are several schemes to market the products of artisans. “There are many artisans who have become entrepreneurs today. But unlike other handicrafts, in zardozi, we have not found any one till now.”

He added, “We distribute artisan credit cards, which empowers them to get loans up to Rs. two lakh from any nationalised bank without any security. If the artisan shows progress in his work, we have several other schemes to help them further.”

But the zari workers in Nayee Bustee do not have any clue about the schemes and are more concerned with their daily needs. Wafa Abbas of Buniyadbag is worried about his daughter’s studies. A school dropout, poverty forced Wafa to join the adda at a very young age, but he dreams to educate his daughter.

Pankaj Arya, who runs an NGO and involved in the chikan and zardozi trade for over two decades, said that better business and welfare schemes only could uplift the condition of the zari workers.

But where have such schemes reached? Asked about health and other insurance schemes, the Nayee Bustee workers only stare with blank faces.

“Two types of facilities are being extended with the ID card — the Rajiv Gandhi Shilpi Swasthya Bima Yojana and the Janashree Bima Yojana of Life Insurance Corporation of India. The Janashree Bima Yojana also covers the education of the artisans’ children with the Shiksha Sahayog Yojana,” explained Mr. Singh.

Ironically, zari worker Mushin Khan keeps his children at his in-laws’ place for better education. So finally where do we stand? Over a lakh zardozi workers in and around Lucknow and nearly four lakh across Uttar Pradesh continue to live in abjection.

Had historian and traveller Ibn Battuta lived today, he would have been saddened at the poor state of affairs of the zardozi artists whose craft had mesmerised him. He even mentioned it in his travelogue Rihla.

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