A stitch in time

CUSTODIANS OF A DYNING TRADITION (from left) Zakir Husain and Intekhab Ahmad  

The challenge for a group of six contemporary needle workers – Intekhab Ahmad, Zakir Hussain, Riyaz Khan, Mohammad Shariq, Ikhtdar Zaul, and Asghar – is to match the skills and craftsmanship of the 18th century master weavers of the Mughal era. After all, they are the last of the breed of darners, who are determined to keep alive the craft of their forefathers despite few takers for their kind of specialised work.

Armed with knowledge and expertise in applying darning, an intricate technique used to restore damaged textiles, these rafoogars – who all stay at Najibabad in western Uttar Pradesh – infuse life into old tattered loom woven and embroidered Pashmina shawls and Jamavars, which are being showcased at an exhibition-workshop, “Making visible: The Rafoogars and the journey of a shawl” at Art Gallery in India International Centre Annexe.

This exhibition aims to highlight their seminal role in preservation and restoration of these precious shawls by recognising the highly intricate and laborious work .

Giving an understanding of how needlework has evolved from the medieval era till today, Intekhab Ahmad – who resuscitates Jamawars, Pashmina, stoles and rumals – says: “The traditional skills have now been brought to life so that discerning art lovers can appreciate our work and make us join the mainstream. When the Mughal rulers patronised restoration work of damaged outfits, the rafoogar community was flourishing. However, today they have been left in the lurch. We have no one from either the Government or private institution to help us even though we are perhaps the last custodians of this specialised karigari. As a result, it is a dying art and is now on the brink of extinction.”

Reality is that today all the families in Najibabad, who earn livelihood in this specialised job, are struggling to get gainful employment. Right now, says Intekhab, barely a few families, mostly living in Delhi, give them work but only in dribs and drabs. “Jamavar is a huge shawl; so people ask us to cut it into two - one for daughter and the other for daughter-in-law. Some have heirloom collection of Jamavars, Pashmina and need restoration off and on. The city, which is just 200 kms away from Najibabad, provides us succour.”

A stitch in time

According to Nadeem Ahmed, the amount of time it takes to do darning or rafu depends on the kind of work is to be done on the shawl. “It depends primarily on whether the shawl is plain or an embroidered one. And then in what condition it is handed over to us.”

Pointing to a shawl which he recently resuscitated, Nadeem says there were gaps or big holes in this shawl which had to be filled with needlework in a way that the old look was restored.

“It took me two and a half months to work on this 250-year-old shawl. While applying darning or rafu we have to see that no new element is unintentionally introduced in the antique shawls. Then it would spoil the look completely. Our base colour has to match with colours used during the earlier era. Pashmina threads also have to be similar. This work cannot be duplicated by the future generation.”

Grim reality

A disillusioned Intekhab says, “Due to drop in the income levels, 40 to 50 families in Najibabad, children want to keep away from their hereditary profession. They want to go in for higher studies or study laptops and mobile phone repair.”

Fashion too has undergone a big change from the bygone days when men and women wore heavily embroidered shawls on the streets of Shahjahanabad . Concurring with this view, Intekhab says: “People no longer have craze for Jamavars. In earlier days, zamindars and royals wore heavy shawls on their shoulders. I feel that after 20 years, rafoogars would cease to exist. This hand work was encouraged from the Mughals time and was patronised by royal families.”

Tracing his roots to Bukhara, Intekhab informs, “All of us came from Central Asia and settled during Najibabad. My walid sahib would apply darning he would ask me to sit besides him and help him. Weaving is done from both sides and darning is also about matching colours. If we don’t get Pashmina colour then we dye it with natural ingredients.”

Discussing one of his antique looking shawl, he says, it took him six years to complete this shawl. “It is called Makhi botti, a Persian word, which derived its name from the fact that the shawl is emblazoned with motifs of flies. It belonged to my grandfather; I had preserved it otherwise it would have been cut and thrown away.”

Beneath dignity

Skilled rafoogars do not like to work in dry cleaning shops in big cities but have to at times to keep their kitchen running.

Zakir says: “Rafoogars who work on Jawavars, which is a highly specialised job, do not work in dry cleaning shops but teach fledgling artisans about intricacies of their work. These students work in dry cleaning shops to make the ends meet.”

Putting the exhibition in perspective, curator Priya Ravish Mehra says: “This exhibition introduces the crucial role of rafoogars in the creation, maintenance and renewal of antique Kani loom-woven and Amli embroidered Pashmina shawls of Kashmir. It is truly ironic that the skilled artisans who still specialise in darning and an embroidery, that is so fine as to be considered invisible, have, with the passage of time and exponential changes in textile technology, become practically invisible themselves.”

Priya says rafoogars have carefully protected the secret knowledge of their hereditary craft that is passed from one generation to generation within the community. “Yet today’s master rafoogars still command an astonishing precision – within micro-millimetres – with the yielding of their needle in relation to repair of any kind of fabric. Just as significant as the rafoogars’ virtuosity with the needle is their intuitive diagnosis of textile damage and their deep knowledge of restoration methodology that enables them to work with equal ease on the urgent question confronting us today is not about the revival of craft, but about the survival of the craftsmen and the continuity of the rafoogars’ invaluable, irreplaceable indigenous knowledge.”

Brimming with hope and positive outlook, Zakir, whose forefathers were not experts of intricate needlework, says, “My walid sahib ran a shop of cycles but he was convinced that this would be the right job for me. I was a shagird (disciple) of Mahrbu Ali. While working under his guidance, I realised early on that rafu work is so intricate that we cannot afford to make any mistake. Through this exhibition, we hope to directly engage with art lovers through our work and demonstration rather than interact with middlemen.”

(The exhibition will continue till April 17 at Art Gallery in India International Centre Annexe.)

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2021 8:31:35 AM |

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