Coronavirus lockdown | Bhopal’s zardozi artists hanging by a thread

The lockdown has left them with mounting losses and joblessness, with no customers even during the wedding season

July 06, 2020 07:58 pm | Updated 08:20 pm IST - Bhopal:

Yousuf Khan, a Zardozi craftsman, working on his first assignment after lockdown restrictions were eased, in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh on July 6, 2020.

Yousuf Khan, a Zardozi craftsman, working on his first assignment after lockdown restrictions were eased, in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh on July 6, 2020.

Craning over a wooden frame, Yousuf Khan, billed as the oldest zardozi craftsperson of the Nadeem Road here, nimbly weaves metallic threads into a cotton cloth stretched across it. But suddenly overcome with sombreness, his right hand, which is deftly gripping a needle, quivers to a halt. This is his first assignment after the lockdown eased a month ago. But as it concluded in two hours, he will be left without work once again.

“The pandemic has broken us irreparably. For the first time in 30 years, we got no customers during the wedding season,” said Mr. Khan, 62, spectacles perched at the edge of his nose, without looking up. After he reopened the workshop, Hina Zari Centre, on June 5 — bearing ₹4,000 a month as rent even during the two-month lockdown — a cloth merchant brought him the assignment. As no customers approached him directly, which fetched greater profits earlier, he grabbed the only opportunity.

If demonetisation and automation hadn’t previously inflicted a harder blow to the handicraft, said Mr. Khan, the lockdown imposed in view of COVID-19 had battered both production and demand. Like him, Bhopal’s 200 artists of zardozi , an art patronised by the Mughals that involves weaving metallic threads — earlier made of gold and silver — on fabric to create intricate patterns, stare at mounting losses and joblessness.

“Let’s hope next year brings better returns,” he said. Having incurred a loss of ₹50,000-₹60,000 this time already, he had to settle for the ₹2,000-assignment. “I don’t know any other craft or skill to switch over,” said Mr. Khan, adding that he depended mostly on his sons, in other professions, for income now.

Raw material from China

Nationwide calls to boycott Chinese products has made locally-made raw materials costlier. “Nearly half the raw material used in embroidery, including artificial beads and gemstones, are made in China. Their supply has stopped now, giving an opportunity to traders to jack-up prices of locally-made products, already expensive and inferior in quality,” said Razi Ali ‘Salim’, 53, another craftsperson.

At Paras Zari Arts, the fabric on a frame lies unfinished since March — strewn with beads, threads and needles. “Weddings have been postponed or are less pompous now owing to restrictions, and we can’t resume work unless asked by customers to meet a deadline,” said Mr. Ali, a craftsperson since 1989. He had received orders to embellish two bridal dresses, but now sits idle. Faced with a financial crunch, he has asked four of his workers to stay home for the time being.

After reopening, Zari Centre, one of the city’s largest workshops, is scrambling to wind up 10 pending orders received before the lockdown. Fresh orders, however, are nowhere in the offing, said Farah Nadeem, who slashed her staff strength by half to five.

‘Perhaps last generation’

“Earlier we had youngsters waiting to learn the craft, but not any more. We are perhaps the last generation of artists practising this waning form,” said Wasim Ansari, who makes ₹400 a day for eight hours of work at the Zari Centre, and wished his children didn’t take up the craft.

Being in a joint family, with relatives in government services earning a stable income, helped him tide over the lockdown. “I can barely save anything now, with spiralling petrol prices,” said Mr. Ansari, who travels every day from neighbouring Sehore, 40 km away.

“The prices of raw materials have shot up by 50% now, yet we will have to supply the finished product to customers at the previously agreed price,” said Ms. Nadeem, who runs the 60-year-old enterprise, which embellishes cushion covers, wallets, phone covers, sherwani s and shawls, too, with zardozi .

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