Stitching a Living

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When men failed to yield a sustainable income from once respected Aari work, they abandoned en-masse. Interestingly, the gulf was filled by their better halves partially to keep the art alive and to add to family’s income, reports Umar Khurshid

When Sameer Ahmad Lone, 28, a graduate from Kashmir University, Srinagar, first drew a few designs for his father and uncle, both second generation Aari workers – art of designing on a cloth by a pen like needle – he had no idea he will end up helping the art sustain.

His father Nisar Ahmad Lone, 55, and his uncle Bashir Ahmad Lone, 58, had learned to use Aari from their parents. They are experts in creating beautiful patterns by using Aari on cushions, curtains, floor covering, bed and furniture cover, wall hanging etc. “I was just sixteen when I started learning this art,” recalls Nisar. “My brother was eighteen.”

In Anzwalla village, some five kms from Islamabad town, where Nisar lives, almost everybody is into Aari work.

But what makes Nisar and his brother Bashir different from other Aari workers in his village, is their working style. “We provide work to around two hundred women from nearby villages,” claims Nisar.

These women come to Nisar’s house and take raw material like hessians cloth, threads, yarn etc. which they then turn into finished product.

Besides, Nisar and his brother have set up a workshop in their house, where around twenty people work currently.

“Every one of them earns at least Rs 5 thousand a month,” said Bashir. “We get raw material from dealers in Srinagar.”

However, since 2015, due to the slump in demand for Aari work, most of the men switched over to other professions. “There was huge cut in rates for these artisans,” said Nisar. “That is why people left it en masse.”

Interestingly, to fill the void left by men who had specilisation in Aari work, womenfolk from adjoining villages is taking up the job. “This helps them add to the family income without burdening their main breadwinner,” feels Bashir. “Besides, they do this work in their free time.”

Nisar’s son Sameer, who wanted to join his father after completing his masters, blames Srinagar based exporters for exploiting the artisans like his father and others. “These artists do all the hard work while they (Srinagar based) exports just do a bit of polishing with machines and takes the credit,” said Sameer.  “I have seen my father stitch since I was a kid, but no one has ever appreciated him.”

When Sameer learned about problems faced by artisans associated with Aari work, he abandoned the idea of joining his father after completing his studies. “A number of workshops like ours got shut in Islamabad district as they couldn’t sustain,” said Sameer.

At one part of time Sameer claims that around twenty five villages in Islamabad district are into Aari work.

The main reason why men left stitching business in hordes was no payment of dues on time. “If you do manual labour at least you get paid at the end of the day,” said Sameer. “But an artisan has to wait for years to get his money.”

Nisar seconds his son’s apprehensions as he too blames big exporters for exploiting artisans. “We have to wait for years to get paid for our work,” said Nisar.

Ironically, Nisar has to pay in cash to purchase raw material from dealers in Srinagar, but has to sell his work on credit. “How am I supposed to sustain my workshop? I have them monthly. Their entire families depend on what I pay,” said Nisar.

One of the associated who takes work from Nisar is Mehmooda. A resident of Pahalgam, Mehmooda, who is in her thirties, sits with a bundle of finished products inside her small workshop. After her father left Aari work because of low wages, she decided to give it a chance. “I learned it from my uncle,” said Mehmooda.

Now ten women from her village come to learn Aari work from Mehmooda. They also take work from her. “I get work from Nisar and sublet it to women in my village.”

Mehmooda always wanted to start something on her own. And given the limited resources Aari work seemed an obvious choice for her. Since then Mehmooda has worked directly with people at all levels of distributors. She has also worked from production to senior management. “Thought most of the artisans are highly talented but they lack ability to translate their ideas into international standard products,” feels Mehmooda. “But as returns are very low, there is less room for experimenting.”

Mehmooda blames lack of brand promotion and machines for Aari works ruin. “People are selling rip-offs in the name of Kashmiri work in mainland Indian markets,” said Mehmooda. “This is bringing bad name to our product.”

However Mehmooda has satisfaction of helping women become independent who in turn help their male counterparts at home. “The best part of my job is to training new girls.”

Nisar prises Mehmooda for her ability to teach young women how to make new designs. “At least women are showing some interest in Aari work, else I thought it will be lost in a decade or so,” said Nisar.

Fareeda, 35, who lives in Seer village of Islamabad, is one of the artists who gets’ work from Mehmooda. “These artisans provide equal working opportunities to all members. We work as a unit.”

Fareeda’s husband too was into Aari work but left after his master failed to pay him wages on time. “Besides, it used to earn him less. We couldn’t have survived on Aari as our main livelihood,” said Fareeda. “At least I am able to add to our income.”

Nisar’s brother Bashir, while pointing towards a bundle of finished work says, “This work we finished two years back. But our distributor is neither paying us nor takes the consignment. It costs rupees four lakh. Now tell me how we will survive.”

Earlier a new big order meant boost to the entire region but now Nisar and his brother think twice before taking any work. “We have to be sure that we will be paid on time. Else entire process is meaningless.”

Designs and Scope

Presently Nisar and Bashir, with the help of Sameer, are working on new designs in Krewal, mostly used on curtains, bedcovers and spread sheets. “We want our products to compete in the international markets,” said Bashir. “But to create anything good one needs to have ideal atmosphere. Unfortunately our artisans are struggling to even survive. How can they think of innovation on an empty stomach?”

Talking about designs and colours Nisar says they can be altered as per a customer’s requirements. “The price of a product depends on the amount of embroidery and the material.”

The finished products are used for bedspreads, cushion covers, throws, curtains, duvets in various sizes ranging from single to king size.

However despite shortage of resources, artisans working at Nisar’s workshop have added new colours and motifs to their repository which are often engrossing to the human eye.

“The most sought after designs are floral embossed on while fabric. It offers soothing touch to the overall designs,” said Nisar. “These designs are often used in furnishing items like rugs etc.”

Abdul Rashid Dar, 50, a resident of Mattan in Islamabad, is expert is same kind of stitching but on different materials like Pherans, Shawls and wedding suits.

However, Dar’s is aware that his products are not as presentable as the ones’ hanging in showrooms in Srinagar.

The reason, Dar says, “before sending a product to the market, Srinagar based exporters add finishing touches to them.”

All the handmade work is done in villages and then sent to the Srinagar based exporters where proper cutting and finishing is done before sending it to the market.

“Every new order means something new to learn for artisans,” said Dar. “But it also helps this art to sustain.”

Nisar feels more orders mean regular work and a dependable income, which ultimately improves the lives of the artisans and their families.

When Mohammad Ashraf, 35, a resident of main-town Islamabad, left his studies to learn Aari work, he was just 13.

A father of two kids Ashraf is now associated with Aari work just for the sake of it, otherwise it is hard to feed the family. “Three years back I used to manage my family from Aari work, but now it is not possible,” said Ashraf.  “Imagine a man working since childhood on something and then suddenly he has to look for alternatives.”

Ashraf is known for his embroidery skills, especially on materials like velvet, wool, cotton, and polyester.

At his Janglat Mandi workshop, Ashraf has trained around fifty people including thirty ladies at his workshop so far.

Once a busy place always packed with workers and clients, Ashraf’s Aalishan Golden Tilla Works is now almost deserted.

“The price cut in 2015 forced me to look for alternatives,” said Ashraf. “If I don’t sustain, then how can my workers?”

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