When master embroiderer Asif Shaikh went for pilgrimage to Mecca in 2006, among his prayers was to stitch the sacred Kiswah cloth for the holy place with his own hands. "For me embroidery is nothing, but meditation. I am a Muslim, but I never practice anything except my embroidery. I don't want anything else, that is what I got from the God. It is God's gift. Embroidery is my ibadah (prayer)," says Shaikh, who specialises in the 18th century aari embroidery that was seen in the royal courts. Shaikh is among the experts gathered by YES Institute, a think tank of the YES Bank that has partnered with National Museum and the Textile Ministry for its new series 'Crafts in India', which intends to spark dialogue around various facets of India's crafts industry and recent trends. The Ahmadabad-based designer says his interest in the craft was sparked at the age of 12 during a school project where he embroidered a variety of motifs on handkerchiefs turned into a lifelong passion. "My dream was to bring something new in embroidery. Over the years, I have created many types of embroidery and have also started working with Bambi, Ajrak, Banarasi, Kalamkari, Chicken Fry and other different kinds of printing and dying," says Shaikh. The embroiderer has had exhibits and held workshops among other places at the Victoria and Albert Museum and School of Oriental and African Studies in London besides the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi. Shaikh opened his designer studio in Ahmadabad in 2000, and has been closely working with artisans to hand embroider textiles, a task that may take anywhere between days to several months. There are no machine tools in his studio and he rewards artisans for their loyalty and hard work with "handsome salaries, retirement entitlements and even education of their children." "We have to teach them (artisans) the basic techniques. If they learn it, I believe they will create wonders. We have to make them feel that they are the best mechanical engineers," says the designer. Apart from competing with the "soulless" machine made work, Shaikh says his artisans also are faced with shortage of raw materials. "We don't have pure silk in India for embroidery.
I am looking for pure silk in India and wherever I go I talk to people to give me their pure silk."
While Shaikh continues to keep the tradition of hand embroidery going, Ashdeen Z Lilaowala, a Parsi textile designer is trying to revive the 'Parsi Gara embroidery' style of his ancestors with a modern approach.
Lilaowala, a Delhi-based textile and fashion designer also invited for the 'Crafts in India' series has over the years conducted detailed research on the Parsi Gara and mounted three shows on the subject so far says the Parsis picked up embroidery from China, with which India had trade in the early 19th century through the British. The Gara Embroidery at that time introduced in India was categorised as Chakla-Chakli (male sparrow-female sparrow), peacock motif, crane motif, aquatic (fish motif), butterfly motif, Chene-Cheni (Chinese men-Chinese women), bats motif, Kande-Papita, murga-murgi motif. "When I started off as a designer, the idea was not to completely imitate the traditional designs. The idea was to take the craft to further level, to change designs and forms, to move patterns, but to have the aesthetic of the traditional craft. I was fascinated by cranes, and these were our first designs," he says. Lilaowala is equally adept at incorporating the gara embroidery into fashionable western attire. Both Shaikh and Ashdeen were of the view that copying of the original designs by some people was a worry for designers like them. "It is a big worry. But, we can't do much about it. We see this as a microwave made food. We put our hard efforts to produce the quality, some people go and copy it. But the copy can never match original," says Shaikh. The two designers have showcased at the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai. "We usually don't give credit to artisans. My effort is to introduce them to the world. At the fashion week, my artists for the first time walked on a ramp," says Shaikh.