Although we have had sozni and aari embroidery on wool, silk and pashmina scarves and jackets in our Tradition Textiles range for quite a few years I had never met the artisans who did the embroidery. Like many foreign designers working in India my contact is through a middleman or facilitator to develop my products. Rarely do I sit with the artisans and get their input into my designs. I hoped that through a collaborative project I would be able to establish a more inclusive relationship with those artisans if we worked together now, and into the future.
We are again in Srinagar, Kashmir. I am introduced to Ali Mohammed Khan who has done aari embroidery for my husband’s family for over fifty years although now he is retired. When he visits us his son, Nisar accompanies him. Nisar now manages the family business that includes weaving of pashmina shawls, sozni and aari embroidery work. We explain that we would like to do a collaborative project with the embroidery artisans using motifs of my designs. So that the products are familiar to the artisans involved we ask for the designs to be done on shawls and cushions. In this way artisans in Kashmir will also produce the woven fabrics that will be embroidered.
We accompany Nisar to the tiny workshop of the draftsman or naqash, Farooq Ahmad Naqash. It is common for a person to have the surname of their profession. One wall of the workshop is lined with shelves filled with woodblocks that are used to print stencil designs onto shawls ready for embroidery. But in this instance Farooq has traced our motif designs from correctly scaled photocopies onto tracing paper. After perforating the paper he rubs the designs onto the shawls using a mixture of kerosene and carbon. Farooq comments that the original motif size was too small for the aari hook and so the motifs were scaled up in size. Modifications often need to be made by the naqash as he uses his knowledge of the embroidery technique to adapt the designs.
The following morning Nisar brings a master (wustikar in Kashmiri) sozni embroiderer, Abdul Ahad to meet me. Abdul is from Magam, Beerwah, a village 35km from Srinagar. He first learnt sozni embroidery from a neighbour in his village twenty-five years ago. His embroidery work is very fine and looks the same on both sides of the fabric. He agrees to embroider two pashmina shawls for our collaboration project.
The previous night I have shown Nisar the colour palette for the project and so he has brought the silk embroidery threads with him. Abdul and I sit together discussing colours to use for the shawls, he embroiders small sample areas on the stencilled designs of each shawl so we can check how the colours work together. He is very confident in deciding which colours will suit the design. I remark on how closely he holds the embroidery work to his face as he is working. Although he does not wear glasses his distant vision is blurred as a result of spending up to ten hours a day doing this close up needlework. After we agree on the colours he takes the shawls with him back to his village. It will take two months to complete the embroidery on these shawls.
The next day Nisar takes me to meet his niece, Urfi who is an aari embroiderer. We go to her house where she lives with her extended family. In one of the rooms is a loom where pashmina shawls are hand woven by Urfi’s brother. Aari embroidery is mostly a women’s craft in Kashmir as it is done in their homes around their household chores and it supplements the family income. Urfi learnt the skill from a neighbour who is a wustikar of aari embroidery in her area. She selects colours from the threads I have brought with me and quickly does small areas on both the wool shawl and two silk cushions that had been stencilled with the motif designs on the previous day. Urfi is keen to know what the silk will be used for particularly after I request her to use cool colours on one and warm colours on the other. She comments that the stencil print of the design is unclear on the silk and will need to be redone for her to be able to finish the work. Urfi will take about a month to complete the aari embroidery on the three pieces.
Now I wait to see the completed designs but confident after meeting the artisans that the textile pieces are in gifted hands.