A rich, golden jacket embellished with mirrors and intricate zardozi embroidery sits in designer Arpita Mehta’s boutique in Juhu. With a price tag of Rs 25,000, it is one of the most expensive pieces in the designer’s soon-to-be launched festive collection.
It took four craftsmen an entire week to embroider the jacket, working in a workshop with unpainted walls deep in Santacruz’s Gazdar Bandh area.
In Mumbai, several such zardozi workers live and work in cramped workshops in Santacruz, Dharavi, Madanpura and Govandi, where traditional embroiderers from Lucknow, Allahabad and Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh and Kolkata in West Bengal come to earn a better living.
These men, who earn between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 a day, are the invisible workforce behind the glittering fashion world, showcased during the recent Lakme Fashion Week.
In addition to Mehta, Mumbai-based designers such as Anita Dongre, Neeta Lulla and Pallavi and Bhairavi Jaikishan — who showed their works at the recently concluded fashion week — and Nachiket Barve have confirmed that they employ the services of these zardozi workers, either outsourcing the work or calling them to their own workshops, paying them at the same rates.
It was the wide gulf between these rates and the final price tags that pushed Mohammad Ansari, 38, to break away from the designers’ studios and open his own workshop.
“I realised that saris worth Rs 3 lakh, inclusive of labour charges and raw material, were being sold on the retail market for Rs 8 lakh,” he says. “Yes, the designers work very hard too, but I felt I was not getting my due. After all, this work kills your back and ruins your eyesight.”
Ansari now runs the 10-man outfit in Santacruz where Mehta’s jacket was made.
The son of a weaver, Iqrar came here from Bareilly in 1990, to try and earn more money to help support his parents and two siblings back home. “Back then, the embroiderers in Mumbai earned at least double what anyone else earned,” he says.
Senior members of the Ansari community already residing in Mumbai helped him get a job at a workshop run by designer duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, where he worked until 1997, earning Rs 200 a day.
“At the end of seven years, I still had no savings, no assets,” says Ansari.
In the 12 years since he struck out on his own, he has bought a one-bedroom flat in Santacruz, married, fathered three children and admitted all of them to good schools.
Just as he thought he had found his happy ending, however, the industry has taken a downward turn.
Over the past five years, Ansari’s profits have dwindled by 45% as embroiders leave Mumbai and return to their hometowns, taking his staff strength down from about 15 embroiderers to only five.
Two factors are driving them back: Rising living costs in Mumbai and growing demand for their skills in emerging markets such as Lucknow, where there is now enough work and comparative pay, and the added advantage of living closer to home, where the cost of living is much lower.
“At the three workshops where I outsource my work, I have seen the number of karigars drop every year,” says Arpita Mehta. Adds Ansari: “If things continue in this vein, I too will have to pack my bags and go back to Bareilly.”