Sunday, May 25, 2008


My destination was the embroidery workshops at Hauz Rani, a locality that is an extension of Khirki Village. The roads through both areas culminate in the large sprawl of the authorised middle-class colony of Malviya Nagar. The houses are three and four storeys high, some old and dilapidated, others newly constructed. I felt I had stepped into a concrete slum. Despite the blazing heat, the lanes are clogged with slushy mud and patterned with countless footprints. The street surfaces seem to be excavated several times each month, the potholes as well as the piles of sun-baked sludge left just as they are. Few manholes have covers. The passers-by are indifferent to this now-routine disruption.

The way into Hauz Rani became narrower, the sun increasingly blocked out by overhangs, the bleached sky barely visible in the slits of glare. Large dhabas lined the road. They seemed to be emptying out, customers dispersing after the busy lunch hours. Some dhaba workers were now eating. The dhaba owner was taking a nap inside. These dhabas seem to be open round the clock. Clouds of flies buzzed around the large vessels of cooked food, the carcasses on hooks at meat stalls, the cut watermelon slices ripening on hawker’s carts.

The oppressive weight of a sweltering summer afternoon pressed upon me as I approached the hand-embroidery workshop. At the entrance is a huge iron shutter like that of a garage. Inside is a hall with two cupboards and a stack of utensils on one side, and a loft up at the back, reached via a bamboo ladder. Here the workers rest after their shifts.

The workspace is on the ground floor. Each worker sits behind wooden frames on which fabric is stretched. The embroidery is mainly zari (gold thread). Work begins at 8 am and carries on till midnight, with two half-hour breaks. It involves the deft use of needles, beads, silver appliqué and satin threads, along with the zari itself, to intricate floral patterns. From a distance, as one steps from harsh sun into shade, the embroidered cloth flickers with an iridescent gleam.
It was very quiet within the workshop. All I heard was the swiftly moving, unerring needles as they plucked at and penetrated the tightly stretched weaves.
The owner greeted me with a pleasant smile and asked me to sit. After I explained the purpose of my visiting the workshop, he agreed to talk with me each day at 1 pm. In our introductory dialogue he said he was from Bengal. He lived with his family on the first floor of the workshop. The 10 workers of his unit were all from Bengal, Bihar or UP.

While I was at the workshop, not one worker raised his head to look at me or stopped his work for even a second. I was somewhat disturbed by their absolute focus, and this mechanical dimension of what I intuited were complicated individual subjectivities.

I did not stay very long, as I had to also visit a machine-embroidery workshop nearby, owned by a young man from Bihar.