“The embroidery machine put over 1000 craftsmen out of work in Ahmedabad alone. I lost a staff of over 20 craftsmen under me. But I wasn’t willing to give up”
It was a morning meeting. The first thing I was supposed to do that day was to take his interview. I love mornings and the rustic motivation they bring with them. It’s not too late for you to forget yesterday and not too early to not think about today.
Shahid Husein is a zardoshi and aari work artist with a zeal I have rarely seem before. I have met some (not many but enough) artists in the past. But meeting Shahid bhai was a revelation onto what love for art can do for you.
He is the son of a bus driving father. Brought up in Radhanpur, the zardozi art capital of India, Shahid bhai grew up watching women craft the world’s most beautiful zardozi art. It was never something his family did, only a sight worth watching when he made his way to school every morning and when he came back later in the evening.
“I studied 10th but I didn’t think I was ready for the exam, so I took a drop after. I had around 5 months before I had to start preparing for the next year’s exam. I decided to use those 5 months to start learning zardozi art and it gripped me so hard, I decided to never go back to studying”
He says this with a zeal in his eyes. I have interviewed a lot of people who dropped out early from school or college. They’re never positive about the decision. To them, it was an unnatural step to take with their lives. But not with Shahid, he says that with a twinkle in his eye. To him, it was the surge he had been looking for all his life, as if someone had sent him his life’s story, wrapped in a beautiful woven silk envelope.
“My family really wanted me to study, my brothers are estate agents and tax consultants, my father always believed education was the way out of poverty and he was right”
But poverty, by definition, is tricky. It never accounts for what the heart yearns for. It never accounts for the grief you face every night as you chew on another wasted day and one lesser chance to have done something you’re dying to do. Shahid bhai just wasn’t ready to take that grief. His heart meant much more to him.
The road onwards wasn’t easy though. He studied and practiced hard for 5 long years before he became a professional zardozi artist. The next 15 years sailed by great. Shahid Hussain rose as one of the most wanted names in the handicraft industry. With a staff of over 20 people and contracts with some of the most known fashion houses and designers, making clothes for b-town celebrities, he was set on a path to greatness.
As with any industry, technological innovation comes with it’s own drawbacks to society. The primary being phasing out of older technology and with the some of the employment that it generated.
In 2007, with the enterprise level expansion of machines for embroidery in India, over 1000 embroidery artists in Ahmedabad alone went out of job. It’s the cost we pay for technological development and however insensitive it might sound, it’s the natural course of things. Machines however cannot always do things that a human hand can. Machines cannot image, machines cannot feel and machines cannot love the way Shahid did.
He lost all of his 20 men because he could no longer pay them. All of his job works were lost since now his significance was near zero. Mass production was cheaper and dealing with machines was easier, they would do as you told them, they never had a soul, they wouldn’t put their gear churning character onto a piece of cloth. They wouldn’t command respect.
But Shahid bhai wasn’t here for business anyways, he started out because he loved to do it. And he kept loving it beyond this event as well.
“I knew that if I wanted to do what I really wanted, I would have to push the boundaries. I wasn’t neglecting the fact that I had a family to feed but I really did not want to leave what I was doing”
“Did you ever get a feeling that maybe you should quit and look at something which pays?” I ask as a followup to what he just shared.
“No. Not at all”
His response was immediate. Stoic. Unwavering. As if he had been asked the same question a hundred times before and he had answered it a hundred times before. As if his own self asked him that question 10 times a day and he had programmed his conscious to refuse. This was the first time throughout the interview where I saw denial. Strong denial.
I saw piles of frames lying around in his house covered in bubble wrap and bedsheets to protect them from dust. His most priced and displayed work is that of a chabutra.
For those of you who don’t know, at squares and intersections in ahmedabad, there is a culture to keep a small 3 ft. by 3 ft. circular housing mounted on a 10 to 20 foot pole. People put grains in these housings every mornings for the birds to eat, and some water when the summer becomes hard to get by. Over the centuries, these grew and became ornamental to intersections at every street in the city and now a thing of heritage and beauty. Laden with wonderful carvings and tributes to things of the past, they’re a must see for anyone who visits Ahmedabad.
The one that Shahid bhai crafted, was beautifully detailed with golden and light brown strings on a dark blue velvet cloth. Each pillar ornately craft, each curve wonderfully defined using thread and stitching techniques I didn’t even know existed. Not that I am qualified to know but I was in awe of the effort he puts into them.
This is when he tells me about the time of crisis. To keep his art alive, he knew he would have to do something no one in India had ever done before. He knew no one would ever understand it until he made it and showed it to them and he knew it was going to be difficult to get by.
“I lived in extreme debt, poverty and criticism those four years of my life. But I asked myself to drink all the criticism, all the hate, all the negativity and turn it into a thing of beauty. Use it to drive the passion I had for my art.” He tells me as we talk about how he came about doing what he does now.
Shahid bhai was out to craft in zardozi, murals of all the major monuments of Ahmedabad, as detailed as he can make them, as precise and close to reality as he could. He enthusiastically brings an album out of the storage to show me. A collection of his complete works on Ahmedabad, the city.
He spent the whole three years, looking at these monuments, researching on them, looking into what material, techniques and art-forms he could use to best represent them on his canvas of velvet. And what came out stunned not only the people of India but the entire world. The French government wanted him come showcase his work in France but Shahid bhai was pretty sure he wanted to keep it in India, for Indians to see it first. That is when they arranged him an exclusive art exhibition at Alliance Française, Ahmedabad’s premier French culture institute.
Here onwards his story goes back up again. Takes on moods of happiness and freedom. He finally had something he could show people, something they could adore and lose their senses at.
Two months from now, Shahid bhai is launching a collection of over 20 different full size pieces of zardozi and aari work that encapsulate several monuments that UN has recognized as World Heritage sites. He showed me some breathtaking finished works of the Fatehpur Sikri, the Great Wall of China, The Taj Mahal, and a refreshing addition of the Burj Khalifa.
This exclusive preview also included his most prized possession, the Roman Colosseum. I know so because when I asked him, “Khuda na khasta agar kal ko bhukamp aa jaaye, aur aapke paas bas ek aur art le jaaneka chance ho, in sab mein se kaunsa chunoge aap?” (God forbid if there were an earthquake tomorrow and you had one chance to take one art piece with you among all of these, which one would you pick?) I think you’ve guessed his well thought answer. He took a good five minutes interlaced with confused giggled and short give-up phrases but I insisted.
Art is more about the person who makes it, the personality that he pours into it and the life he imparts to it than it is about the art as a material possession. That is why a stroke by Salvador Dali or Vincent Van Gogh is valued at a million times compared to that for yours truly.
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