Reviving a Dying Art – And Empowering Women in the Process

The Embroidery of Asif Shaikh



sif Shaikh sits behind his black granite table in his office in Ahmedabad, India, discussing fabrics, colors and designs with the mother of a groom. He’s designing several outfits for the wedding party, including an elaborately embroidered sari for her. Asif needs about six months to design for a wedding — if, that is, you’re lucky enough to pass the several-step process to become one of his clients. “It’s not easy to enter into my studio,” he says with a smile. Potential clients are interviewed by phone before being invited to the studio to view his embroidery. “I see how people look at my work, how much interest they take,” he says. Asif doesn’t create the latest fashion trends, and he’s not interested in working with people who simply want to show off a label or boast that they own one of his masterpieces. He’s turned down many wealthy clients, preferring to design for those who appreciate quality, craftsmanship and heritage.

asif3Asif Shaikh is a designer and master embroiderer with a passion for preserving the craft and reviving the art of embroidery. Wearing jeans and a tan-striped Chinese collar kurti, black-rimmed glasses around his neck, he ushers us in with a warm smile. His office is spotless and meticulously organized. Beige walls, a white-tiled floor and bright lights provide an uncluttered canvas for the profusion of colors and textures and designs. Saris and traditional outfits in every hue hang in a glass-door closet, and a rack brims with shawls and stoles newly designed for an upcoming trunk show in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The flowers, peacocks and honeybees peeking through catch my attention. I examine a stole with red and orange chrysanthemums. It looks like a painting, but instead of a brush stroke, the design is comprised of thousands of individual stitches by an artisan with a needle, piercing the fabric with a heart surgeon’s precision.

Asif pulls out several pieces and describes the types of embroidery — chain stitch with aari needle and twisted silk yarn embellished with badla and sequins, zardozi on handwoven silk using salma sitara, aari on hand-painted kalamkari. He unravels saris and explains the process by which they are dyed, woven and decorated. I take notes quickly, struggling to decipher the new terminology. What seems like Asif’s native tongue is a foreign language for me. I soon set aside my notebook, and let my senses take note instead. The colors are exquisite, the feel of the fabrics pure and sensual, and the embroidery so intricate and precise, it’s hard to imagine it’s done by human hands.

Aari needles

“There’s no machine in my studio,” Asif says. “Every step is done by hand.” In the studio next door, six men sit on cushions on the floor working on large karchobs (frames). The room is well-lit, airy, clean and quiet — the artisans are required to surrender their cell phones when they work, but get frequent breaks to stretch and make calls. Surprisingly, given the painstaking detail of this work, only one of the artisans wears spectacles. All the embroidery is done in the studio to maintain strict quality control, by a team of 10 who work nine hours each day. In machine embroidery, “jaan nahi rehti” (“there’s no life left”), Asif says. He also worries about the impact of machine embroidery on the livelihood of artisans, and encourages designers to work directly with skilled embroiderers. “So many people in India are involved in this art; so what will happen to them?” In his case, he trains and guides artisans and generously rewards them for their hard work and loyalty. If they work with him for more than 10 years, Asif has promised that he will look after them in the future.

“It’s our duty to revive our ancient art and to pass it on to the next generation,” he says. So much has already been created in textiles and embroidery in the past 2,000 years in India that even if nothing new is created, it’s vital to preserve this rich heritage, he explains. His goal, however, is not just to preserve but also to advance the art of embroidery and propel it to another level of craftsmanship and beauty. In the past two decades, he has revamped tools and techniques, developed new stitches and introduced miniature styles, blended traditional and contemporary designs and colors, supported and trained local artisans, and promoted education and appreciation for the art nationally and internationally.

One of his main innovations involves the karchob — the traditional horizontal floor-mounted frame on which embroidery is done. The Mughals brought the karchob to India in the 16th century; before that, embroidery was done on fabric held freely or mounted on a small portable frame. Fabric is stretched across the frame, which provides the correct tension essential to producing high-quality work; by freeing their hands, it also enables artisans to create a variety of stitches, and allows several people to work on one piece. One significant disadvantage, however, is that it takes four to five hours to tie the frame. Artisans end up taking shortcuts, which affects the quality of the embroidery. Asif has simplified the design of the frame so it can be tied in 15 minutes. “For 500 years, we’ve been using the same frame; it’s time to update the frame so we can save time without losing quality,” Asif says. His design is awaiting a patent before it can be introduced in the market.

asif8While his artistic contributions are many, perhaps Asif’s most unique achievement is in the area of miniature embroidery, which he started two years ago. “I had heard of miniature paintings, so I thought I would apply the same concept to embroidery,” he says. He decided to reduce an embroidery design to a quarter of its original size, something that had never been tried before given the challenge of creating such minute and precise stitches. A 4-inch peacock, for example, becomes 1 inch. Asif practiced first with floral patterns using a basic chain stitch, and then created more intricate designs, adding metal strips, tiny beads and sequins. He sat with his artisans for hours to guide them, and admits that the first few attempts at teaching them were disastrous. “It’s all about having command of the needle and being able to play with the thread,” he says. “Without the brain-to-finger control, the thread breaks every few stitches.” His artisans are not allowed to use a magnifying glass to do this work since it’s not good for their eyes, but being a stickler for perfection, Asif uses a magnifying glass to check their work.

Last year, Asif began creating micro miniatures, which are less than 20 percent of the original design, and more recently he’s been working on micro-micro miniatures, which are even more minute. The only way to see these stitches, made with very fine silk thread, is with an extremely powerful magnifying glass that can expand the design fourfold. As I examine one of his floral miniatures with a magnifying glass, it’s impossible not to be awed by the meticulous attention to detail and the delicacy of the artistry. “People who have seen my miniatures have been shocked,” I’m not surprised to hear Asif say, “they say we have never seen such fine embroidery in our lives.”

To make a miniature embroidery for a sari border takes about 2,000 hours, or about seven months. His artisans, three of whom are qualified to do this, have finished four borders so far. Asif keeps them in his bank locker. Once he has produced 40 borders, he plans to auction them. He expects each will sell for about $6,000 to $7,000. The proceeds will be used to benefit his artisans — it’s a type of retirement fund for them.

asif7In 2008, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London asked Asif to revive some of their Mughal embroidery pieces. Asif specializes in the 18th century aari embroidery that was produced by the royal courts. He shows me the original pieces from the museum and how he’s updated them with slight variation in colors and an adaptation of the traditional floral and peacock motifs. Asif was also asked by UNESCO Parzor in India to revive their parsi gara embroidery. In the past several years, Asif has been showing his embroidery at exhibits, workshops and events around the world, including at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, the World Eco-Fiber and Textile Forum in Malaysia, and the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in the U.S. Asif’s 20 years of work in this field is showcased in his new exhibit, “Resurgence,” with more than 100 displays of embroideries and textiles, tools and materials, and descriptions of techniques and designs. In September 2013, more than 10,000 people attended the exhibit at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi. Some of India’s most prominent designers, including Ritu Kumar and Tarun Tahiliani, visited the exhibit as did Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, and Culture Minister Chandresh Kumari Katoch.

asif11I met Asif in June 2013 when my daughter and I visited Ahmedabad. We were there to attend the 10-year anniversary celebration for Pennies for Education and Health (PEH), a nonprofit that sponsors underprivileged children to go to school. Asif is on the Board of Trustees and helped organize an award ceremony in which PEH children were recognized for their academic achievement with special trophies, which he had designed. Asif accompanied us during the weeklong events, which included visiting schools in slum villages, media briefings and discovering Ahmedabad’s heritage. He has a gentle, quiet nature and prefers to stay out of the limelight. At times, he’s shy and reserved. Except when it comes to textiles, which made our trip to the Calico Museum of Textiles, one of the world’s foremost textile museums, all the more exciting. His passion, knowledge and excitement were quickly apparent as we spent hours examining India’s rich textile history.

When I ask him how he got interested in embroidery and what inspires him, he answers with a gesture. He looks upward. “It’s a God gift,” he says. “It’s my ibadat (prayer). When I sit on the frame, I always go to some different world. I forget everything, all my fears, all my worries, everything just goes. For me, this is my meditation.”

Asif says his ideas come in his dreams. He doesn’t plan anything or know what he’s going to create ahead of time. “It naturally comes into my mind and I do it,” he says. “I just transform my dream onto paper and then onto fabric in embroidery.” The day after our museum visit, I visited Asif in his studio. He was transferring a red butterfly design from butter paper onto black georgette on the karchob. He said he had dreamt about it, inspired by something we saw at the museum. He chose the precise red beads and thread that he desired from dozens of shades of red that he keeps in his drawer, and instructed his artisans on his vision. “In the end, everything comes from God,” he says. “We are nothing in front of Him.”

asif5Asif’s interest in textiles started from a young age. He remembers he would be entrusted with ironing people’s delicate wedding outfits, an unusual assignment for a 15 year old. For a school project in seventh grade, he had to make a handkerchief with different kinds of embroidery stitches. His was considered the best out of the 400 students in the school. When he was in 12th grade, at 17, he fell ill. He stayed home and would draw and paint — that’s when his interest in stippling art began — and watch the other kids play on the playground from his balcony. Often he would accompany his mother to the market and his eye would always be drawn to the embroidery around him. He would rush home and try to recreate what he had seen. “Slowly, slowly, I started learning,” he tells me. He has not had any formal training in embroidery and is completely self-taught through years and years of practice. He would make cushion covers and bags, and stitched his own school bag. He gifted these to friends and neighbors, and people started noticing his talent. He started doing embroidery on his sister’s and cousin’s clothes, and when his niece was born in 1982, he designed almost 200 dresses for her. Soon his neighbors were asking him to design for their children, but he declined saying he wanted to make something special just for his niece.

In 1991, he joined the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology University for a degree in interior design, another area of interest from a young age. Although the faculty was impressed with his technical skills, Asif quickly realized that “my life is for embroidery.” During time off and on school holidays, he would go to the markets to source fabric and find artisans doing quality embroidery. Within three weeks, he had his first few design samples. He has an innate sense for quality and precision. “I can notice even 1 millimeter of difference just with my eye,” he says. His interior design faculty found out about his extracurricular interests and questioned why he was interested in fashion and embroidery, which they insisted was a field for women. But he persisted and designed his first collection. People started wearing his clothes at weddings and parties, and his reputation grew.

“I started reading and learning and observing. I used to watch senior artisans. I never asked them questions because they cannot explain how to do this. I used to watch them full day, and I used to try at home.” Asif opened his boutique in 1996. But after four years, realized that designing for the general market was not for him. He closed his shop and opened his studio so he could meet clients by appointment, and spend most of his time studying techniques and developing new motifs and designs. His reputation for meticulous quality and elegant and unique designs grew nationally and internationally.

Asif continues on his mission, undeterred by challenges. On Dec. 31, 2000, a few months after he opened his studio, a fire in his office building destroyed nearly everything. He didn’t have insurance and had to start over. A year later, there was an earthquake in Gujarat and while his studio was not affected, people were scared to come to his ninth-floor office and business suffered. Most disturbing were the tragic communal riots in Ahmedabad in February 2002. He recounts the events vividly, each moment etched in his memory. “Massive mobs of 200 to 300 wanted to come inside the society where we were. They had set fire to cars, broke through gates, looted, attacked so many people. I grabbed pots and pans and told everyone to wear them as helmets. Suddenly I felt something come on my face. I was unconscious for a few minutes. Then I saw my whole body was covered in blood. I looked in the mirror and saw my face was cut. I gargled and my teeth came out.” Asif was rushed to the hospital for surgery on his face and mouth. The next few days and months were terrible. He didn’t work for six months and seriously thought about giving up and leaving India. But his visa for the U.K. was rejected, so he stayed and immersed himself into his embroidery, his escape. “I have faith in God,” he says. “Whatever you have to face, you have to face.”

asif4Asif is now focused on his life-long dream — to teach poor women how to do embroidery really well so they can earn a good living, and eventually to set up a school for people of all ages to learn and appreciate the craft. “Since my childhood, it was my dream to do something for women. People would always tell me that this is women’s art, so I wanted to use it to help women,” he tells me. After his mother passed away in September 2011, that desire became all the more urgent. That’s when he became a Trustee of Pennies for Education and Health, and developed a program to train women in simple but precise embroidery stitches so they could produce quality work and not have to compromise on price. Every Wednesday, 10 women come to his studio to learn from him; they in turn have to teach 10 other women. “I want to teach women the power of the running stitch,” he says. Many NGOs talk about empowering women so they can earn a livelihood, Asif says. “But I want to give these women a good life.”

Clearly, Asif is on a mission to revitalize and reinvent the art of embroidery, and more broadly to promote Indian textiles and artisans. It seems little can get in his way. The day before his recent Delhi exhibit a few weeks ago, he was hanging textiles from the ceiling and fell off a faulty ladder. He was rushed to the hospital and was told he had cracked his back rib. But he insisted on going back to the gallery, in a wheelchair and on pain medication, to finish his display. The next two weeks of the exhibit meant long hours in pain, but Asif was determined to present his work and share the beauty and history of Indian textiles with the public. I spoke to Asif just after the exhibit closed and he was clearly overwhelmed by people’s response. “So many people came and appreciated,” he tells me. “People in their 80s, some people in wheelchairs, they said we thought this art was on a dying stage, that everything was over; now we see it’s not.”

“This is what gives me strength to continue what I’m doing,” he says. “I feel I’m still learning. I don’t know anything yet. I’m happy to be a student, that’s how I feel.”



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    Salma Hasan Ali

    Salma Hasan Ali is a writer, storyteller and non-profit leader. She is also the Contributing Editor of The Islamic Monthly.

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