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by Taha Ahmad
Mukaish Badla is a form of embroidery, which at its peak flourished in the Indian city of Lucknow. In the 18th century, the art form travelled to different parts of the world, but is now restricted to a few narrow lanes of the old city of Lucknow. The art was introduced by the Nawabs, who ruled the city, to beautify another form of embroidery called chickankari — which still persists in the Indian subcontinent. Mukaish, however, ended up becoming an independent style and flourished across the city. This form of embroidery was first developed for the ruling class that resided in the city as part of their finery since Mukaish work initially used precious metals like gold and silver to make metallic wires. The artisans who perform this art were at the time referred to as Badlas. They performed this craft by inserting metallic wires of gold and silver into fabric and twisting it to create magnificent metallic embroidery.The story I am trying to tell through my photographs is the story of these artisans — their downfall, struggle, and survival. The artisans, who devote their lives to the art form make a bare minimum of $2-3 per day, for concentrating and working in extremely harsh conditions for 10 hours everyday. The city once had more than 3,000 badlas, but now the number has reduced to just 20-25, all of them aged above 65. Badlas complain about the apathy of the government, which leads to further exploitation by their masters, who own the means of production and their lives, says 75-year-old Sabir Hussain, who has been working as a badla for nearly 65 years. The warehouses they work in are dingy and suffocating, tiny rooms.These artisans are the real treasure of Indian art and craft as their work is unparalleled and authentic, but their numbers are dwindling and in not more than 20-25 years, they will die out, becoming no more than a part of history which can only be recalled in a poignant daydream or a visual imagery. My work ‘Swan Song of the Badlas’ revolves around the life of these Badlas and their families, who are struggling to keep the art alive.The project was initiated under the aegis of the Neel Dongre Grant/Award for Excellence in Photography 2016-17 organized by the India Photo Archive Foundation.