Home is where the embroidery is

Home is where the Embroidery Is

By Vaishnavi Birmole

Mohammad Azam Ansari is one of the few lucky people in Mumbai whose workplace is just 20 minutes away from his home. Unlike the majority of people who have to commute to and from work each day for more than two hours, Azam stays in Mahim west and he goes to work in Mahim east in Dharavi.

His route is interesting. On the way to the skywalk that he must use to get from the west side of the railway track to the east, he passes his old home.

That place is now covered with blue and white profile sheets, a signature sign in Mumbai that a plot of and is being developed by a builder. He climbs the skywalk soaring three storeys into the sky, and the view from the top gives you a first look at the massive collection of roads and sheds, and buildings that is Dharavi, also known as the world’s third-largest slum.

The skywalk comes down into the collection of shanties and double-storeyed structures outside Mahim station on the east side, lode to the 60ft road which starts from the Mahim-Sion link road and ends at Eastern Express Highway.

Mohammad Azam Ansari

The roads become narrow here, both sides covered with hawkers, small shops like hair-cutting salons, sugarcane stalls, snack shops, and small businesses. Because Azam goes to work in the morning at 9 am, he sees daily wage workers standing in groups at junctions, hoping to get picked up by contractors for the day, or the week or even the month. That is another reminder to the 30-year-old that he can count himself fortunate. At least his work is steady in a very unpredictable job market.

At this point,  the already-narrow road becomes a lane bounded on one side by houses, many with dogs sleeping at the entrances.

The entrance to Azam’s workshop is like a square cave with a small ladder to the side. At the left, there is a doorway with a brown curtain in a floral design through which you pass to enter a room lined with on one side with two big machines, each with eight “heads”. It is the largest by Mumbai standards, a bit under 350 square feet. There are no windows and a small exhaust fan circulates the air.

Azam’s working

This is the “kingdom” that he shares with a co-worker for 12 hours each day, turning out embroidery on fabric to be used to make garments. It’s all pretty technological, with designs, bought by the seth who owns the unit, being fed into computers that then drive the embroidery machines.  

“I was always interested in fashion and designing”, says Azam. He started the work when he was 15 years old, after passing the Secondary School Certificate examination. Both his mother and an older sister were hand embroiderers, working on patches for jeans. He began to do this as well and enjoyed it. His voice sounds wistful as he says, “We used to get some freedom while using our own designs on the jean. But on the machines, we have to stick to a particular design sample given by the clients.”

He has no illusions about the work he is doing now – the vague discontent that is the result of just carrying out jobs decided by a machine, your creativity forgotten as you punch the right buttons and keep watch on glitches. But it is sobering to realise that very few people give even machine embroidery a close look, to try and understand the person responsible for the design that can liven up plain fabric, making it a work of art.

It’s a whole process. First, different designs samples are made on the paper. Buyers and retailers of garments then send these samples to special exhibitions in Goregaon, Mumbai. These exhibitions take place once a year and attract representatives of embroidery units from across the state. The samples which they like are booked accordingly. Retailers and buyers can also go to different workshops or units directly to make design deals.

There are two types of patterns; one is plain embroidery and the other is embossed. Emboss designs are those that are punched into the fabric.

Mostly, retailers book sets per sample. “Ten sets have 120 pieces and each sample has a minimum of 400-500 pieces”, stated Azam. Once booked, the party then provides the palla, a piece on which the design is made. The designed palla goes for the garment-making process where the whole set is made.

Azam’s daily to-do list has a commonality. He designs various samples and makes them ready for retailers or buyers. He is still passionate about his work and it is important to state this because his family would rather he did something else.

In particular, he was very close to his Nana-Nani (grandparents). When he started embroidery on jeans, they were unhappy with his work. “Tum jo yeh kaam kar rahe ho woh aurto wala kaam hai, isse chodkar kuch aur karo.”, Nana-Nani expressed disappointment. (The work which you are doing is ladies’ work, leave this and take up something else.)

At night, long after the streetlights have come on, Azam walks back home to  Senapati Bapat Marg, near Raheja Hospital, in Mahim west. He walks from the station into the small alleys between the shops, alleys so small that sometimes they fit only one person at a time. One of the alleys leads to Azam’s house.

On the way to Azam’s house

He has a small house with two storeys, built on a plinth that is 12ft by 12 ft. He is among the many who cannot increase the size of his house horizontally, so they build vertically. Iron stairs built inside lead to the floor on top. In the room below, the family lives.

There are modern conveniences, like a television and a washing machine in this room with green and yellow walls. There is a bed and the small washroom inside the structure is an indication of aspirations. But Azam’s home also has a cage with a pair of lovebirds in blue and yellow. He seems fond of them.

Like every other migrant family, Azam’s also has a backstory, poignant in parts, heartening in others. “Home” as a state of mind still seems to be Moradabad in UP. It is where his mother and sister have gone following the death of his father in December, from prolonged tuberculosis. It is where he was born, where the extended family still lives.

The backstory has its share of irony. Azam’s father, Mohammed Kamil Ansari,  was a first-generation migrant to magical Mumbai in 1992. He was escaping the lawlessness, the constant insecurity born of riots. He came alone to the city of dreams and in December that year, Mumbai itself was engulfed in communal riots that changed the way this city was perceived forever.

He got a job in a Punjabi bakery in Byculla.  And in 1997, he brought his whole family, comprising four children with him to Mumbai. “I was just seven years old when I came to Mumbai”, said Azam.

First, they used to stay in Bandra on rent. Then they shifted to Mahim where they also used to stay on rent, but after some years they had to leave that place because it went into redevelopment. Now they are living in their own house which is just a few minutes away from their old one. In an earlier meeting with the family, the mother talked about gathering money painstakingly to buy a roof over their heads. “Humne ek-ek paisa jodkar ye ghar kharida hai.”(We bought this house by doing hard work and collecting pennies)

At home now, there are three people besides him. His mother Mehrabjahan who is a homemaker, his younger sister Anam who works as a customer attendant in a mall in Haji Ali, and his younger brother Anas who doesn’t work because of a fractured arm. Azam’s father Kamil passed away at the age of 52 in December, and his elder sister got married in 2019. So currently, he and his younger sister are the only breadwinners in the family.

He earns Rs 15,000 per month. He works throughout the month excluding Sundays, it’s his holiday. His sister earns Rs 10,000 per month. He works for 11 hours per day, from 9 am to 9 pm, with a one-hour break for lunch.

Sometimes, while working on the machines, there are injuries, mostly on the hand. These are often caused by needle pricking. Once he got a serious eye injury. “I was taking the measurements of the haddi (the wooden embroidery hoop), which requires hammering in pins and small nails into a piece of plywood. Suddenly, one pin went into my eye”. He had to be hospitalised and was off work for six months.

The way Azam looks at his work is simple. First, you have a blank piece of cloth that no one looks at. Then you embroider it, bringing it to life with art. This is so underrated that practically no one looks at it. But the embroidery represents a person, just as the buyer of that cloth is a person who is happy to wear it.

Azam’s embroidered jeans

Thousands of people join the embroidery industry, some to earn their daily bread, some to fill a hunger for creativity. No obstacles, like computerized machines, can stop the flow of the creative stream. And this is widely evident in Azam’s own clothes which have hand embroidery. In his free time, he showcases his creativity in his own clothes. When I went to interview him, he was wearing embroidered jeans with an amazing piece of art.

Vaishnavi Birmole
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