Mukaish badla is a form of embroidery that once flourished in the Indian city of Lucknow. At its peak, in the 18th century, the art form traveled to different parts of the world, but it is now restricted to a few narrow lanes of the old city of Lucknow.
The art was basically introduced by the Nawabs, who ruled the city, to beautify another form of embroidery called chikankari, which still persists in the Indian subcontinent. Mukaish, however, ended up becoming an independent style and flourished across the city in the past. 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 perform this craft by inserting metallic wires of gold and silver into the fabric, eventually twisting it to create magnificent metallic embroidery.
These photographs tell 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, their reward for concentrating and working in extremely harsh conditions for 10 hours every day.
The city once had more than 3,000 badlas, but now they number just 20-25, all of them over 65 years old.
Badlas complain about the practiced 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, suffocating, tiny rooms.
The badlas and their art might soon die a painful death amidst the frenzy driven by development and modernization. The badlas’ population is dwindling and soon — in no more than 20-25 years — they will become a part of history.
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.
Taha Ahmad is a documentary photographer based in Delhi. He was born in Lucknow and is currently pursuing his Masters in Fine Arts from Jamia Milllia Islamia University, India.