Eighteenth century Lucknow, under the reign of the Nawabs of Awadh, was a flourishing centre of art and culture. Apart from being great patrons of the musical, dance and dramatic arts, the Nawabs were also connoisseurs of fine fabrics and jewellery, as evidenced in portraits from the time.
Usually made of the finest makhmal (velvet) and mulmul (cotton), the garments of royals and aristocrats were intricately embroidered with chikankari or zardosi work. The Mukaish Badla is a form of embroidery, of zardosi work, that at its peak in the eighteenth century travelled to different parts of the world, but is now restricted to a few narrow lanes of the old city of Lucknow.
Between 2016 and 2017, photographer Taha Ahmad, who was born in the city, decided to document this dying art and give voice to the artisans or badlas who struggle to keep it alive today.
Lucknow’s culture has always compelled me to dig into the roots of its rich civilization, which has always been a centre for arts and literature in the diverse landscape of India. The Gomti River, which flows through the city, always reminded me of the royal splendor of Lucknow. As I grew close to the city, I was introduced to the city’s art and craft which became an important moiety of my breath explaining why the city was highly praised for the textile culture. These art and crafts used to blossom and are still a part of each and every family in Lucknow.
The elaborate mukaish work that embellished the finery of the ruling classes, originally used gold and silver wires that were inserted into the fabric and twisted to create magnificent metallic embroidery on the fabric. Now only polished wires of gold and silver are used, notes Ahmad, which has played a major role in the downfall of this art. He adds: “The art and the artisans might soon die a painful death amidst the frenzy driven by ‘development’ and ‘modernization’.”
Ahmad’s artist statement highlights the pitiful state of the form and those that have dedicated their lives to it: where there once more than 3000 artisans in Lucknow, today fewer than 25 remain and all of them aged above 65. Once admired and courted for their skills, these days badla artists make a bare minimum of ₹ 100–150 or $ 2–3 a day. The craft had always required great focus and hours of intense concentration, but contemporary badla artists bemoan the hardship of doing so in extremely harsh conditions including “the dingy, suffocating, tiny rooms” that form their warehouses. Added to this, is “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.”
My work, the Swan Song of the Badlas revolves around the life of these Badlas and their families, who are struggling to keep the art alive. These artisans are the real treasure of Indian art and craft as their work is unparalleled and authentic. The artistes’ plight is something I am trying to bring out through my photographs. Their population is dwindling and soon in not more than 20-25 years, they will become a part of history which can only be recalled in a poignant daydream or in visual imagery.
The project was initiated under the aegis of the Neel Dongre Grant/Award for Excellence in Photography 2016 organized by the India Photo Archive Foundation and has been the recipient of the Toto-Tasveer Award for Photography 2018.
Applications are now open for the Toto-Tasveer Award for Photography 2019. Last date for applications: August 20th 2018. For more information on how to apply and eligibility criteria, please visit the TFA Call for Applications page.
Taha Ahmad is a documentary photographer based in Delhi, India. He developed an interest in Documentary photography while pursuing his bachelor’s degree; and feels that photography has a strong influence in creating and developing discourse for the future.
Ahmad has been the recipient of The Documentary Project Fund/Award 2018, Toto-Tasveer Award for Photography 2018, Sahapedia Frames Photography Grant 2018 and the Neel Dongre Grant/Award for Excellence in Photography 2016-17. His work has been exhibited at the Indian Photo Festival (IPF) Hyderabad India 2017, Eyes on Main Street Wilson Outdoor Photo Festival North Carolina United States of America 2018, Festival Influences Indiennes Angers France 2018, and Addis Foto Fest Ethiopia Africa 2018, among other places. He has also been published by several media outlets including Invisible Photographer Asia, The Sunday Guardian, Times Of India, The Quint, Asian News International (ANI), The Diplomat, Homegrown, MUSÉE Magazine, Better Photography Magazine, Platform Magazine, Fountain Ink Magazine, Asian Age, Business Standard, Edge of Humanity, and Black+White Photography Magazine.