In a Qila

Changing women's lives in Mahmudabad

The backbone of the erstwhile world of feudal privilege and opulence was always an invisible army of skilled craftsmen/women and artisans. They ensured a splendor and an aesthetic richness that was often breathtaking. Their efforts affected every aspect of life then and this attention to excellence was not merely self-serving, but was genuine and painstaking patronage which accounts for India's rich artisanal heritage through the centuries.

But what happened to these artists and artisans once their patrons could no longer afford such elaborate households? More often than not, they were compelled to jettison their ancient skills in search of financially better opportunities. The practice of their art simply could not support them and their families. It didn't take long for that culture to die and in its sweep to take with it an extraordinary wealth of skills, techniques, motifs and designs. Crafts that had been practiced and handed down for generations simply atrophied and disappeared. Such is the scythe of time for it has left no skill, art or tradition untouched anywhere in the world.

There exists in the Qila of Mahmudabad a small project called 'Qilasaaz' which started in March 1992. An erstwhile large Taluqadari or landholding, Mahmudabad was once among the largest estates in the kingdom of Avadh. It dates back to the 13th century when the family finally settled there never to move house again.

Qilasaaz has sought to preserve what remains of the wealth of sewing and embroidery techniques.

A new kind of patronage had to be invented which recognized that its only support could be financial. In the past, support to prized artisans was often in the form of land and housing. This was seen to be the least in ensuring consistency of quality, loyalty to their art as well as to their patrons.

Among the women artisans in Qilasaaz there are those who are descendants of families that were connected to the Mahmudabad family for generations. Here, just as everywhere else in the world, with the disappearance of the feudal world, patronage could not survive therefore neither could the artisans and their art. Hand-stitched clothes in daraj- katao, delicate silk patchwork, or fine embroideries whether Chikan, Kaamdaani, Zardozi now had an erratic demand. Poor financial conditions also followed.

In March 1992, Qilasaaz was born when Vijaya Khan, the Rani of Mahmudabad, took matters into her own hands after she observed that these women were barely using their sophisticated skills, and earning meager rewards. The name 'Qilasaaz' is actually a pun, literally meaning 'the wherewithal of the Qila' as well as 'that which makes the Qila work'. This name seemed apt to Vijaya as it describes the reality.

Qilasaaz is a collective of women who work within the safe environment of the Qila and are in charge of themselves; all are Muslim women of a certain social standing and age for whom leaving their homes to seek work was not an option in 1992. Vijaya Khan believed that with their skills, they could not only better their circumstances but that they would also be preserving their extraordinary handwork. She has always believed that the power to empower oneself lies within oneself provided that there is level playing field with fair opportunities. Sadly this is rarely the case. That conviction, however, bore fruit in Mahmudabad.

Comfortable and sheltered in the Qila, the women artisans create ethereal Kaamdani and Zardozi embroidery and exquisite Chikankari that finds place in stores in India and abroad. The range of embroidery techniques in India is vast and varied and they are an integral part of India's rich textile and embroidery traditions. Their origins are fascinating and their manifold stitches elaborate and complex. Above all Indian embroidery is beautiful which deserves all efforts to keep as much alive as possible. It is for this reason that 90 percent of the fabrics used by Qilasaaz are handspun and handloomed, whether silk, wool or cotton and are always bought at the Government Khadi Bhavann. They believe that as far as possible, fine handwork must done on fine handmade fabrics which India still produces.

One of the most exquisite techniques of the artisans at Qilasaaz is the Burnt Jaaliw ork; a complex, highly specialized skill with Qilasaaz being one of the few workshops left where it is still practiced. The process involves using a very hot, thin needle to 'burn' out a traced motif on the surface of the fabric. A mesh or jaal is then embroidered into this empty space thus creating and completing the design. Burnt Jaali work is an exacting process that requires experienced steady hands and nerves, but above all great patience.

Another fascinating embroidery technique used at Qilasaaz is Kaamdani which is embroidery with metal thread. In some regions the same work is known as Badla and Muqaish. The metallic thread used in this technique is called Kaamdani ka taar. Today high quality steel is used, but a few decades ago pure silver was commonly used and on occasion pure gold too. In either case, the metal has to be beaten thin enough so it can be run through a special device called a jantari. which is a small perforated iron plate. This produces the requisite kaamdaani thread that with the help of a needle is used to embroider shawls, stoles, scarfs saris and more. Because this thread goes through the fabric the embroidered motif is exactly the same of both sides of the fabric, giving kaamdani work its distinctive look.

By modern standards Qilasaaz produces fine Chikankari which is unique to the Avadh region and is traditionally white embroidery on white cotton. It had a vast repertoire of stitches, most being lost forever. Those that survive are tepchi, pechni, bakhia, murri and ghaas patti among others. Once the master embroiderers were only men, women embroidering more commonplace household requirements. In times past, chikankari was largely used for men's clothing dopalli topis or caps, Angarkhas a special tunic design and kurtas. Widows wore chikan dupattas and fashionable ladies white chikan saris. Today Chikankari uses colored thread on colored fabrics, made popular by organizations and designers and is among the most recognizable embroidery styles from India.

Since there aren't many who can pass these skills down to others because fewer women possess them, Qilasaaz tries to instill an interest in the young as well as in the children of the members of the project to learn them. However, this is not encouraged at the cost of acquiring a conventional education. Young girls are encouraged to learn the craft during long holidays. Qilasaaz places paramount importance on education and helps many children financially to go to good schools. If girls come to learn, Qilasaaz gives them a small stipend that serves as an incentive.

On being asked what changes she sees in the lives of these artisans in the 24 years since she founded Qilasaaz, Vijaya Khan says, “Right from the beginning, they were encouraged to open bank accounts, if joint, then only with female relatives they trusted. This was hard earned money only for their use not to be used to support their household expenses. They all get a regular salary apart from getting what is due to them for what they make. This has had a positive effect on their understanding of what proper medical attention means and of good steady education. Working in a protected environment, cherished for their skills and earning their own money helps their confidence without them having to compromise on their family obligations. More and more women artisans are understanding the value of their skills now.”

With humility she speaks of the success of Qilasaaz, “I did not know that I had the capability. I feel very proud and happy that Qilasaaz has worked; I am not a designer, I have no formal training and had I not realized their talent and how little it counted for, I probably would have never done this. But I am glad I did. I see a difference in their lives; I am proud of the quality of workmanship we achieve.”

To learn more about Qilasaaz or other artisan groups and craft making, please visit



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