Sitting in the right corner of the room, wearing eyeglasses, Dilshada Bano is focusing keenly on the needlepoint and doing Zalakdozi, popularly known as Ari work (crewel work) on a curtain. She has been performing Ari work for the last 25 years.
Dilshada is known for her embroidery skills, especially on materials like velvet, curtains, wool, cotton and bags. The 42- year old lady Dilshada is the choice of hundreds of customers, including brides who love her work on Pherans and other garments. Dilshada hails from Chinner village of central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district and is a well known artisan in the area.
Dilshada is self-taught artist and found solace in art at an early age. “My father always supported me and told me, be respectable and make us proud. I continued my work and started a workshop in my home, where around twenty people work currently.”
The painstaking work, hours of commitment, and steady patience that is used into creating a single piece measuring two square meters should not be underestimated. “We work on foldable shopping bags, pherans, envelope clutches,and sling bags also. I not only reworked on the designs to make them more appealing as per market trends, but hooked them to a new target audience,” said Dilshada.
Ari work is famous for its workmanship as it requires a lot of concentration.
Workers sit in one place for hours. Ari work typically uses wool and cotton thread.
It is done by using a needle with a hook known as ‘Ari’. The main feature of Ari work is the use of the chain in the concentric rings to fill a pattern. How to colour this filing is left up to the artisan.
The base colour of the fabric (curtain , sheets, pillow covers, bags) is generally cream or white or similar pastel shades . Woolen or art silk thread is used for this particular embroidery. Mostly, the chain stitch is used for the crewel embroidery.
“A wide range of colours are used including green (zingari), dark green (siahsabaz), light blue (asmani, blue (firozi ), yellow (zard), and black (mushki),” said Dilshada.
Earlier the yarns were dyed exclusively in vegetable dyestuff but today synthetic dyes are increasingly used. Though wool and cotton are still popularly used for embroidery, rayon and artificial silk have replaced the natural silk threads and they are mill-made.
Dilshada fulfilled her responsibility to the best of her abilities. She earns her livelihood through Ari work. “I am happy with my achievements and also with wages. The good thing is that after marriage, I have still got love and passion for this work.”
The centuries old art used to provide employment to literate and illiterate workers in rural and urban areas alike. It acted as a subsidiary source of income for farmers who remained unemployed during the off seasons.
Dilshada inserts the hook from the right while the thread is held on the underside. The design shows itself in the form of small loops . The work appears as a chain stitch on the surface. The intrinsic worth of each piece lies in the size of the stitches and the yarn used. Stitches ought to be small , even sized and neat.
Hook work covers a much larger area than needle work in the same amount of time. Ari work gives the concerned craftsman the most freedom of expression of any form of embroidery.
“Traditionally floral and leaf patterns were used but customers nowadays demand other designs also like the most popular mango seed design of India, chinar leaf , Badamdar (buta resembling an almond). It offers a soothing touch to the overall designs. These designs are often used in furnishing items like rugs etc. It takes me weeks to finish Ari work on a pheran and a month on curtains, pillow covers, bed sheets and shawls. Ari embroidery is one of the popular embroideries on the Kashmiri dresses also. This embroidery carries an international market and is known as one of the finest and most expensive works of the art,” said Dilshada.
Talking about designs and colours, they can be altered as per customer's requirements. The price of a product depends on the amount of embroidery and material.
There are thousands of artisans in the valley much like Dilshada Bano , who remain committed to hand made embroidery. However, many turned and switched to machines as they are able to generate more revenue because a machine can finish Ari work on multiple pherans and shawls during a day while handmade embroidery can take weeks and months together to finish Ari work on a single garment or fabric.
The only difference between the two is class, accuracy and exquisiteness. With the rising popularity of Ari work fabrics, international markets are winning more sales.
Due to market demands the stitch can be found almost on all kinds of furnishing fabrics and many kinds of dresses. “The choice of handmade Ari work and machine made depends on the item on which you are going to decorate it with.
Customers are happy when they go for Ari work done by hand as its colour remains the same and the quality of thread used is better than machine work. “While a handmade shawl costs around Rs 2500, the same shawl made by machine will cost around Rs 500,” said Dilshada.
Today, customers do not have time and they want the work to be finished in a day or two which is impossible. Therefore people prefer machine work instead of handmade art. This has ultimately troubled artisans.
“The handicraft labour has become expensive and the customers cannot afford it. Hence , they prefer machine items , which are cheap and the work done is faster.
Many artisans working in this field are suffering a lot. Due to machine made products, the hand made products are showing decline,” said Dilshada.
However, the exquisiteness and richness of a hand produced Kashmiri embroidery can never be replaced by the perfectness and flawlessness of machines.
Ari work has always been considered one of the most tedious forms of needle work.
“Aari work, Tilla and sozni were the famous arts of Kashmir that were once only done by hand and are now being done by machines. Once machines emerged, the art died,” said Dilshada.
Since 2015, due to the slump in demand for Ari work, most of the artisans switched over to other professions. There was a huge cut in rates for these artisans. During the Coronavirus pandemic the work slumped again but over the last few months, things have started looking up for these artists.
“Earlier we used to occupy a room where artisans would work together , it was sort of a workshop , but now people mostly work from home as newer generations are not learning this craft. Moreover, the kind of attention and respect we used to get earlier is missing nowadays,” Dilshada added.
Although, in Kashmir embroidery work is done both by male and female artists, low wages are slowly driving the men away from this vocation, while women continue to pursue it in their homes. Dilshada is trying hard to revive the Ari work.
Dilshada is now planning to open an instagram page so that her work can reach more customers and will help her in advertising the products and boosting sales.
She is developing more interest in her work. “I recently worked on a sling bag for my friend and she was really touched. Everybody insisted that I continue to work on new items and I am trying my level best ,” said Dilshada.
Very few embroiders are now prepared to do the very fine hook work. It has become an important source of livelihood and employment for many Kashmiri families.