The atelier awaits its karigar as they return to villages in droves, due to Coronavirus lockdown
One of the most telling impacts of India's reverse migration is playing out in the Indian fashion and bridal industry, as designers are ready to open factories in the absence of artisans
It has been three months since Tarun Tahiliani hosted select names from India's fashion media at his brick-faced atelier in Gurugram to mark his brand's 25th anniversary. It is inside this three-storey sanctum where work becomes life for Tahiliani and his staff of 100, as they conjure up glamorous dreams using stitch and shapes. "Embroidery is the one thing we did not learn from the West. We learnt it from these master craftsmen who, sadly, for most part, are still considered mere karigars because in India, the knowledge of English decides which side of the social divide you are on," Tahiliani had told this writer on that visit.
The importance of the artisan is suddenly bang in focus with the nationwide lockdown enforced to break the chain of the Coronavirus outbreak, leading to the shutting of workshops, and craftsmen heading to their villages in droves in the absence of work.
In the last few days, garment factories in Gurugram, Noida, Faridabad and Delhi reopened for production, but instead of a return to order, the designer community has been confronted with chaos. Tahiliani feels the government could have handled the opening of business better. "We're working with 15 per cent staff. Skilled tailors can't get to the factory, women embroiderers based in Seelampur and Khanpur are not allowed to travel," he says.
A team of design assistants and fitters work on a bridal outfit at Tarun Tahiliani’s atelier in Gurugram before the pandemic regulated social distancing and the use of masks
An hour's drive from Gurugram is Noida, where Gaurav Gupta's atelier is housed. Before the lockdown, his company employed 250 personnel; now down to half. "It [the lockdown] has led to natural downsizing," says Gupta stoically. "Most of my tailors, cutters, embroiderers, even our helpers, have returned to their homes in the villages of UP and Bihar. They fear that the lockdown could return. Since most of them lived here in areas that were declared containment zones where life was unsafe and restrictions, severe, they felt going home was their ticket out."
Gupta is right. Judging from most news reports, it seems migrants continue to want to leave urban metros, including Mumbai, and are determined not to return at least for the next few months.
Women embroiderers from Delhi’s neighbouring boroughs of Seelampur and Khanpur, busy at work at Tahiliani’s workshop in a before-lockdown file photo. In the absence of intercity transport, they are unable to come to work
In Mumbai, Monisha Jaising closed down two units at Bandra West days before the lockdown. Her migrant staff, which constitutes 30 per cent of her salaried workforce, took the opportunity to board trains to their homes in UP, Bihar, Kolkata, Agra and Hyderabad. Most of them are craftsmen proficient in Zardozi and Aari, embroidery traditions that have passed down generations largely unchanged. "Mumbai is no longer the land of dreams. They've seen [that] it's easier to find work locally. Several of them called to say they won't be returning. Designers who will continue to work with 100 per cent capacity will also soon understand, it's okay to downsize," Jaising believes.
And it only makes sense to produce limited stock when the demand is scant. Jaising asks, "Who's buying?" She thinks sales will go back to before-pandemic levels only once a vaccine injects confidence into the economy. "So, rather than focus on production, we are turning the thrust to design, figuring how we can create differently. I am looking at clothing inspired by sportswear that is practical and cost effective."
Monisha Jaising has scaled down her business and plans to focus on cost-effective athletic separates. A design from MxS, a joint venture between Jaising and Shweta Bachchan Nanda launched in 2018
Gupta chooses to remain optimistic about the return of buoyant buying, "although we'll take a year to rebuild our business". In the meantime, his brand will work on smaller orders. "We plan to create satellite units in and around our factory in Noida."
In Mumbai itself, Bihari migrant labour consists of 30 per cent of the workforce. "The remaining 70 per cent is from UP," Bihar's deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi was quoted saying in a news report.
Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla with showstopper Deepika Padukone at their 33rd anniversary fashion show held last year. Khosla, who retails out of Mumbai and Delhi, says he has managed to retain his staff, but isn’t sure how long he will be able to sustain
The crisis, veteran designer Sandeep Khosla warns, will leave behind a gaping rural-urban schism. "As designers, who primarily work with migrant staff, we have failed to support them in this crisis by letting them go," he says candidly. During the lockdown, his brand which he founded with partner Abu Jani in 1986, has been able to retain their staff of 700, a majority of them from Kolkata, UP and Bihar who settled in the city. "[But] we're going to be broke soon if we don't return to work," he adds. Many of their Muslim artisans take off on their annual leave around Eid at this time of the year. "This time, however, I don't know whether they will come back," Khosla admits. He echoes almost every entrepreneur's sentiment when he says this could be the nail in the coffin in an economy that was first hit in 2016 with demonetisation.
For 16 years, Anupamaa Dayal ran her workshop at Munirka in South West Delhi, and opened her Khan Market store in 2012. Currently, operations at both are suspended. But, she says, "I'm still working on designs and looking at new ways to express and reach out."
With no sales over the last three months, she couldn't afford staff salaries. "It's a difficult time for small and mid-sized businesses with no monetary reserves to fall back on. Help from the government shows up only on paper. For instance, lack of intercity transport is a hurdle for us. My tailor commutes from Faridabad and can't get to the workshop," she says.
Gupta agrees that it isn't enough for the government to have made arrangements to pack off migrants home. "Had they managed to pay even 15 per cent of migrants' salaries, they would have stayed back, and a workforce would have been available to most businesses to open, once restrictions were lifted." He says designer friends in the US and UK have managed to stay afloat with help from the state in terms of rental waive offs and loans. "It will be heartbreaking if I am unable to employ my workers when and if they decide to return from their homes," he says.
But, some will say that with every crisis comes an opportunity. Some designers like Rahul Mishra, and Tahiliani, are seeing the benefits of allowing artisans to work from their place of origin. Tahiliani has four units in Farrukhabad and Lucknow in UP, and two on the outskirts of Kolkata. "It [migrant crisis] has shown that the system of maintaining and working with outside units is a better disaster response. Our Lucknow unit that produces exquisite Mukaish embroidery is operated by women; they always turned up their noses at the idea of moving to Delhi," he laughs.
Mishra is possibly the first to have seen an opportunity in the reverse migration. The man who's a genius at using embroidery to tell stories that make headlines at international fashion weeks, says he realised the futility of allowing craftsmen to work in urban slums as far back as 2011, when a visit to a Mumbai ghetto was an eye opener. "It was horrifying to see them cohabit dingy rooms with 15 others, with no proper sanitisation," says Mishra.
By relocating his artisans from Mumbai to Baundpur village in West Bengal, six years ago, Rahul Mishra was able to provide a sustainable and economic response to his staff of needlework artisans during the lockdown
A discussion with the artisans, largely experts in needlework, led to the realisation that most had come from Baundpur, a village in West Bengal, to Mumbai for work. When one karigar comes to the city, it opens a doorway for many others from the same village. "Sons follow their fathers, groups of friends and family members collectively flock to the same city. It took a bit of convincing but I was able to finally relocate them back to their villages assuring them of salaries at par with pay in the cities. The WFH model along with following the slow fashion philosophy has saved us," Mishra stresses.
Rahul Mishra uses bursts of hand embroidery as a way to elevate the otherwise flat shapes, giving them a whimsical, three-dimensional appeal
He has been able to create jobs in Baundpur and in effect build a circular economy model simply by outsourcing 80 per cent of his embroidery work. "The key is to trust them, make them responsible and independent. I interact regularly with the appointed karkhandar, and WhatsApp video calls help as do cloud file sharing to keep in touch with the karigars. They can now afford to build their own homes and ride bikes to work. There is no greater luxury than living in the safety of your own home and eating food made by family," he says. Inspired by this success, the designer plans to establish a similar set-up at Bareilly in UP.
Mishra, who is the first Indian designer to be welcomed as guest member on the Haute Couture calendar in Paris in January, lives in Noida, where he presently runs a factory with in-house staff of 120 embroiderers and tailors. Here, he is facing another kind of labour problem. "We employ 50 sampling embroiderers. A few have been on leave since March and around 35 returned on the first day of work after lockdown. With some of them now heading to their villages for Eid, we will be left with 20 sampling embroiderers. It's natural that they are missing home, but with factories resuming work after weeks of lockdown, the timing is far from perfect," Mishra reasons.
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