‘We learn with our practise’, says master embroiderer Asif Shaikh in response to the wonderment of textile lovers who visit his studio in Ahmedabad. They are invariably amazed by the beauty of hand embroidery worked on the garments and marvel at the fineness of stitch; artistic motifs of birds, flowers and architectural patterns; and aesthetic colour combinations. The sight of artisans seated around a karchob (the traditional, horizontal, floor-mounted hardwood frame) hand-embroidering fabric stretched across it, adds to the experience of visiting his studio. Saris, jackets, kurtas (long Indian-style shirts), shawls and stoles embellished with fine zardozi (embroidery with metal thread and elements), badla (embroidery with a thin metal strip), and aari (embroidery worked with the aar, a fine awl akin to the European tambour hook) are neatly displayed on clothes racks. They instantly cast a spell with their exceptional beauty.
Born in Ahmedabad - a city renowned for its rich culture and textile heritage - Asif took up embroidery when he was just seven years old after watching artisans at work. Over the years, he perfected different traditional Indian embroidery techniques from meeting with master artisans, by studying historical textiles in museums and private collections, and most of all through thousands of hours of practise. Asif also learnt other textile techniques of hand-weaving, hand painting, hand printing, and natural dyeing so he would be able to understand the tactile nature of different textiles.
Over time Asif’s passion for embroidery led him into the fascinating world of hand crafted textiles, fashion and the revival of old embroideries. His understanding of different stitches and their possibilities, and practise of these stitches took him deep into the craft and resulted in the creation of exquisite embroideries. The embroideries are worked on a variety of cotton, khadi (fabric that is hand-woven with hand-spun yarns), silk, linen and wool fabrics, each of which has its individual beauty.
In recent years Asif has embellished garments with miniature embroidery, bringing to mind the fine art of Indian miniature painting. Some of these4 garments have been likened to art for the fineness of work, the details of the motifs and the selection of colours that create an effect of texture and depth. Asif also enhances the beauty of miniature embroidery by incorporating gemstones, pearls, and peacock feathers and beetle wings.
Skill, knowledge and creativity apart, Asif credits the distinctive beauty of his embroideries to the effort he takes to obtain high quality embroidery yarns, to source a variety of natural fibre yarns and then to have them dyed to his colour specifications with natural dyes to obtain colours that are soft, deep, rich and beautiful. The yarns are dyed by artisans using natural colours (extracted from leaves, bark, flowers, fruits, vegetables and roots following different techniques such as such as boiling, making a solution or making a paste) thus giving them a quiet natural beauty. ‘I select yarns of khadi (hand-spun), cotton, wool, jute, pashmina (wool of the changra goat), silk and ahimsa silk’, he says. Ahimsa silk yarn is spun without killing the silkworm; for regular mulberry silk yarn cocoons are typically boiled to obtain smooth, even, unbroken yarn, however this involves killing of worms that are within the cocoon.
Asif has gold-plated metal yarn specially crafted for his embroidery from India’s famed brocade weaving city of Benares. He also sources yarns from different parts of the world such as silk yarn from Thailand which is used for weaving there. As this yarn is half the thickness of embroidery yarn, it allows for the miniature stitches to be worked and infuses them with delicacy.
At times Asif removes yarn from the fabric itself for embroidery for an understated tone-on-tone embellishment. An ahimsa silk shawl decorated with delicate and elaborate embroidery was worked with yarn removed from the shawl. Asif describes the process, ‘It took me one year to understand the nature of pashmina yarn and fabric. As pashmina catches dust easily, the artisans had to wash their hands every half this shawl, and I would like to believe it is the first elaborately embroidered 100% ahimsa silk shawl in the world.’
Every year Asif creates a special collection of embroidered works. A recent collection titled Sacred Geometry presented white-on-white embroideries, whose compositions were inspired by the surface decorations and patterned latticework windows of stone and wood monuments and buildings of Ahmedabad, India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City. A particular source of inspiration is the exquisite tree of life of the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, whose muted rendition silently speaks of sacredness.
In 2016, Asif co-founded CDS Art Foundation (Craft Design Society), a not-for-profit organisation, based in Ahmedabad, with an aim to start a movement to take beautiful, handcrafted Indian textiles to the world stage. At the heart of the foundation’s endeavour is a mission to showcase the skills and work of established and emerging master textile artisans who otherwise remain unnamed even as their work draws appreciation. Since its inception, the foundation has undertaken several initiatives to engage
with master artisans to encourage, inspire and commission them to create masterpieces. One heart-warming initiative is having the designer and the master artisan (who have collaborated on a collection) walk the ramp together after the fashion show presenting their collection.
Each embroidered textile at Asif’s studio is the fruit of his deep love for embroidery. ‘Embroidery is my life. I dream embroidery and do everything for embroidery. If I had the finances, I would not sell the textiles and only keep them for exhibitions and museums’. ••• Brinda Gill