There was a time when Lucknow’s Mukaish Badla embroidery thrived in the city, found on the finery worn by the elite. Popularised by the Nawabs in the 18th and 19th centuries, this unique art of weaving threads of gold and silver into beautiful designs required intense focus and hours of practice.
But the glory days of this style of embroidery are long gone now, and only a small community of artisans—mostly aged over 65—remains. They work out of the narrow lanes of Old Lucknow, often making less than $3 a day after working long hours under tough conditions.
Between 2016 and 2017, photographer Taha Ahmad, who was born in the city, decided to document this dying art, telling the story of the people keeping it alive. He visited elderly artisans and took around 3,000 photographs. He then created a series out of the pictures, titled Swan Song of the Badlas, which won him the 2018 Toto-Tasveer Award for emerging photographers.
“The story I am trying to tell through my photographs is the story of these artisans—their downfall, struggle, and survival,” Ahmad said in an emailed statement. The artisans he spoke to complained about government apathy and the exploitation by their masters, who often force them to work in small and dingy rooms. Having dedicated their lives to the craft, they often don’t have any alternatives to fall back on. So it’s unlikely that others will follow in their footsteps.
“Their population is dwindling and soon, in not more than 20-25 years, will become a part of history which can only be recalled in a poignant daydream or visual imagery,” Ahmad added.
Here’s a selection of his photographs from the Swan Song of the Badlas.
Taqi, an 80-year-old Badla artisan, working in extremely harsh conditions in the Sa-datganj Workshop, Old Lucknow. (Taha Ahmad)Two women observe Bobby, owner of the Sa-datganj workshop, as he inspects a Mukaish fabric. (Taha Ahmad)An artisan resting after long hours of work at the Sa-datganj Workshop, Old Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. (Taha Ahmad)Zeenat, a woman from a traditional family in Lucknow, wears a real Mukaish dress made out of gold and silver wires, crafted at the time of the Nawabs in the 18th century. Around her are a variety of Mukaish apparels. (Taha Ahmad)Zeenat inspects a dress made out of real gold and silver wires, recalling the golden memories of the past. Deorhi Agha Meer, Chandi Khana, Old Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. (Taha Ahmad)Zeenat unfolds her Mukaish apparel cast out of real gold and silver wires. Deorhi Agha Meer, Old Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. (Taha Ahmad)Children and grandchildren of the Indian Badla artisans straighten the Mukaish fabric after washing them. Deorhi Agha Meer, Chandi Khana, Old Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. (Taha Ahmad)Farheen, 15, wears a real silver-cast Mukaish dupatta made by her father, a 65-year-old artisan, at Deorhi Agha Meer, Chandi Khana, Old Lucknow. (Taha Ahmad)Taiba and Umrah with their cattle at their house in Deorhi Agha Meer, Chandi Khana, Old Lucknow. (Taha Ahmad)Umrah peeps through a broken window in her house in Deorhi Agha Meer, Old Lucknow. (Taha Ahmad)