Whimsical Artist

An artist works on a whim, not on calculation.

Ludhiana resident Ashok Goswami had a dream a few years ago that he was painting the Golden Temple of Amritsar. He

saw that as a message from the God. A class IV employee at the Ludhiana Municipal Corporation then, earning a modest Rs 1000 a month, Ashok embarked on the journey to fulfill the “God’s wish” and bought a 56 X 15 feet canvas worth Rs 48,000, the money raised from donations and his savings.

The painting, which Ashok claims is the world’s biggest painting of the revered Sikh temple, has used around Rs 4-5 lakh on over 1300 pencils, 2600 small and big brushes, and gold dust. Having survived on help from a few local patrons so far, the painting needs at least Rs five lakh more to see completion but Ashok says he has been struggling to find sponsors to finish his long-pending project. The painting, he says, is almost in its last stage.

“When I began, I was highly encouraged by people, and I assumed I would carry on with their help. But I can’t survive on compliments alone,” he says.

Apart from finances, Ashok has been facing the problem of finding a suitable space to keep the huge painting. The painting has seen many temporary homes such as Gurudwaras and schools. Today it is lying rolled over with him.

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An Intricate Empire in Sunet

An Artisan Engaged in Embroidering a Lehenga

A whole new world opens up as one takes the route beyond Orient Cinema in Ludhiana leading to Sunet. As one enters the narrow lanes, an array of one-roomed workshops with men meticulously engaged in delicate embroidery can be seen on both sides of the road. Sitting cross-legged on carpeted floor, bent over wooden frames locally called ‘addas’, sharp aari (a long needle) hooks in hands, these men, mostly in their twenties, work their way on the luxurious fabrics stretched out on the frames. Wielding their tools, they create breathtakingly beautiful patterns using silk threads, beads, metal wires, Swarosvki and stones. On the pavements outside, samples of their exhibited work can be seen. This intricate empire nestled in an obscure part of the city meets many of the designers’ embroidery needs – from the state as well as abroad.

Street Lined With Workshops

Over 100 workshops are packed within a kilometer-long stretch. The number of artisans, most of them Muslims, cross a thousand. Most are migrants from Bareilly and Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, cities that already run such embroidery empires of theirown.

This market has been in existence for 20 years now. Explaining its origin, one of the oldest in the trade, 46-year-old Mohd Qamar (popular in the area as ‘Mamu’), shares that a few artisans from Shivpuri, sensing the opportunities that the new residential colonies around Sunet such as BRS

Nagar and Model Town offered, shifted base. “I was among the first ones to shift. These colonies housed the elite and upmarket boutique stores, and work flowed in regularly,” says ‘Mamu’. “There has been no looking back since,” fondly adds he, who has risen from a team of two to 22 artisans over the years, and runs two workshops.

Notably, labourers employed by such traders-cum-artisans are paid around Rs 120 for eight hours of work and Rs 350 for 14 hours of work. Day for them begin as early as seven.

One can simply approach these men with a fabric and a design in mind, and they’ll make it. Zardosi, phulkari, kasooti, aari, chickankari, crochet work, gotta-patti, ribbon work – they do it all. “People come with fashion magazines and ask us to copy the pattern on the sari worn by Katrina Kaif. It’s not difficult for us. One look at the pattern tells us the type of embroidery done,” says one. Most orders are for suits that fetch them anything between Rs 500 to Rs 3000 and even more, depending on the cost of the material and effort and time involved. People come for sarees, lehengas and even sandals and bags.

While the patrons to this market range from local residents to boutique owners to designer wear stores, some recall interesting stints with dignitaries from industrial and political circles. Mamu recalls having designed a lehenga for a rich client in the city, the cost of the embroidery touching Rs 2.5 lakhs – the most expensive assignment he has done till date.

A Boy Filing Away Aari Hooks

Thanks to the rising demand for exquisite designer wear, there is no dearth of work here. In fact, this lucrative profession has spurred mushrooming of several other support businesses. While shops selling ‘aaris’, fabrics and embroidery material are all around, almost every house has a shuttered hall at the ground floor to rent out to these men.

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Bagpipe Bands of Baddowal

For more than the past two decades, the dusty village of Baddowal, Punjab, has been the hub of pipe bands, a British colonial legacy that conjures up images of the chilly terrains of Scotland. The skirl of the bagpipes might be ridiculed in contemporary times, but these pipe bands continue to be invited from all around the state – and even beyond – to dispense their music on happy occasions, big or small. While almost every male member of the village today, roughly between the age of 20 and 50, earns his living by playing some role in a pipe band, all this stands to change as the village’s youth seems to abhor the idea of following in their fathers’ footsteps.

The fathers are more than encouraging in their decision to break out of the pipe band culture that is steeped in the village. “Study harder or you’ll be left to do nothing better than playing pipes or drums” is a school teacher’s favourite threat here. The mothers pray their sons are employed in a “proper” job and bring out the families from the life of penury they are leading.

This might surprise you, considering how colourful the whole thing about nine men in military-like uniforms, gawdy gold, embellished belts and chic turbans belching out music with bagpipers, drums and dhols has been made out to be. Signs of this obsession with pipe bands are very much visible as billboards flashing the bands’names and contacts dot almost every street. A close look at the life of the villagers, however, reveal that for most people there is little money in the profession to make.

A Bagpipe Band Playing in the 90s

Notably, it was in the late nineties when armymen from Baddowal cantonment began to perform privately at the local weddings or nagar kirtans. Slowly, to share this workload, they began to teach the art to the unemployed youth of the village who then formed private bands of their own. Initially there was work to be found for the few bands in place. But soon the pipe bands became a fad with almost every youth jumping into it. Rising from a mere four to five bands around twenty years ago, the number in this village – that today is home to around 5000-6000 people – touched 100 in a decade. The competition increased significantly but the demand has not kept pace.

Even when the invites keep coming, as in any business, the bulk of the revenues reach only a few people – those who own the musical instruments, uniforms and other paraphernalia, the cost of which ads up to around Rs 45,000-Rs 50,000 for a band. The “owners” of the band usually hire from the village to complete the band. While a band is booked at anything between Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 for a day in the lean season (from June to September) and Rs 6,000 to Rs 9,000 in the peak season (from April to October), the hired members get a small share in the pie – no more than Rs 250-300 a day. The work is irregular which translates into an unsteady income. “My husband gets work only twice or thrice a week. He is free on other days, wasting time in idle banter or playing cards with fellow villages. He has no other skills to bank upon either,” rues Dasri, who runs a small general store in the area, and supplements the income by taking up stitching and embroidery work.

The young is no more flocking to the trainers – who charge around Rs 15000 for the three-month course – to learn to play the instruments. HS Khalsa, employed with the Indian Army, who was part of the only pipe band in 1990 in Baddowal that pioneered the trend, says, “I used to get pupils in dozens eager to learn the art. Boys would come in groups, learn from me for three months for a couple of thousands and form their own bands. But today, I have not a single student,” says the 55-year-old.

This is not to say that the business is dead yet. For some like Hasda Punjab, an umbrella group of three pipe bands, has flourished significantly in the last decade. It has an office, car, online presence and even a cameo in an upcoming Punjabi film. “We are here to stay,” says the manager Kuldip Singh. Most of the others, however, are looking for alternative options.

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