“Swan Song of the Badlas” a Photographic Project by Taha Ahmad

Taha Ahmad is a documentary photographer from India, born in 1994. Despite his young age, he already received an award and had his work published in several magazines: Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA), Better Photography Magazine, Platform Magazine, Fountain Ink Magazine, Asian Age, The Sunday Guardian, Times Of India, Millennium Post, The Quint, Art Arcade, Liberation… and more. He is currently pursuing a Master in Fine Art at the Jamia Milllia Islamia University in India.  He talked to us about his latest work Swan Song of the Badlas, a black and white series that aims to highlight a dying traditional art from India. 

The Project “Swan Song of the Badlas” is hinged upon a dying art and craft of the Indian city of Lucknow which was established at the time of Nawab’s rule in the city. At its peak, in the 18th century, the art form traveled to different parts of the world, but is now restricted to a few narrow lanes of the old city of Lucknow. 

The art was basically introduced by the Nawabs, who ruled the city, to beautify another form of embroidery called chickankari — which still persists in the Indian subcontinent.  Mukaish, however, ended up becoming an independent style and flourished across the city in the past.

This form of embroidery was first developed for the ruling class that resided in the city as part of their finery since Mukaish work initially used precious metals like gold and silver to make metallic wires. It is usually performed by male artists who are referred to as Badlas hence the term “Mukaish Badla”. 

These Badlas perform this craft by inserting metallic wires of gold and silver into the fabric eventually twisting it to create magnificent metallic embroidery on the fabric.

Lucknow’s culture has amazed and compelled me to dig into the roots of its civilization. The Gomti River, which flows through the heart of the city, always reminds me of the royal splendor of Lucknow. I’ve grown very close to the city, physically and spiritually. The art that the city breathes is not something one can escape, for the same reason as one cannot comprehend and begin to love something without understanding its essence, and the essence of Lucknow is its craft.” 

Understanding Badlas, who have been trivialized by society at large, is challenging. Since there is a continuous downfall with only 20-25 Badlas left, all above the age of 65 residing within the narrow lanes of Lucknow, the future of this fascinating embroidery can be seen fading away in the mist. The city once had more than 3,000 badlas. 

Since there are only 20-25 Badlas left in the city of 2.816 million inhabitants, finding them was a pretty difficult task. There was a time when I had no clue and I decided to quit. It was when I clashed into a old person who came unto me thinking of me as a journalist. Inquiring him of my subject and the artisans, he provided me an address to visit in Old Lucknow.

To my Surprise, it was the address of one of the last existing Mukaish warehouse in Hussainabad, Lucknow. But my excitement did not lasted long since these Badlas were shaken up by the society and government, left only for their misery to made fun of.

Thus they refused me to let into their workspace and photograph them. Cheerless I went back to the old person’s house to narrate the happening, who luckily provided me his personal phone number. After listening to my dialogue, he just smiled and asked me to come with him to the warehouse the next day.

The very next day when I went to the Hussainabad’s warehouse with that old man, I was glad to see that he knew all of them and introduced me to them. What shocked me more was that the old man, who gave me the address of the warehouse, himself was a Badla artisan named ‘Sabir Ali’ who was not working due to cataract. ”

Badlas complains about the practiced apathy of the government, which leads to further exploitation by their masters, who own the means of production and their lives, says 75-year-old Sabir Hussain, who has been working as a badla for nearly 65  years. 

The workshops these artisans work in are dingy, suffocating and discoloured. Once a hub of Mukaish workshops, the city now hosts only two workshops in the area of Sa-datganj and Hussainabad, hidden beneath the over-powered structures fabricated within the old city.

To create one Mukaish dress, it mainly takes from 8 to 10 hours and the period ranging from a week to a month. This intricate craft has a lot of negative impacts on the eyes of these old artisans. With all of them suffering from poor eye sights, the strong flash created by the glittery gold and silver metallic wires exacerbate the problems by inflicting eye diseases such as cataract and color blindness. 

Earning not even $2-3 a day, these Badlas are unable to cater their everyday needs and treat their illnesses. The difficult circumstances and the instability that comes with it, not surprisingly stops Badlas from letting their young ones follow the work lineage.

Most important to me was the visual narrative which could be served as a dialogue to create awareness about the vanishing art and the artisans. Focusing on to create a impactful project meaningful in nature, I indulged into the every activity of the daily life of these Badlas.

Rushing down from Delhi to Lucknow, India every month, I used to spent loads of time with these Badlas in the warehouses, tea stalls and even their homes. It was hard to get into their space initially but when I did, my outcome to their gruesome conditions they live in and my work changed.”

My work ‘Swan Song of the Badlas’ revolves around the life of these Badlas and their families, who are struggling to keep the art alive.

Working over 10 months on this project, it was patience, desire and observance that played a major role. Many a times I had to go and calculate light then visit the same place again, the next day to take the shot.

Sometimes, I had to wait for 30-40 minutes for a single photograph while many a times it was a sheer luck. But in the end, the craft along with the craftsmen is suffering and as they say, suffering do come to an end.”

Words by Taha Ahmad

See more of Taha’s work here