Zardosi, the craft for the high-born, has been esteemed for centuries. It has evolved over time, tuning itself to the latest trends and requirements of the time. The term zardos was coined in the 12th century referring to the people involved in beading, zari embroidery and setting precious stones.
L: Turban with silk and metal embroidery, 1800s, featured in the exhibition Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum
R: 20th century women’s attire with Zardosi work
Historical descriptions describe the use of zari especially for embellishing shoes. Dating back to the Sultanate period in India from 1206 to 1526, it is believed that the royalty patronised gold embroidered costumes, ornaments as well as furnishings. The Vedic epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana also mention the use of Zardosi embellishments. The use of zarkas, a Persian word for gold embroidery, has been used several times in historical literature.
19th century northern Indian zari court shoes
As much as Akbar led to the flourishing of the craft by supporting it, the advent of Aurangzeb’s reign caused the craft to dwindle. The workers were forced by their circumstances to find alternative vocation in the courts of Punjab and Rajasthan. With the advent of the 18th and the 19th century, a wave of industrialisation swept over the world which submerged local handicrafts like Zardosi. It was only after 1947, when India was declared a free nation, that policies were made to sustain such crafts that were once the pride of the nation.
L: Women's pillbox hat with zari work and glass beads, 1960s
R: Detail of blue Zardosi embroidery
Though the opulence and exclusivity of Zardosi work is gone, the craft is still relevant. Today, a bridal trousseau is incomplete without an intricate Zardosi saree.
Close-up of metallic Zardosi work on a bridal saree
Several workers in and around Lucknow, Bhopal, Hyderabad, Delhi, Agra, Kashmir, Mumbai, Ajmer and Chennai have played a role in enlivening the technique and promoting it as high fashion by providing them to boutiques all across the country. The latest addition has been the low-cost, colourful Zardosi with a plastic base. The other versions of Zardosi use synthetic metallic thread and imitation stones, beads and Swarovski crystals to produce elegant garments with a reduced cost.
Images: Victoria and Albert Museum, University of Hawaii Virtual Museum, Michael Backman, University of Wisconsin