The zardozi craftsmen in Varanasi and Bareilly specialize in embroidering badges and ceremonial robes. Zardozi is heavy and ornate embroidery in which gold purls or coils, beads and spangles are stitched onto fabric with a needle and thread. Zardozi work on badges is a very exacting craft as the logo specified must be reproduced precisely.
Only the best craftsmen in a karkhana embroider badges. The metal purls used for badges are much finer than those for zardozi. The zardozi badges are commissioned by the Army, Navy and institutes including the European Catholic clergy who commission work on ceremonial robes. Unlike the massive frame on which zardozi is done, the badges are made on small, one-man, adda, wooden frames. The fabric is either felt, velvet or heavy satin.
Zar means gold and douzi means embriodery in Persian. It is practised by the zardoz community which is a muslim community. The zardozi artisans of Varanasi have been involved in making badges and brasses for various military organisations in India and abroad across generations. They also make uniform accessories for the armed services of countries like US, Malaysia, Tanzania and Canada.Varanasi is still believed to be the place for zardozi of great quality. The Zardozi artisans also make robes for priests of churches in several countries.
The workers are introduced to the craft at an early age. The craft is taught by the father or uncle. Only the male members of the family practise the embroidery.
In order to ensure tension in the fabric, it is mounted on a wooden frame. This serves as a working canvas for the Zardozi artisans, as well as ensures ease of hand motion. A hooked needle, called ari, is used for embroidery, though a stitching needle works equally well. A pair of scissors is handy for the workers as well. The ari needle, though easy to use and less time-consuming, can cause easy unravelling of the embroidery. In the initial stages, the design is chosen and traced first on tracing paper, and then on the fabric using a mix of kerosene and Robin Blue. This fabric is then stretched on the adda or the khatia. On an average, five to seven workers can work on one frame. The workers patiently embroider the whole pre-traced design, one small section after another, to create the final garment.
For badges the motifs used are the logos of the army, navy and the air force. These are usually geometric forms like coat of arms,swords,anchors and natural forms like eagles etc.
The robes for the priests depict scenes from the life of christ. The other motifs used are flowers, animals, birds and paisleys.
Zardozi embroidery flourished during the Mughal times in India since it was believed to have reached india from Persia. References to Zardozi are found in works like Ain-i-Akbari, Tuzk-i-Jahangiri.In Mughal India, zardozi adorned court costumes, furnishing, scabbards and trappings of elephants and horses. Zardozi has been practiced in Varanasi for over a hundred years.
The hard work earns the artisans very little money. For making a badge, all the minute details need to be taken care of and that requires and artisan to work for over 12 hours at a place and concentrate on the design. The local markets cannot afford the prices quoted. A significant decline has been noticed in numbers of zardozi artisans in the past few years. A few years ago there were about 100 factories and over 1000 people working, now the number has decreased to just 60-70 people.