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Garments with 3D effect

These lehengas aren't wi-fi zones

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Niki Mahajan is working to revive the dying art of badla, using it to give her garments a shimmering, 3D effect.

Walking past popsicle-coloured fabrics spread over large tables, our attention is caught by four youngsters working skillfully on an elaborate tussar panel. "It's a part of a lehenga and an important part of my new mission, " says Niki Mahajan talking about her attempts to revive the age-old badla technique.

"We can't let a craft that could well have a 7, 000-year-old history die just for want of patronage and appreciation, " she says. But there's always hope, insists Mahajan. The 50-year-old designer started working with Lucknow's badla embroidery about six months ago. "This was when I decided to get back to my first love, couture, and felt that badla, which has a gorgeous rich look and feel to it, would be perfect for it. "

The badla technique entails metal sheets being first stretched out to get a thin, paper-kind density. After being passed over flames to give different hues to the metal, the sheet is cut into very fine wires which are then woven into the fabric. "Earlier, when clothes were stitched for royalty, badla was done not just with metal but also with gold and silver wires, " says Mahajan.

According to the designer, only a handful of Lucknow families do badla work today. "It's proving difficult to get them to continue with an art that was mastered by their forefathers especially when they have so many other options to choose from, " she says. "Many would rather work as durbans and just open and shut doors instead of working on anything so laborious, especially when both jobs pay the same. But they have to be retained, whatever the cost. " Mahajan says she has done a few things to help these families, for example, funding the education of their children or sending rations to their homes.

As you look at the variety of metal work being done at her sprawling factory in Gurgaon, Mahajan picks up a bunch of thin wires. "Metal is not easy to work with. But look at the way this craftsman is winding the wire around a thread, " she points out.

"Earlier, like I said, these wires were woven into the fabrics. I too do that but I have introduced something new - wire embroidery on fabric that, with a thread-padding underneath, gives you get a nice and shimmering 3-D effect. " At Rs 15, 000 or so per garment, her prices shimmer too. Mahajan started out in the '70s when the fashion designing was a fledgling profession in India. How she became a designer makes for an interesting story. She was still at school when, as a part of a vocational programme, she started visiting slums. "We would teach women and children there stitching and embroidery, " she says.

In the mid- '80s, when Delhi had seen an influx of Kashmiri refugees, the young teenager roped in women from the Valley to do traditional embroidery work for her. Soon she was selling not just Kashmiri-work bedcovers but also diapers done up in pretty patterns, "because there were discerning buyers, even stores, who knew a good job when they saw one". Despite marriage and motherhood, Mahajan travelled all across India, from Rajasthan and Gujarat to Karnataka and Assam looking for stuff that was "different and unique". She was among the first designers to see the immense potential in block prints. She got craftsmen to work for her and her workshop was then located in a tabela (horse-shed ) in Delhi's Kilokri village. She also conjured up new printing techniques using homegrown methods. She would, for instance, spread out lace curtains over fabric and spray colours on them with a car compressor. When you lift the curtain off, the fabric would be full of patterns left by the paint. "Over this we'd then do block printing - stuff that was soon a big hit, " says Mahajan. But the feather in her cap was her work with the artisans of Bhagalpur in 1993. "With them, I developed a fabric called 'Reeds' - made by splitting grass into very thin slivers, treating it and then weaving a fabric out of it. It was like a cheaper cousin of linen, " says Mahajan. The work fetched her the ministry of textile's Yuv Ratan award for the development and promotion of unique fabrics. 

Mahajan has been criticised for focusing too much on traditional crafts but she maintains that she has done fusion work too. "I have worked on pr�t lines and digital printing, among other things. But what I really enjoy doing is working with traditional crafts, " she says.

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