An ode to the Begum

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Renowned scientist and inventor Benjamin Franklin once said, “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.” He couldn’t have been more correct because a life that lacks passion is mere existence. For designer Niki Mahajan, who has spent 30 years in the Indian fashion industry, reviving and reinventing the lost crafts of our country is a driving passion. And her latest muse is a lady of courage from the pages of history — Hazrat Mahal, who was the Begum of Awadh.
It was just a regular afternoon when we went to meet Niki at her Gurgaon sampling unit. There’s energy in the air and everyone is deeply engrossed in work. The simply dressed designer mentioned that the ongoing buzz in her factory is for her next couture show inspired by Hazrat Mahal.
She says, “I am returning to couture after eight years of hiatus, and wanted to create something timeless. My muse for this collection is Hazrat Mahal, who was an unsung hero of the 1857 war of independence against the British East India Company. She was a very strong woman and took care of her people and fought till her last breath. Just like her there are many unknown women artisans, who take care of their families and work relentlessly to earn a livelihood. In Lucknow, there are many skilled women who are experts in their work, but never get credit for it.”
Speaking about the Hazrat Mahal collection, Niki adds, “When I took up this project, I wanted to revive the dying art of badla, which originated in Awadh. The royals at that time wore ensembles that were made with original gold and silver wires woven and beaten to form intricate designs. Since these garments were so unique and high maintenance, one could never clean them, so they were originally worn with a under-lining. When I started reworking on this technique, I replaced the gold and silver wires with aluminum and copper wires that are easy to maintain. We created 50 pieces for this show that will be showcased in five parts depicting the five stages of Hazrat Mahal’s life.”
However, reviving this art and presenting it in a modern form wasn’t a cakewalk for this designer, who recalls, “Finding badla artisans was my biggest challenge because the workers refused to relearn the art and do it with substitute metals. I had to lure them to carry forward this family tradition and apart from rehabilitating their families, I also gave them a healthy and eco-friendly workspace. For this particular collection I have used 200 different Indian craft techniques.”

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