KARACHI: Zubair Khan is like an elf at work. Specialising in handwork and machine work – including intricate kora dabka and marori work – the designs he conjures up on pieces of paper are copied painstakingly onto fabric.
Fifteen years ago, Khan started working with his older brother as a junior employee at this store in Karachi’s Kehkeshan Shopping Arcade. The business, he recollects, was growing and the market “was filled with people who actually knew what our workmanship is worth.” But today he has a different story to tell.
“Almost 10 years ago, I was entrusted to look after the shop, because my older brother was hired by Sultana Siddiqui to work on her outfits. At that time, I had seven to eight workers at my disposal and the business was running smoothly. But everything changed. Today I own this shop and I am the only worker,” he says sullenly.
He pinpoints the reversal in fortune to the day former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. “The way business suffered has been unusual. Even wars with India did not make the economy collapse to this extent.”
Khan says the market has suffered immensely in the past three years. “The shops located in the front row of the building pay a rent of Rs40,000 to Rs50,000 per month. The other shops within the corridor pay between Rs10,000 to Rs20,000, and rent increases by 10 per cent annually. Electricity charges range from 15 per cent to 18 per cent per unit.”
Khan blames the authorities for his misfortunes. “They believe that if the poor man is not dying their way, they should find other methods to kill him. Surely this is another way to do away with us.”
He says that while business used to be brisk during Ramazan, this year was very different.
Consumer trends have also changed.“Women would be happy by just seeing a sample of work but things are different now. They want to see a completely finished sample. A sample now costs Rs7,000 to Rs8,000. This is hard to afford in these times, given that I also have to feed my family and pay for the shop’s maintenance. One could earn a lot from a single sample for almost a year but now a sample is changed every fortnight or so to keep up with trends.”
Kehkeshan made its name on workers like Khan, who were also able to produce cheaper versions of high-end designer creations.
Muhammad Asif, who has been working as a karigar for five years says, “Sana Safinaz designs are the most sought-after ones.” Another worker, Waqar, says, “Aiesha Varsey designs are in these days.” Other popular requests are for copies of designs by Umar Sayeed and Shehla Chatoor. Some still rely on their own creativity. Imran,who works at a shop called Kawish says, “I solely design whatever comes to my mind.”
Kehkeshan’s waning business, which one shopkeeper blames on the political and security situation in the country, is also partly due to competitors such as Threads and Motifz. The chain of stores (which sells embroidered fabric) has eliminated the need for women to do the rounds of Kehkeshan for work. Zubair Khan says that stores like these have “made the market more dull because women can buy a Rs4,000 suit there while ours are pricier because of the fabric, stitching and workers’ payment.”
Khan says that maintaining standards is a must, but he doesn’t see a future for the business. “A woman may compromise on anything but she never compromises on stitching. That has to be perfect. Given that we endlessly work but the way business is right now, I would never want my kids to enter this field and earn their livelihood from it.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2010.