Skills Are As Old As Time

He is, to say it proverbially, wedded to his regal roots. Images of his majestic home in Kotwara and the life within it emerge as cameos in every medium that he delves in. Be it his body of work in cinema that spans from the restless tale of a taxi driver in Gaman, to a courtesan’s tryst with destiny in Umrao Jaan and more recently Jaanisaar. Or his journey with Sufi music that above all captures the performing art history of Avadh. Or even the Kotwara Couture Collection that centres around farshis, sheraras and kurta pyjamas, synonymous of his region. Raja Syed Muzaffar Ali and his wife Rani Meera Ali of Kotwara dedicate their full life to skilling. A commitment to train the present generation of artisans, imploring them to follow the footsteps of their ancestors. In a bid to ensure that craft does not die and history remains intact, the Alis celebrate skilling in this the 25th year of Kotwara House of Design. Together they have their NGO Dwar Pe Rozi has not just revived forgotten rich crafts but also provided sustenance to crafts women of their state. He tells his story of skilling.

What would you like to say on craft and modernity?
Skilling is as old as time. We are either learning to skill ourselves for survival or pleasure, or we are being taught to do things by our parents or by others to create products or services for them. But as time has evolved, the ways of the world have changed and thattoo so radically that societies in India which had not seen the face of change are confronted with a world they cannot comprehend.
The phone is one such instrument of change. When it comes to livelihoods, human needs, necessities and national economies the situation is baffling.

How can we make craft or tradition relevant for us?
Each one of us needs to concern ourselves with these issues and address it within the sphere of his/her influence and understanding. It is precisely this that touched me about the human predicament around me and made me embark on the genre of films that I made and focus on rural craft skills, their design and marketing on one hand and designing lives of artisans on the other.

What has been your experience in this field?
It has been 25 odd years and I feel I have barely scratched the surface. However, I am convinced that one is on the right path, though not all the dimensions are commercially valid and sustainable.Essentially because the field is becoming day by day top heavy with processes deployed for marketing and designing.
This has been realised very acutely by the government for several decades, and is becoming louder and visible day by day, though not penetrating deep enough to awaken a Corporate Social Responsibility consciousness in the corporate sector.

Where do we go from here?
The effort has to go on relentlessly. There are several levels at which we have to operate to create the desired effect in society to develop a sensitivity for the hand made. This is a two way process. Evolution of the consumer mind through exposing them to craft of their own region.
Secondly, create a global positioning of the craft forms through museum and gift shops. The other end of the process is working on holistic craft welfare concepts in a sustainable fashion.

How did you link your heritage to your interests?
I was attracted to craft through many ways. And for such attractions to become life-long and larger than life, one’s tangible and the intangible heritage has to be so intertwined that it becomes inseparable. Like when you hear poetry, you are reminded of a person wearing an attire in a space surrounded by several handcrafted artefacts. It’s the same feeling I felt as a child growing up in a craft-oriented city like Lucknow, or walking into old-world homes of Calcutta or seeing a Ray film.
Then stepping into Air India as someone responsible for creating the identity of the national carrier with the nation through arts, crafts and culture, I felt close to craft. Working on films like Umrao Jaan; in the late eighties working in Kashmir on Zooni, the 16th century poetess queen of the valley, with designer Mary McFadden as the Costume Designer, I felt I was purusing what I cherished most. This was one of the greatest upgradation of Kashmiri skills in my memory. We set up a Shah Hamadan Centre for Design Development under Mary and myself and a whole team of NID designers and students. We created properties and costumes with the help of local artisans much of which was lost to fire and vandalism. It was an enriching experience which my wife Meera and I applied to Lucknow and Kotwara and it now calls for both an archive and an institution to celebrate these decades of work and preserve old references of paintings and embroideries.

What are your recent efforts?
Our recent efforts are directed towards doing a series of films on Craft “Dastaan e Dastkaari”. We are also organising a poetry festival on craft! While Skill India is a commendable mission, we cannot afford to lose our already skilled human resource in the field of age-old traditional craft, be it embroidery or weaving etc, to new skills due to inflation and rising costs of living.
Muzaffar’s tryst with creativity is multifaceted but stemming from a singulare influence:Avadh. From fashion that he steers with wife Rani Meera Ali and daughter Princess Sama Ali to cinema and music….he spreads the message of sufiana kalam through all his forums.