Why you should care
Because globalization creates strange stories.
In the Muslim quarter of one of the world’s holiest Hindu cities, Saiyyad Majid Ali is showing off his pretty crosses. They are neatly sewn into badges that also feature Russian characters and Greek and Latin lettering, and they will adorn students’ blazers at prep schools somewhere in Europe, or the caps of clergy. Ali swears that he and others in this neighborhood have made the pope’s attire, though we couldn’t reach the Vatican for comment. As he speaks, a local imam is seated on the floor of the shop, loudly plowing his way through the Koran, oblivious to the chatter and the stuff of Christ cramming the shelves.
Ali, who estimates he’s made items that have shipped to around 100 countries worldwide, belongs to a group of largely Muslim handicraftspeople — mostly men — in the city of Varanasi who continue to perform the trade of their ancestors: They are badge-makers. Ali is the fourth generation to ply this trade, and though the pay is modest, earning him the equivalent of around $30 a month, and the exacting work and poor light robbed his father of his eyesight, this stitching is in his blood. As he offers us tea and pulls out his wares, we can see, too, that he is proud of where he sits, the invisible caboose of a global supply chain.
Suresh Bhagavatula, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, who has studied handicraft artisans, isn’t surprised to hear about people like Ali. “There are these huge pockets of opportunities, and people seem to identify — here’s a skill set and here’s a market,” he says, describing it as a narrative that runs counter to concerns of dissipating trades. Indeed, Ali is using the thin gold and silver-colored stitching style called zardozi, unique to Varanasi and pioneered under the Mughal Empire; it’s typical Muslim work, found also in the intricately embroidered sarees the region is famous for. The difference: In Ali’s work, the history behind the artistry might go unnoticed. He will, of course, be entirely unknown to the Chinese schoolchild who happens to wear the badge he decorated with Kanji characters and a cheery-looking book. “No one knows which artist has done this,” Ali says.
I ask if she knows what the badges say. “Of course not,” she says. “Illiterate,” calls one of the neighbors.
Here’s how the process works: Ali depends on a third-party exporter, whom he describes as Mafia-esque in its control of the market. He might sell each small item — a badge or an emblem — for about 300 rupees ($4.50). Ali thinks the middlemen, who presumably are well-positioned with language skills and global savvy, charge their foreign buyers almost 10 times that, pocketing the remainder for themselves. These exporters have been linked up with his shop since his father was in charge, or even earlier, and he has neither the inclination nor the ability, he thinks, to manage that middle step himself. Here he will remain, stitching and selling.
Across town, on the outskirts of the city, another Muslim neighborhood is filled with makers. Saree weavers work next door to the badge makers, and the middlemen operate as intercessors between the handiwork and the market. Mohammed Kamar, for one, is a former saree embroiderer who now takes orders from local shops on items including sarees and badges. He’s unwilling to say exactly how much he makes per commission, but he suggests it hovers around 10 percent of the cost of the item.
In the adjacent building, we find 55-year-old Bilkesh Fatma, who has a whole splay of badges laid out before her, the fruit of several weeks’ labor. Clearly, hers is a more local operation; most of the badges will go to prep schools in Varanasi or perhaps Delhi — nothing international here. Fatma says she makes around 20 rupees per badge — about 30 cents — and puts in 15 hours to earn about 100 rupees, or $1.50, per day. We examine the badges on display. They are emblazoned with mottoes like “Onward and upward.” “Traditional character.” “Duty, dedication, discipline.” “Remember truth.” Fatma continues to talk, listing her troubles — her children are unmarried, her husband is sick, her son wants to study but can’t. I ask if she knows what the badges say. “Of course not,” she says. “Illiterate,” calls one of the neighbors who has been eavesdropping on the front stoop.
“They give me the rules,” Fatma says, pointing to a piece of paper outlining the stitching patterns she must follow. “I just do what is there.”