Tailormaster tales can be interesting. When did the first
tailor come into prominence? Must have been in the days of Genesis after Adam
and Eve were driven out of paradise dressed only in skins. Adam is believed to
have lived 930 years and Eve for over 800. So their children may have been
better clothed because of the progress of human ingenuity despite the rhyme,
“When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman”! In
Christ’s days garments were stitched for the priviledged few, who could not
afford more than one in a lifetime. Christ had only one too, which also was
given away in a draw of lots after his crucifixion. That it became a prized
possession as “the Robe” is another story.

Earlier, in the Ramayana and Mahabharata days, dhotis and
shoulder-wraps couldn’t have needed tailors, except for women and royal
clothing. However, during the Delhi Sultanate, the tailors were mostly Central
Asian, though there were some local tailors too. The garments of the ruling
class were tailor-made but the poor were not so fortunate. Housewives stitched
their clothes and of neighbours also to add to the family income. So the
“Darzin” made her appearance. She was herself very poor and a
latter-day poet portrayed her plight in this verse: “Dukhtar-e-darzin ka
seena dekh kar/Ji mai ata hai mal mal doon.” The “shair” was not
above the charge of using a double-entendre. On the other hand, his wish to
give malmal cloth to cover up her breast could obviate the hint of breast

Now for the Darzis, they too were poor and led lives of
penury but were an important part of society all the same. Hardships made some
of them eccentrics. There was Toori, who had taken to smoking charas and
sometimes got his measurements all wrong. But in more sensible moments he could
stitch some of the best clothes. Then there was Masterji, who became a mental
case after his wife eloped with someone younger. Masterji left his tailoring
shop and went about with just a razor blade, a needle and thread, altering
shirt collars at people’s homes. He was pretty good at it and sometimes lapsed
into reveries. Pointing to his palm, where two lines incredibly merged into a
bird-like image, he would say, “This is 
chidya-Sheela’s chidya and she gives it to anyone she likes.”
Sheela was his wife’s name and that was Masterji’s way of getting back to her.

Joseph Gabriel was a school tailor, who stitched khaki
uniforms for Anglo-Indian boys. He got very little for his labours but could
still be magnanimous. Once an orphan boy was sent away from class by the lady
teacher as he was wearing a torn shirt. The boy’s tale of woe touched Joseph
Darzi’s heart and he collected all the kattaran (cloth cuttings) to stitch a
new shirt for him, though it took him till midnight to do so. But he went home
a happier man and didn’t mind eating a cold, tasteless supper and tolerating
his wife’s grumbling. Unfortunately, both died in the plague that struck Delhi
and Agra in the first decade of the 20th century.

Then there was Balloo the tailor, who stitched memsahibs’
clothes while visiting the Civil Lines bungalows. Sometimes he was helped by
Mrs Whelpdale and Mrs Saldhana, two seamstresses of St Xavier’s School
tailoring department. He sat in the verandah with a Singer machine and as he
worked on it told old tales to enliven his task. Incidentally, Mohd Umar and
Sons, Connaught Place tailors, stitched Jawaharlal Nehru’s shervanis and
achkans. Once when Lal Bahadur Shastri was asked to proceed to Kathmandu in
cold December, Nehruji told him to take two shervanis from his house since
Shastriji didn’t have much of a wardrobe.

The tailors of the Metiabruz area of Garden Reach in
Calcutta, who have been carrying on their profession from Mughal times, through
the Nawabi days and the British period to modern times, have their counterparts
in Lucknow, Agra and Delhi. Mughal tailoring, which began in the days of Babar
and Humayun, influenced Agra and later Lucknow, from where it spread to the
Nawabi of Bengal in the decadent period of the Mughal empire.

That was when the sherwani craze had already begun to spread
in preference to the traditional angarkha of the old courtiers. Tailors began
to learn new fashions and by the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s downfall the
poets of Delhi had started parading the streets of Chandni Chowk in their
well-cut sherwanis.

And then came Nawab Budhan, the dandiest of the nawabs,
whose sherwani-cut was the cynosure of all eyes and led to immediate imitation.
It was the local tailors, who then flourished at the expense of the
well-dressed and their ways became arrogant to the point of exasperation. But
their clients were redeemed by the advent of Western fashions and the
appearance of “London trained” tailors. Those who viewed the change
in fashions with dismay set up a chorus of “Charkhata” (clothes cut
on all four sides). But this phase too passed and the tailor’s goose (iron)
still rules the fashion world.

Go to the most fashionable tailoring shops and you will find
that even in them the “karigars” (workers) sit on a mat inside a
cubicle and ply the trade in the age-old way. Some of the sewing machines are
at least 50-years-old, with even their trade-mark labels missing but they are
still giving good service.

In this connection, one is reminded of a Singer machine
belonging to the wife of hunter Cyril. When she died he sold the machine to a
friend at whose house it was used for some time by Mrs Muriel Singh, who was
fond of telling the story of how Cyril got married to a widowed cobbler woman.

After losing her husband the woman used to sit in a village
hut, wondering how to feed her three kids. Cyril, who often passed that way
while going for shoots in the jungle, would stop and talk to her and give her
some money. Returning from jungle after bagging some game, he would stop by the
hut again and the widow, seeing that he was hungry, would cook a meal for him.

Taking pity on her, Cyril married the woman and took her to
town, where she bore him two sons. He also bought a Singer machine for her so
that she could tailor shirts and pyjamas for neighbour at cheaper rates than
those in the market and thus supplement the family income.

But after some years the woman died of pneumonia and Cryil
had to bring up her children and also the two he had fathered.

Seeing that the machine was lying idle he sold it to friend
Harman. But after his wife Muriel took up a teaching job, the machine was
bought by Toori tailor. After Toori’s death Smart Tailors bought the Singer
machine and when the firm’s owner migrated to Pakistan it went there with him.
Wonder where it is now after its long journey from Agra to distant Karachi? Who
says tailor tales are not interesting?

By  RV Smith