It is 5 pm on a busy summer evening. The sun is still shining brightly in the courtyard of her house. She is sitting on an old loosely-strung jute cot, which can barely accommodate her.
A cotton dupatta covers her long, henna-coloured hair and shoulders as she sits bent over the peacock she is embroidering on a chiffon kurta.
Ashma is one of the many chikan karigars of Lucknow, women who are conserving their craft and also augmenting their family incomes.
Chikan is a type of embroidery done with cotton thread on fabric in light or pastel shades. The fabric used for embroidery is mostly soft - muslin, chiffon and cotton. Also known as chikankari, it is the traditional embroidery of Lucknow. Encouraged by the nawabs who loved wearing diaphanous muslin, generally white, embroidered with intricate chikankari to beat the oppressive heat and humidity of the region. Now, the embroidery is made in various vibrant colours and is in huge demand among the fashion conscious around the world.
Thirty-four-year-old Ashma lives with her husband and children in Sonava village of Bakshi Ka Talab block of Lucknow.
She makes around Rs 3000 per month.
"We women enjoy doing it (embroidery) a lot. It helps us utilize our free time and brings money. We often go shopping with the money we earn from doing chikankari," Ashma says as she expertly guides the needle threaded with white through the kurta she is working on. There, the peacock is done!
Like Ashma, there are many other women artisans for whom this traditional embroidery is a passport to self-empowerment. "Now we can buy grocery from the money we earn. Sometimes, I buy new dresses for my kids with my own money," says 25-year-old Naaziya.
For these women, who generally belong to conservative families in old Lucknow, the best part of being chikan karigars is that they can earn without leaving home.
Lucknow is known as the hub of chikan clothes. Chowk market in old Lucknow has numerous retailers and wholesalers of chikankari kurtas, sarees, dupattas and other apparels. They give bulk orders to the people in villages for stitching, embroidery, washing and dying the clothes. Eighty percent work of chikan-industry is done in the villages. Ninety percent of the workers are women.
"Shopkeepers give me the clothes which I get stitched from the tailoring unit and take them to the women for embroidery. After the chikankari is done, we collect the clothes back from them after paying them," says Raheesh Ali, who brings orders from the city. He has been in the business for the past 20 years and makes about Rs 12,000 per month. "I pay the women according to their work. They are given Rs 100 for light embroidery and double that for heavier pieces," he says through pan-stained teeth.
Women from almost every house in the area are involved in this work. They understand the value of self-employment and are happy to share the responsibilities of running the homes with their men.
"Sometimes, when men of the house run out of money, we have ours to offer them. Unlike earlier days, we do not depend on them to fulfill even our smallest desires. If this is not the wind of change what else is?" says Naziya, as she finishes off yet another kurta. She is now done for the day.