Jani Mirza is one of Lucknow’s finest paper taziya artists. Even at the age of 82, whatever he makes every year is bought with admiration and interest by the buyers. Over time, he has tried his hand at many occupations like his father’s kite business, embroidery, as well as watch repair, which he still does.
Born and brought up in Lucknow’s Kashmiri Mohalla, Jani Mirza talks of growing up in a household where taziya was central not only to the faith but economics as well. He touches upon key themes like taziya making, its design, tradition, art as well as the livelihood that it provides.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview originally conducted in Urdu and Hindi on January 20, 2020, in Kashmiri Mohalla, Lucknow.
Aoun Hasan [AH]: How did you learn the art of taziya making?
Jani Mirza [JM]: Taziya making is an ancestral practice in my house. It all started for me when I began to observe my father’s practice. He would give us small errands to work on. However, it all depends on a child’s interest. Usually, it is waste products like paper that children would try their hands on. This then makes them familiar with tools and techniques. Soon they become their father’s helper and later a taziya maker. My father Mr Sikander Mirza also introduced the kamrakhi gumzi [starfruit dome] style to the taziya structure approximately 50 years ago. On one of his work visits to Gujarat, he came across Chinese paper products. Fans, lanterns, and decoration stuff inspired him to inculcate the design in his practice. I would watch him make it and copy it. Even today, some practitioners in our family use the moulds that my father created.
A.H.: Was this process the same for your children as well?
J.M.: It all depends on the child’s interest. It is a generational occupation and the ones interested in the practice sit, learn, and advance. The others do not. I have not asked them to carry on these traditions. They are independent; they may not invest so much time and money in taziya traditions. Some do and some don’t. I remember when I made my first taziya from the leftovers and when it was sold, the feeling of earning that small amount was very different. Now people who already have a source of money will not put this much time and effort into this practice. Even I had once completely stopped working and took up other work. Later, I started again and with God’s grace, I did well.
A.H.: When you make changes in design, do you think about people’s acceptance of it?
J.M.: It all depends on the karigar [artist]. If the karigar believes he is doing well, then people will like it. The ultimate outcome is to make sure that the taziya looks beautiful. It has to have the old touch with beautification. People generally accept and like it: they are open to changes. The practice is increasing, and more people are making as well as buying the taziya. This is God’s grace. The production and practice of the taziya will continue as new taziya makers are coming. In my family my father had the interest, I took it up and then my son joined in. Even if I hadn’t, some other person from my family would have. And from there people outside the family develop interest. This continues.
A.H.: What is the latest modification you have made in taziya making?
J.M.: Some 10–12 years ago, I added two minarets in zarih [similar to taziya but a permanent structure]. My idea was to give it some resemblance with Karbala, which is the original structure. Other changes in terms of colour, texture, design keep happening every year. There are changes in paper and sequins, new and different ways of presentation every year, and it is very normal for taziya makers to do things differently.
A.H.: Taziya parts are first made individually and then assembled. Has this process changed over time? When in the year does taziya making begin and in what order are the different parts made?
J.M.: It has been like this. Most of the techniques are still the same. We bring cardboard sheets, measurements are set, then lakeerna [process of marking with a pointed metal pen] is done and the different parts are made. Storing them has always been a tough job as it takes up a lot of space. It is important to keep them safe especially in the monsoon season. The assembling and beautification start and the real image is given in the month of Bakh-eid [last month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram is the first].
However, in some ways, there is a tremendous change. While the techniques and traditions remain the same, the designs are now numerous. People are using their talent and skills to make it look different. The paper and sequin designs were limited when I was a child. There were no glass sequins, no fevicol—adhesive made from flour was used. However, now there are papers which are so shiny. You can decorate as much as you want. But the basic structure remains the same: there is the takhat [base of the taziya], dar [main part of the taziya which is square-shaped and has doors carved on all sides], then the upper dar [of smaller dimension], and gumbad [dome].
There is no fixed time at which the making of the taziya begins in a year. The more elaborate the design is, the earlier one has to start. I can say for myself that I begin from the month of Rajab, which is five months before Muharram. It all starts with cutting of cardboards for the takhat and then other parts. Just the cutting takes more than a month. I make all the parts for one taziya size and then move to the other size. Decorations with sequins begin by Eid or latest by Bakhrid, just one month before Muharram. The number of taziye [plural of taziya] to be made is a huge deciding factor. Also, the decoration and making of the gumzi takes a lot of time and labour.
A.H.: Which of the materials that are used in the making of the taziya are not eco-friendly?
J.M.: People started making the taziya out of thermocol and eventually realised that it doesn’t decompose, so the trend did not last long. Also, the faith is that once we bury the taziya, it is supposed to decompose and create space for next year’s rituals. Then there was debate about glass sequins as glass does not decompose either. Eventually, people stopped taking notice and they are still being used by some taziya makers. While other smaller sequins take time, they are smaller and remain buried. The golden paper and other varieties are all chemical based, but then they do decompose.
A.H.: Back in your time, were aari-zardoz [chain stitch embroiderers] and other karigars also involved in taziya making or was it limited to a few families?
J.M.: They were involved. The thing is, there are rich and poor people. Now, in taziya-making all the return comes at once. So, if a person is unable to manage financial affairs of life, then they slowly invest in taziya making, and the returns help them in the education of their child, household expenses, and all those things. The advantage is that all the money comes in hand at once, and it is helpful.
A.H.: Have you ever made a bamboo taziya? Can you make them?
J.M.: I have never made one. The technique is the same. If I want to, I can make them also. The structure is made by a community called Lal Begiya. The other decoration is done in Kazmain, Saadatganj, Lucknow. Back in my time, and currently as well, bamboo taziye are made in Kazmain. Another place I can recall is Biswan, Sitapur, UP. Very fine taziye are made in Biswan. Bamboo taziya making has also undergone changes in the numerous designs that pillars, minarets and all are made now.
A.H.: What is the degree of religiosity that accompanies the process of taziya making, since the practice is founded on an important religious event?
J.M.: We are unable to do the ahteraam [to pay respect] due to the bulk of quantity. While the maker tries to accommodate that level of religiosity, they are, in reality, unable to do so. The maker believes that once the replica of the turbat [miniature graves] is placed, it needs to be respected in the highest order. The lower portion, takhat is made so the structure remains elevated. The corner pillars help in giving it some elevation so that the takhat doesn’t touch the ground. Other taziya parts are not given that much respect, but as they are assembled and it begins to take shape, the respect intensifies. The highest form of respect comes when it is sold and an azadar [mourner] takes it to their imambada [a place where Muharram mourning practices take place]. Taziya then becomes the symbol of all religious reverence.
A.H.: How do you react to another taziya maker’s art?
J.M.: Every maker notices another maker’s taziya. They take note of the changes and mistakes. I do too. I notice if there is a new design and what changes are made. See, it’s a talent which has no limit. While there is uniformity in the basic structure, there is no fixed design and there are changes happening. In Sultanul Madaris, Lucknow there are numerous types and designs of taziya that come in the market. All taziya makers take rounds and observe different taziye. They appreciate each other.
A.H.: How feasible is taziya making as a livelihood? Do people see it as a successful business venture and invest in it?
J.M.: See, you invest in it slowly, and you get a return all at once. I don’t think it will be successful to have it as a livelihood to sustain a household. The work isn’t round the year. Every year, new people are making it. Somebody is making 50 taziye, another starts making 50, and then somebody is making 40. However, the demand is limited. There is a restriction on Sunni sect, due to rise of Wahabism but some keep it in observance for a day or two. Many Hindus also keep it and then there are Shias obviously. So, it is limited. With taziya making, a lot of people are involved. The cardboard sellers, paper sellers, artists, flower sellers and so on.
A.H.: What factors determine the market price of a taziya?
J.M.: If two taziya artists are selling the taziya at the same price, it is up to the buyer where they want to purchase it from. The final price depends on the market value of various raw materials used. The time taken to make a piece is also crucial. Suppose the making of a 100-rupee taziya takes a whole day and raw material worth of rupees 20 is used, it may or may not be fully finished. In the end, the investment comes back in a lumpsum which is the base on which the artists make taziya.
A.H.: Do you consider taziya making an artform, and yourself as artist?
J.M.: See, whatever one makes, it is because of the talent. For talent to grow, you need vision Take for instance the kamrakahi gumzi, the cutting of 18 shreds make one part and they are put together in one part to make a bigger structure and so on. This would take a lot of time, so we got a wooden design mould and used that to replicate the design. We thought of zardozi [embroiders] artists, how they used wooden blocks for multiple printing. So, we would get our kamrakhi-cut design made of wood to print 20 at a time. I started this during my father’s time. The hardest part is sticking together the 18 shreds. It is a slow and time-consuming process. People have tried to sew it with a sewing machine, but it didn’t work as it could not produce the required shape, which we get when we stick the paper together. People even used plastic-made gumzi. When other people recognise it, respect it and appreciate it, then it is art.