In India, before ready-made became commonplace, practically everyone had his or her clothing stitched to measure. At a shopping center in Mumbai, a vendor sells cloth for a custom-made suit.

Michael Snyder, Special to the Washington Post

A tailored history of cosmopolitan Mumbai

  • Article by: MICHAEL SNYDER
  • Washington Post
  • December 15, 2012 - 2:40 PM

The workshop is so small, I can't even step inside. Bolts of somber suit woolens and bright white shirting cottons line the walls. Rafiq Shaikh, in white kurta pyjama, the long shirt and loose-fitting pants worn by men across the subcontinent, with a tape measure slung around his neck like a doctor's stethoscope, stands over a length of charcoal wool hieroglyphically marked with chalk in two shades of blue -- the abstraction of a suit jacket.

Shaikh has worked out of this tiny shop in South Mumbai for the past 20 years, and his family has been tailoring for generations. "We are into this business right from -- I don't know -- my grandfather's grandfather's time," he says. That's since well before his family emigrated here from up north during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, a geopolitical catastrophe that resulted in one of the greatest human migrations in history and the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Though ready-to-wear and designer clothing have become increasingly popular in India in the past 15 to 20 years, tailors such as Shaikh are still scattered all over town, in large showrooms, modest workshops and tiny open stalls in narrow lanes and bazaars. Bespoke tailoring is not a luxury here so much as a tradition, an old way of doing things.

Witness to tumultuous times

Ever since the British dredged it out of the Arabian Sea in the 18th century, the City of Dreams has played witness to and recorder of India's tumultuous modern era. It is India's only truly cosmopolitan city, shaped by the heterodoxy of commerce and industry. Every event to transpire here -- hopeful and tragic alike -- has been woven into the city's tough but pliable urban fabric. Girls in miniskirts or full hijab passing each other on the street speak to the city's desire for inclusivity, even as a long history of communal tension has widened the distance between that desire and the city's lived reality.

And although tailors like Shaikh are certainly not unique to Mumbai, they are especially emblematic of this bespoke city, constantly coming unstitched only to remake itself.

The best-known tailors tend to cluster around such old-money bastions as Breach Candy, Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade in South Mumbai, known simply as "town." Shaikh's workshop is a short walk from the shore of Back Bay in a quiet corner of Cuffe Parade. Up the road, across from the Taj President Hotel, Hammad Ansari has opened a new showroom and workshop, called Yaseen's, with his nephew, Faisal, the fourth showroom in his family's 50 years of tailoring.

"My father used to stitch for the Britishers and learned cutting from a British man," Ansari tells me as we sip chai in the comfortable, mirrored fitting room at the back of the shop.

If ever anyone had tailoring in his blood, it's Ansari. His hands are dexterous and steady, his face deceptively stern until it breaks into one of his frequent easy smiles. I ask him whether he can guess my measurements. He looks me in the face for a moment, glances at my shoulders, chest, waist and then rattles off a series of numbers. He checks his numbers against the measure -- they're all exactly right. "I can tell a person's measurements just from his face," he says.

"In the '80s, when ready-made came and was booming, 2,000 tailors were closed down -- 2,000," Ansari says. "So then new people came with a new concept of tailoring." Faisal explains that tailoring has gravitated toward two poles -- the modest neighborhood tailors and luxury tailors like his father and uncle.

"The craftsmen will survive. We are craftsmen," Hammad says with the utmost seriousness -- and a smile.

Textile nostalgia

At the peak of the textile industry in the 1930s, Bombay had 136 mills employing about a quarter of a million people. Since the Great Bombay Textile Strike of 1982, which effectively sounded the death knell of the city's textile industry, most have been either destroyed and built over or left to crumble on land worth as much as a small country.

The only living remnants from the city's days as the "Manchester of the East" are its textile markets -- particularly the 108-year-old Mangaldas Market in the South Mumbai bazaar district of Kalbadevi. The lanes and roads running from the whimsical tower of Crawford Market north through Mohammed Ali Road, Masjid Bunder, Zaveri Bazaar and Chor Bazaar (the evocatively named Thieves' Market) are a cramped and frenetic showroom of Old Bombay. It's all overhead: the curved, communal balconies of the chawls, terra cotta roofs, cantilevered wrought-iron balustrades hung with laundry, the occasional well-maintained wooden cottage, painted in vermilion or ochre or periwinkle blue. Branches burst through cracks in the brickwork and gray-black grime sweats down the facades like so much running mascara. There is romance in the decrepitude. Mumbai has turned its back on this Bombay with its own peculiar brand of nostalgia: for places assumed lost before they've even finished decaying.

Though most good tailors stock their own fabrics, I still come to Mangaldas to buy mine. Here are Bombay's many patterns and origins, its colors and textures stacked vertically, pressed against each other under the high dark roof, which disappears behind a mess of wires and hand-painted signs that tilt down toward century-old cobblestones and cracked, uneven concrete. Hordes of women press fearlessly up to the edges of stalls, sweat-soaked husbands timidly in tow. I force my way through to purchase blue linen for a blazer, a fine cotton printed with a florid Mughal pattern for lining, a white-and-blue ikat to stitch a kurta, a modern, semi-Westernized adaptation of the traditional knee-length shirt. A typically Bombay combination -- traditions stitched one inside the other, consolidated but not quite assimilated.

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