The Antiques Collector of Kutch

The Antiques Collector of Kutch

Uncommon laces with exquisite embroideries, hundreds of old textiles that mirror the skills of the past, A.A. Wazir’s collection, like his mind, is a rare museum

The voice on the phone is gentle but echoes with intent. It belongs to a man senior and serious. “Antique pieces, sir, that offer a glimpse of shared vocabularies of embroidery in Sindh and Kutch?” It is an unclear ask. Yet you sense that the person at the other end has captured it instantly. “Yes, will show you some and explain,” he says in an urbane blend of Gujarati and English.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

A.A. Wazir, a well-known collector of antique crafts and embroideries at his home-studio in Bhuj.

A.A. Wazir. On the Internet, the name comes up with Museum Quality Textiles in Bhuj. Our search though was more organic. Whether it was the head of a Kashmir design house in Delhi, a student of fashion who had toured Kutch three decades back for some field work or current practitioners of arts, crafts, museum pieces, the Wazir name kept coming up persistently.

The moment you enter the small room of a home in Bhuj which primarily holds the treasures that Wazirbhai has been collecting for the last 50 years, you know why.

The word “antiques”, has a magical bind to it—it has depth and seduction. It holds a promise even though it is of the past. Antiques are not something everyone can own. They are not just scraps of history. They represent the material culture of a time gone by. You may be able to afford an antique, but may not value it without an abiding curiosity for the time, place and person it once belonged to. There are traders and there are collectors. Wazir senior (because his sons are also involved in the business now) is both. He is a connoisseur of rare objects with a sophisticated aesthetic. More than just “old”, he has been concentrating on refinement of skill for his collections. “I have devotion in my heart and soul,” he says.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

Batuas (envelope-shaped purses), with different kinds of rural embroidery stitches and motifs.

Even at first sight, the 75-year-old, almost frail looking, bespectacled, silver-haired Wazirbhai with a salted beard does not look like yet another trader. We are now speaking in Kutchi, his mother tongue. Something in his eyes tells you he “knows” and has quickly assessed your own taste in dress and appearance.

The man who once sold miniature Mughal paintings in his youth in what was then Bombay, including to Jehangir Art Gallery, has always nurtured a yearning “to save heritage pieces for documentation”.

The room where guests, buyers or museum collectors are welcomed has many thousands of embroidered and handmade pieces, repositories of colours and skills, in tall piles all around. Others are stacked in glass showcases. Some are “inside” stowed away safely in butter paper and cloth bags in other sections of the Wazir residence. A rare lace or few with embroidery so intricate that you need a magnifying glass to admire its beauty sits unraveled on the floor. There are yokes and patches, wall hangings and borders. Beaded textiles, needlework, block printed fabrics, cross stitches, and the many embroideries of Kutch’s pastoral communities. Nothing is displayed openly.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

Wall hangings with handmade woollen thread embroidery from A.A. Wazir’s collection.

“My grandfather dealt in dhurries and spices but I was less interested in business, more in collecting heritage pieces,” says Wazirbhai. In 1971, he came to Kutch and began to collect what may now be more than 1000 pieces from just 20 plus communities of Kutch. Wazirbhai’s antiques include creations from Kutch’s Muslim communities, as well as from Harijans, Meghawals, Lohanas and Memons. Among others. To call his archival pieces representative of class, caste, history and artisanal knowledge is superficial. The collection is a museum folded in cupboards. In includes kanthas of Bengal, Banjara tribal pieces, phulkaris from Punjab, some jamavars of Kashmir.

“For the last ten years, we have been selling to textile museums around the world and in the near future, we will have a museum of our own in Kutch,” says Wazirbhai.

Wazir senior and his sons meet buyers, inquisitive visitors, even tourists by appointment. With us in the room are a couple of designers from China, avidly photographing and sighing over Wazirbhai’s wares.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

A.A. Wazir looks at a pencil drawing of Karachi.

In the collection are Sindhi embroidery pieces from Karachi. Some are around 80- 90-years-old. Densely embroidered with “hurmicho” or what is popularly known as the “Sindhi stitch”. He shows us these alongside embroidered patches made by female craftspersons from the Banni district on the Kutch-Sindh border. The similarities are evident. Among them is Wazirbhai’s personal favourite. A golden-yellow salwar and tunic (patloon and cholo in Sindhi) in silk Mashru with delicate, almost baroque red-black-green embroidery on the tunic and the salwar. “I acquired this from an antique collector in the US many years back,” says Wazirbhai.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

A.A. Wazir’s favourite: a cholo (tunic) salwar set in golden yellow silk Mashru with Sindhi embroidery.

“Most of these embroideries were an expression of what the women in rural communities wanted to articulate. There was no TV, no Internet, no distractions or entertainment, no real freedom to engage with the outside world. Women didn’t work as paid ‘artisans’ but to create things for their families, homes and themselves. The embroideries are of best quality because there was no commercial purpose behind them,” he says.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

Long, hand-embroidered choli (blouse) made by a female artisan from a pastoral community in Kutch from A.A. Wazir’s archives.

The Meaning and Value of Antiques

That definition of an antique resonates. An object that is not labelled just by age and vintage, but by a story that didn’t die. The meaning of which lives with the collector and the possessor.

“The condition in which it is acquired or sold, the time period when it was made, its vintage and historical value in the vast repertoire of Indian antiques”, are the ruling reasons that help Wazirbhai and his sons price a particular antique. “It is not always so easy or simple and there are times when I bring down the pricing if I sense that the person seeking it is a real connoisseur but can’t afford the asking price,” he adds.

Wazirbhai has a quiet insight that comes with experience, refinement of thought, filtering through what’s on sale and what can’t be ever bought. It is an almost philosophic attention to detail that gives him the mind of a museum maker. “I cannot describe my feelings and the love for heritage pieces ingested in me. It comes from a deep involvement with our cultural past. It is like a fragrance,” he says.

A Kutch trip to explore the region’s artisanal wealth or how Sindh is inexorably tied to the vocabulary of Kutchi artisans would be incomplete without getting a whiff of that fragrance.

Banner: A.A. Wazir, a well-known collector of antique crafts and embroideries at his home-studio in Bhuj.
Banner photograph: By Saumya Sinha