Like Shaikh’s family, the Ansaris emigrated from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, bringing with them a venerable family tradition. “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. But the family tradition goes back even further: Most Ansaris, he says, are families of weavers.
If ever anyone had tailoring in his blood, it’s Hammad 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 who survive on alterations and simple work in low-income areas, and luxury tailors like his father and uncle.
“The craftsmen will survive. We are craftsmen,” Hammad says with the utmost seriousness — and a smile.
City’s ‘first working woman’
Muni Gupta is not a tailor herself. But she has run Burlington’s of Bombay, the bespoke tailoring shop at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, since 1955, when her brother asked her to take over for a few days as a favor. She did well — exceptionally well. “He wouldn’t take back the keys,” she recalls. “My father was furious. I may have been the first working woman in Bombay.” As in any great city, Mumbai’s history tends to live and breathe rather than pose for photographs.
Gupta’s father had opened Burlington’s six years before, in 1949. He and his family, like the Shaikhs and so many others in Mumbai, had arrived during the partition, in Gupta’s case fleeing Pakistan at the last moment. “Overnight we became paupers,” Muni Gupta says. They arrived in Bombay after a brief stay in Delhi and, with some help from connected friends, managed to secure the space at the Taj, previously occupied by Ali the Palmist, a Muslim who had made the opposite migration north.
Despite her age and height (she stands no more than an inch or two over 5 feet), Muni Gupta still runs her shop with the authority of a monarch. As we walk through the bright, impeccable showroom, she orders fine linens and woolen suiting off the shelves. She points out block-printed Jaipuri cottons and south Indian silks. She unrolls an elaborate Benares brocade, woven with real gold, over a glass-topped table; lifting the edge, I can feel its cool metallic weight in my palm. On top of this she unrolls a pale pink silk crepe embroidered with a washed cotton thread — kantha embroidery, she tells me, an endangered skill too time-consuming and expensive to survive in the poor rural communities where it originated.