Usman Bhai

Welcome to Stories from the Atelier, a new limited series dedicated to the hands, hearts, and minds that made Papa Don’t Preach what it is today. With this series, we hope to give you a peek behind the bedazzled drapes of our inner workings and showcase the merit of the people that make it work.

The 5,000 sq ft headquarters in Mumbai, houses a team of 30 third-generation sampling karigars, chosen carefully out of a team of 300+ karigars that sit at our various production units. Each with their unique approach to the art, these artisans were handpicked for their exceptional skill, use of colours, and intricate handwork. The team uses their ancestral skills to stitch, sew and embroider visual narratives on fabric.   When a Papa Don’t Preach silhouette catches your eye, on silver screens or red carpets; it is more often than not, met with an inquiry into the founder of the brand, not the hands that made it. Much like hearing only the end of the story, this line of inquiry feels incomplete.

Stories from the Atelier is a dialogue with our artisans, a tale we’d like to share with the world; so you can see the whole picture; the making of, the starting from.

Usman Mirza

Years with Papa Don’t Preach – 14 years Initial Position – Sampling Karigar Current Position – Sampling Supervisor

“The creations man can make with the skill of his hands can never be replicated by machines.”

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Dressed in all black, including his kohl, sits Usman Bhai. One of the most senior members, with over 14 years at Papa Don’t Preach. The seemingly imminent threat of a dying art form in a machine-dominated world doesn’t seem to bother him, much like a heavy monsoon doesn’t bother the trees. When you know your roots grow deep, happenings in the sky seem minuscule.

“I was 17 when my sister needed a life-altering surgery. My father’s friend stepped in and loaned us 20,000 rupees for my sister, in return, my brother and I went to work for him at his studio. He taught me what I know today and I left my education halfway to start a career as a karigar.”

For Usman Bhai, his skill is rooted in generational techniques taught to him at the age of seventeen, alongside his education. The education was given up at a younger age, the integrity of the skill was not. “For me, my education was my skill and my artform. There are different kinds of studies and this was mine. If I could make art on the laptop or device that I see at the studios, I can guarantee it cannot be as detailed as what I can draw with my hands.”

In an increasingly mechanical world, a new technology every day presents many uncertainties to the future of Indian craftsmanship. Even still, there is an element of undoubtable calmness in his words. “What man can create with his bare hands, can never be replicated by a machine. I know the value and precision that skilled craftsmanship can bring and that comes with passion and experience. Passion is a universal language and this work can only be done by those who’ve given their lives to it.”

Today, Usman Bhai oversees a team of 30-40 karigars, in a space that spans over 5000 sq ft. This, however, wasn’t always the case. “In the last twelve years, we moved units four times. I was with the company before it even had its name. In the beginning, we had a team of four karigars, including me. Now we have almost 400, so it has only been growing in terms of space and number of people. I was promoted to sampling manager and then supervisor over the course of those changes. When that announcement was made, I never thought my role and responsibilities could grow to this extent.”

Celebrity interactions are, perhaps, another career highlight that he didn’t think he would get to experience. It’s evident, in his beaming voice and ample pictures, that this is a part of his work life that he enjoys sharing with his wife and two kids. “I’ve met Alia Bhat, Sonam Kapoor and Isha Talwar. I’ve even met Isha Talwar’s parents. Here are some pictures of Deepika Padukone wearing a lehenga made by us. Here is one of Sonam Kapoor and here is a picture of our outfit on the cover of a magazine. But more than the actors, it is a thing of pride to see that something we made has brought value to a big-scale occasion or event. My kids love to see these and I love to show these to them. It makes me proud, I have something my son can look up to. The team and I have made something that is seen by all. ”

Speaking of ‘seen by all,’ being acknowledged and credited as the ‘maker’ of a garment is something Usman Bhai and his team keep close to their hearts. “All the outfits, for a long time now, have the name of the karigar that worked on it, it says ‘made by Mahinder and team’ this is a matter of pride for me and for Mahinder, Toufiq, and everyone else. Wherever in the world this lehenga or saree goes, it has our name on it, not just the brand or made in India.”

Usman Bhai’s favorite collection, without a doubt, is Nazar Naa Lage, the story behind why is a testament to the creative freedom he brings as a co-creator. "It is definitely Nazar Naa Lage because of how the collection came to be and how we made it against all odds to get the outfits made perfect and made in time. I remember sitting with Shubhika, night after night trying to put out the fires that come with releasing a large scale collection like this. One panel itself takes a long time, add to that 20 additional panels and each has to be scrutinized and fixed. On one particularly stressful day, I looked at a worried Shubhika ma’am and placed an evil eye motif on the lehenga, stating, “Abhi isko nazar naa lagey.” It was like a light bulb moment for ma’am as she then named the entire collection NNL. It was a joy seeing how it unfolded and what it is today."

It’s around the time of a new collection release where things, most seem to go wrong, hence the name. Shubhika’s leadership, assisted by Usman bhai is best exemplified at these occasions. “I’ve worked at a few places and usually, the founder of the brand gives us instructions from behind a glass office, Shubhika has sat for hours over hours with me and my team going over details. We’ve had to redo entire outfits from scratch, taking double the time it would have. Shubhika and I have sat on the floor of the unit just trying to make it before a deadline. From there, I have seen the success, the fruits that come from that labor. I have flown to Delhi with ma’am, I’ve been to so many shows and exhibitions through the company, I know that work wasn’t done in vain. One day, I want to go to Dubai with the company.”

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There are a few repetitive questions a luxury brand gets asked often, one of them is ‘why are your clothes so expensive?’ “You have seen a 1 or 2 lakh rupee outfit, I have seen where each and every dime goes. From fabrics, machines, choice of vivid colors, cutting and dying the fabric to stitch and finish with shiny embellishments, each is done by a different person. The whole process takes up time, money and energy. One karigar alone, cannot make an entire outfit. It takes us 15-20 days to make it perfect. Add to that the physical strain it takes an artisan to place focus on something so intricate. We stare at the eye of the needle for 10 hours at a go. We’ve been taught to not splash water in our eyes, even if they are strained, as the clarity can reduce. The strain on our hands and knees is a different story. When customers see a finished product, they're actually seeing the life work of 4-6 karigars toiling over one garment for weeks on end.”

Even with such a laborious process, the skill of craftsmanship is still passed down generationally, like a sacred inheritance. “I want my daughter to become a doctor, my son should definitely join my line of work, this is a very unique and beautiful line of work – it’s a valuable asset, to create something with your hands, it’s something people are trying to copy all over the world. In my day they used to say ‘ladka agar zari ka kaam karta hai, toh hum ladki dege.’ I’ve grown up listening to these statements, if you actually look closely, you can see how rare it is to find a well-trained karigar. I’ve had the chances but I have never left this line, I know the value of my hands.” 

Disclaimer: Usman bhai's story sounds beautiful when narrated in his chosen language (Hindi). However, for the sake of the platform, we've translated the above interview.

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