Prahlad, whose quilt shop in Sadar bazaar is over forty years old says, “It is advisable to have your razaai aired and the cotton beaten every year because germs collect inside cotton very easily. Cotton also has a tendency to clot and the razaai becomes lumpy making it less effective if it isn’t beaten”.
Most lihaafs have a history, wedding presents and ‘first’ razaais are stored by many loyals. “This maroon velvet one is what was given to me for my wedding”, smiles octogenarian Nirmal Kaur running her hand over the once rich maroon quilt. But she is no longer loyal to her sixty year old favourite lihaaf, she has taken to using her bright new Jaipuri razaai over a Chinese blanket this winter. “Well it’s softer and not as heavy as my lihaaf! Though this new arrangement isn’t quite as warm.” Young Rizwana and her mother in law Hamida are in sadar bazaar looking for soft yet sturdy cloth for Rizwana’s year old daughter’s first lihaaf. “I think this one with red flowers will suit your purpose”, says Prahlad as Hamida inspects the cloth carefully.
At his ‘cotton center’, customers usually arrive with bundles of old quilts while others come to order new quilts. “A kilo of cotton costs anywhere between sixty and eighty rupees whereas the fiber is just fifty rupees a kilo. Besides, fiber is washable”, explains Prahlad. A fiber lihaaf sounds appealing to Rizwana but Hamida insists on a good old cotton one. “At least it will last!” she says.
Prahlad had also designed a handmade catalogue of various stitching styles for quilts. “The more ornate, floral or circular sort is Bengali silai while the one with squares is dibbedar silai and then the barfi design is called kishti silai”, he explains. “The most popular is the Bengali silai but few people have the time to choose or pay as much now. They prefer simple and fast products!” laughs Prahlad. His workers live around sadar bazaar and some come to his center to work. “We keep them on a monthly salary and then there are commissions too. They have only three months of work though”, he says.
Outside the cotton center sit Nazneen and Prem who are veterans of this winter tradition, they stuff close to four quilts a day quickly stitching double and single sized cotton and more recently “fiber” quilts. “It is easier to stitch through the fiber quilts, but it’s not the same thing”, says Nazneen as she calls out to the chotu in the tiny paan shop a couple of feet away.
“We used to put pieces of capoor into the shaneel razaais in the olden days. It used to help in keeping the germs out and giving a fresh scent too”, remembers Prem threading her finger sized needle with a thick brown thread. “Some of our old customers still ask us to put ittar and capoor into their lihaafs while we stuff them with cotton”, adds Nazneen who is smoothing out the cotton in the quilt with a short cane stick.
On asking both how long they’ve been making quilts since, both say “Umar beet gayi” and smile. Their own lihaafs are old and precious, “Mine has cotton in it, very very old cotton” says Prem. “Cotton is too expensive today, besides it takes four to five kilos of cotton to make a good lihaaf but you need at least six kilos or more of fiber for a lihaaf”, mutters Nazneen. She learnt the art from her mother and father who used to make quilts at home, her children don’t know how to stitch.
“The lihaafs that used to be made in Maulviganj were famous but their quality went down and now the shopkeepers only sell mattresses etc”, says Prahlad who is helping Baba, his old assistant weigh cotton. “This comes from Ganganagar, Harayana and Punjab and that comes from China”, he says pointing at the fiber. In place of the old wooden contraption which Prahlad calls a “behna” that used to beat cotton for as few as three quilts, sits a metal machine that beats out cotton worth over twenty. And this cotton beating green metal machine is made in India.