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Muhammed Sadiq uses various techniques to make a garland of notes. Photographs by Mayank Austen Soofi
Muhammed Sadiq uses various techniques to make a garland of notes. Photographs by Mayank Austen Soofi

The art of money

Discovering the art of making rupee garlands in the time of demonetization

Money is a kind of poetry, said a corporate lawyer who was also a great American poet.

Nowhere is Wallace Stevens’ maxim more evident than in the work of the “note mala" makers of northern India—their nimble fingers deftly turn a prosaic medium of purchase into a work of art; indeed, the craft of making a garland of banknotes has its own rhythm, like the cadence of poetry.

These are made for bridegrooms, many of whom keep the mala for life—though, in the recent days of demonetization, some have had to part with their treasure.

We came across a note mala maker, Muhammed Sadiq, on the 20th day of demonetaization. He also sells flowers in Old Delhi, threading white jasmine flowers and red roses into garlands. This being the season of weddings as well as a time of unprecedented cash shortfall, the act of weaving crisp rupee notes into a blingy festoon decked with shiny paper frills has acquired rare beauty.

Sadiq’s flower stall is at Chitli Qabar Chowk, next to a “ladies tailor". Sadiq usually gets orders for Rs1,000 garlands made with Rs10 notes. “In the old days (before 8pm, 8 November, when the Prime Minister announced the withdrawal of high-denomination notes), I would get Rs1,000 worth of Rs10 notes from the money changer by paying Rs40 as his fee. Now he takes Rs100 as commission."

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Sadiq charges Rs200 per garland—he hasn’t hiked his rate. “Business is so slow right now that you can’t risk turning anyone away," he says. He’s had 23 bookings cancelled so far.

Each time Sadiq receives an order from a wedding “party", he takes a short walk to the stalls of money exchangers in Matia Mahal Bazaar, near Jama Masjid, to get wads of crisp tenners.

On 28 November, when opposition parties staged a protest against demonetization across India, Sadiq’s evening was occupied in making his second note mala of that day. You would have never imagined it to be so complicated. The young man stapled the notes, folded their edges and rustled different shapes out of the paper currencies (one looked like a Japanese fan). He went on to do many other complicated manoeuvres with the notes, as expertly as a seasoned baker kneads his dough.

Sadiq’s note mala was ready in 20 minutes. Worth Rs1,000 at face value, it looked priceless

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