Chikan Embroidery of Lucknow

Handcrafting a Culture

Lucknow, like much of India, is full of paradoxes – down-at-heel elegance, raffish charm, indolent culture, tehzeeb and thuggery. A city created by male chauvinist nawabs ruled today by a Dalit woman chief minister.

In 1858 William Russell marvelled at its ‘vision of palaces, minars, domes of azure and gold, cupolas, colonnades and long facades of fair perspective.’ He wondered, as he admired ‘this fairy tale city’ whether it could really be ‘the capital of a semi-barbarous race, erected by a corrupt, effete and degraded dynasty.’ Dazzled though he was by ‘the towers and spires of gold gleaming and glittering in the sun, the turrets and gilded spheres shining like constellations,’ he could not help noticing that ‘when viewed in detail the gorgeousness of the picture is obscured by a more than ordinary degree of dirt, filth and squalid poverty which are placed in juxtaposition with its grandest features.’

Over a century and a half later, Lucknow is not so very different. Present day visitors share the same enchantment and exasperation.

The dirt and the grandeur, shopkeepers who greet you with a pun and a scented paan while shamelessly diddling you over prices, errant scooterists who overtake on the wrong side and then apologize charmingly with a rhyming stanza to the beauty of your eyes, are all part of that extraordinary culture. A culture both material and metaphysical – of food and flower garlands, perfumes and poetry – harking back to a time where conversation was refined to a fine art and a master of humorous Phabti monologues or ghazals was honoured with a court title. In Lucknow, culture, not just aesthetic and the arts, even the essentials of life were carried to elaborate extremes. The Lucknavi paratha of unleavened bread had 18 layers, and each paincha of the Lucknow gharara divided skirt was made of 12 metres of cloth! Hand craft was at the very centre of this amazing society. The skills and skilful hands still remain; the products somewhat diminished and down-at-heel, as is Lucknow itself.

The hub of Lucknow and its crafts is still the Chowk – the crossroads and central square in the heart of the city where silversmiths, saree vendors, chikan embroiderers and gold zari sequin workers carry on their business side by side in narrow shops. Slipping off your shoes and sitting cross-legged on pristine white sheets against white bolsters, you can slip backwards into time and get a flavour of the old Lucknow – before jerry-built bungalows replaced the gracious havelis, and criminal politicians took the place of exquisitely erudite nawabs.

At Asghar Ali’s, the famous perfumers, you can sniff the distilled essence of 200-year-old rose, jasmine, hina or khus; buy scented betel nut, or drown in the intoxicating fumes of burning sandalwood. Down side streets you can get your saree orkurta stamped to your own design for embroidery, or get a scarf worked with the tiny silver wire spangles of badla mukesh.Kabab wallahs and restaurants selling nihari (tongue) and paya (trotters) in a succulent, spicy stew vie with the sweet shophalwais stirring up spiralling, hot jelabis, sohan halwa, balushahi or balai in enormous cauldrons.

Food is not just craft; it is a fine art. According to tradition it was the building of the Bara Imambara (a massive complex of shrines, prayer halls and tombs commissioned by Asaf-ud-Daulah in the late 18th century to give employment at a time of economic hardship) that led to the invention of Lucknavi dum or ‘pressure’ cooking. The cooks hired by the nawab to feed the labourers devised this method of slow, steam cooking so that relays of hungry men could get hot, fresh food through the night. The kakori and galauti kababs, fish and biryani rice of Lucknow are still famous. And as for that curliqued and convoluted Imambara plasterwork – like most of Lucknow, there’s more in it than meets the eye! The Rumi Darwaza, that great, equally over-decorated, apparently purely ornamental, arched doorway of brick and coloured stucco, withstood the British nine-pound cannon-shot for over an hour’s bombardment, proving indestructible.

Back to the Chowk and the muffled hammering of workers in the narrow side lanes beating silver into paper-thin waraksilver-leaf for sweetmeats and paans, a counterpoint to the raucous cries of street vendors, and the more politely phrased invitations of the Chowk’s famed chikan embroidery traders to enter and view their produce.

Chikan embroidery is another of Lucknow’s paradoxes. Tucked into the dingier corners of its elaborately curliqued stucco-work palaces and arched gateways are narrow, winding, over-populated lanes and dark, squat houses inhabited by women who are themselves enveloped in gloomy, black burkha veils and desperately poor, oppressed not just by economics but by their own social and domestic circumstance. Illiterate, devoutly Muslim, locked into marriages and family structures that allow little room for individual expression or creativity, they produce one of the most subtle and sensitive of India’s myriad embroidery traditions. The delicate, pristine white-on-white shadow and shade of chikankari, the epitome of fastidious refinement and esoteric elegance emerging from these dim, dirty, tenement dwellings – children, chickens and goats squabbling, squealing and defecating in each corner, cooking pots smoking – is one of the miracles and mysteries of this fairly complex city.

How chikan originated, even what its name means is, appropriately enough, an equal mystery. There are those who would have it – like everything else in the universe from space satellites and Jesus Christ to the more obscure sexual acrobatics – that it was all written down in the Vedas. D.N. Saraf in his book on Indian Crafts cites travellers to the court of Harshavardhana of Kannauj referring to delicate muslin draperies embellished with motifs worn by the royal harem. But these could have as well been woven as embroidered.

Folklore and one’s wilder jingoist fantasies apart, historical research, supported by the ancestral memories of master craftsmen, seems to suggest that chikankari stems from the white-on-white embroidery of Shiraz and came to India as part of the cultural baggage of the Persian nobles at the Mughal court, along with kalamkari textile painting, silk carpets, blue tile work and pietra dura. 12th century Persian poets were already using the word chikan as a metaphor for needle. Though Shirazi embroidery is done on coarse, unbleached linen, its repertoire of pulled, drawn thread, knotted, chain and overlaid stitches is strikingly similar to those in the chikankari tradition. Legend has it that it was Empress Noor Jehan, a noted aesthete and embroiderer, who, while making an Eid cap for her husband, the Emperor Jehangir, conceived the idea of using the fine white cotton mull for which Indian weavers were famous, as a base for her stitchery.

Be that as it may, it is well authenticated that the Mughal court adored and patronized chikan embroidery and gave it its own distinctive character and design identity. Chikan was used for everything – from turbans and veils to angarkhas, chogas and palace interiors. The imperial Mughal manuscript copy of the Padshahnama (exhibited some years ago at the National Museum) has a beautiful detail of a many-arched balcony curtained with flowing, sheer white-on-white draperies with delicate floral motifs, which could well be chikan. The cool understated refinement of chikan suited the sophisticated elegance of the Mughals, just as it did the searing heat of an Indian summer. The floral jaals, rosettes and paisleys that remain a part of the chikan tradition today are a legacy of their style and imagery – unchanged though occasionally distorted through the years.

Chikan, as Bernier, the 16th century French doctor and traveller reminds us, is ephemeral. He had a keen eye for the finer details of both Indian women and Indian textiles. He described the court ladies drawers, ‘enriched with fine needle embroidery, … so fine and delicate that … they last only one night, even though they are often worth ten or twelve crowns…’ The under-drawers and over-gowns are gone but their stylized, exquisite motifs have come down to us: preserved through the wooden printing blocks with which chikan motifs are transferred onto cloth for embroidery. Converted today into 20th century three-dimension by the labouring hands of women, working in situations and surroundings not much changed from their 16th century sisters.

The lanes around the Lucknow central Chowk still echo to the thhup-thhup rhythm of thousands and thousands of kurtas and sarees being printed. Traditionally they were printed in washable terracotta geru colour. Today they use the laundry man’s Robin Blue! Brokers, all men, generally exploitative male chauvinists, carry the work back to the bastis to be embroidered. Working on piece wages, the embroidery women do not themselves engage in outside commercial transactions.

A striking exception is SEWA Lucknow, begun by two young social workers in the mid-1980s. Working in the Lucknow urban slums, they were horrified to discover the miserable pittance the women got for long hours of blinding work. Its imperial origins long forgotten, chikan had become a symbol of the exploitation of women whom society forbade to emerge from behind their veils to fight for their rights. SEWA started with one tin trunk, five women and a core investment of 10,000 rupees –many, many fears and much hesitation. Gradually the number of women grew as word spread of an organization which paid higher than market wages. The first two-room office became a meeting place where women shared not only work but also common concerns and companionship. Male hostility to new ways that threatened established norms disappeared as wives came home with much needed cash as well as liberated ideas.

The SEWA women travelled all over India in search of new markets: interacting and exchanging ideas with export buyers from Habitat and Bloomingdales, social activists and prime ministers. Today, over seven thousand SEWA women share not just a turnover of several crore but a common commitment to quality and caring. They have discovered the fellowship of craftsmanship with tribals and Brahmins, stayed in dharamshalas and YWCAs, attended the Beijing Conference, shared a fashion ramp with Ritu Kumar and Mary MacFadden, signed the Shah Bano petition, and cast off their rigidly stratified notions of religion, male supremacy and birth control along with their burkhas.

As Lucknavi life is a composite culture, chikan is composite embroidery. Traditionally made up of 44 different stitches, at least 22 – variants of six basic stitch techniques – are known and practiced today. Some are done on the surface of the fine white lawn fabric, some underneath it, others tease and pull the warp and weft threads apart to create a net-like jaali pattern at the heart of the flowers or leaves that make up the motif. Their names – double star earring, cowrie shell, peacocks feather eye, grain of rice, grass blade – are both descriptive and poetic. They combine to form an exquisite, textured light and shade pattern of stylized flowers, fauna and foliage that is unique in its delicacy yet vibrant strength. Daraz, patterned cutwork seams, skilfully snipped in the shape of flowers, leaves, zigzag, or even the Awadhi fish emblem, sets off the fine embroidery on kurtas and caps.

Like so many Indian embroideries, chikankari is a manifestation of a woman’s inner spirit and creativity triumphantly transcending the sadness and squalor of her surroundings and the limitations of her circumstance. Like a dragonfly’s wing, its white-on-white gossamer textures reflect the light and shade of her life – its beauty and its fragile, transient nature.

A more in-your-face embroidery that is also a characteristic of U.P. and Lucknow is zardozi. Using gold and silver threads, with an occasional addition of coloured silks, this glitteringly resplendent embroidery is done on fabric stretched on a long rectangular table-like frame, usually by men. Two or three craftspeople sit at a single frame, working this intricate embroidery with hooked needles – piercing the cloth from the front, and pulling it with a hooked movement from the back – much as a cobbler does. Used traditionally for court regalia and robes, as well as ornamented hangings and spreads, zardozi embroidery is now an essential part of every bridal wardrobe; Swarowski crystals often replacing the more traditional metal sequins, and the delicate silver wire mukesh of yore.

Another typically Lucknow textile craft is the colourful satin patchwork that is used for quilts and ghararas (skirts) and edges formal dupattas. Minute triangular, diamond and semi-circular shapes are stitched together in geometric patterns finished with gold ribbon to create a lustrous and dramatic chiaroscuro of colours. Sadly, many of the craftswomen who used to practice this skill are now in sweatshops; machine-appliquéing baba-suits with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cutouts! But look out for the tie-dyed crinkle-dried muslin scarves that are the piece de resistance of the Lucknavi washermen. They are starched, twisted counter-clockwise, dip-dyed in flaming pinks, purples and yellows, and topped off with abrak, a luminous talc that gives an iridescent gold dust effect. Dupattas star-studded with sequins of different shapes and sizes, or dotted with silver and gold mukesh also set off the white chikan summer outfits. Apart from its own textile crafts, Lucknow is also a centre for fine Benarsi sarees and Farrukha-bad block prints, as well as the rougher textures of khadi and handloom from neighbouring Barabanki.

The silver jewellery of Lucknow, filigree, beaten or moulded, has a distinctive character of its own – jhumka earrings, chains, and necklaces have the same Mughal-influenced paisley and florette motifs as the embroideries. Brass, copper, silver and gold – hammered, beaten or cast, engraved, enamelled or repousse – have been used through the centuries all over India. Ewers, waterpots, vases, lamps and trays, in shapes consecrated by tradition to temple ritual or court ceremonial, or simply for bringing water from the village well. Every Indian city has a street in the bazaar dedicated to the sale of each specific metal and Lucknow is no exception. Crafts-people sit in their shops, and one can custom-order a specific shape or design. Each metal has its ascribed attribute: according to an ancient text, the Kalika Purana, gold ‘removes the excesses of the three humours and promotes strength of vision’, silver is ‘favourable and inimicable to bile, but calculated to increase the secretion of wind and phlegm’, bronze is ‘agreeable and intellectual, but favourable to undue excitement of blood and bile’, brass is ‘wind-generating, irritating, hot, and heat and phlegm-destroying’, iron is ‘beneficial in overcoming dropsy, jaundice and anemia’!

A metal technique worth looking out for is the engraved and enamelled meenakari brassware of U.P. While its main centre is Moradabad, fine examples of the work can be found in Lucknow. Respectively known as siakalam, chikan and maroriwork, the design is chased on tinned brass, and filled in with black or coloured lacquer, applied with a hot tool. When polished, the coloured patterns, generally flowing arabesques of flowers and foliage, emerge out of the glittering metal in an intricate, glowing relief.

Less well-known, but stunningly subtle in its dramatic black and white, is the Lucknavi version of bidri, the silver damascene work originating in the old Hyderabad state in Central India. There was a brief period, in the late 18th and early 19th century, when Lucknow craftsmen produced their own bidri metal ware. Occasionally using gold to replace the silver, and with more delicate trellis-like designs than the stylized floral motifs or bold geometric jaals of their Hyderabadi counterparts, silver wire is beaten into the engraved design on boxes, bowls and vases made of an alloy or copper, zinc and lead, treated with a solution of copper sulphate and saltpetre that turns it black. The silver motif shines out from its jetty backdrop – stars on a dark night.

Crinkled chunhat and abrak that only lasts one wash but gives so much pleasure. The exquisite, formalized ritual of eating paan, folded and presented on crossed palms, and the horrid, lurid blood-red betel stains that go with it. The courteous verbal jugglery and poetic conceits that accompany even the most trifling transaction and the inevitable unpunctuality and broken promises that ensue as a result. The plumed, tasselled tongas and the monstrous comic cross between a dinosaur and jeep that is Lucknow’s version of an auto-rickshaw. The combination of a Hindu political majority and a dominantly Muslim culture. The irrepressible folly and the fading grandeur. All are part of Lucknow’s unique charm and character. All must be understood, experienced and savoured.

The crafts, threatened, sometimes tacky and anachronistic, but nevertheless a legacy of distinctive and extraordinary skills, reflect the cross-currents and the culture, the problems and potential.


Credits : Laila Tyabji. Laila is a designer and a writer. She is the founder of DASTKAR (A society for craft and crafts people). She has worked in the craft and development sector for over 3 decades now. She won the ‘AID TO ARTISANS’ , Craft Award in New York in the year 2003. She has worked with artisans including the Chikan workers of SEWA in Lucknow, Kasuti embroiderers in Karnataka, Mahubani painters and Sujni in Bihar and Regus in Rajasthan.